There are still significant barriers to Internet access is prevailing in South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria.
This is according to a Mozilla-backed study, carried out by Research ICT Africa, which aims to understand, from a comparative perspective, how citizens use the Internet when data is subsidised and when it is not.
Knowing that affordability is one of the primary barriers to Internet access and particular optimal use, the main objective of the focus groups was to obtain qualitative information that reflects the perceptions of female and male Internet users, new users, and non-Internet users from urban and rural locations about how people use the Internet.
To entice price-sensitive users and to encourage new Internet users, the availability of subsidised data – whether discounted or free – prompts questions of how Internet access and use are affected.
Results of the research in South Africa included the following findings:
* No respondents came online through zero rating, rather zero rated services are used as one of many price control strategies.
* Various mobile data bundles (which are partially subsidized) tend to be more popular than zero rated offerings.
* In rural areas, the extent of Internet use is limited by the sources of electricity to charge mobile phones, which need to be taken to different charging points, often overnight.
* Digital skills and illiteracy greatly affect non-users as well – even those who have smart devices – limiting their Internet use.
* Being online, in particular on social media, is perceived, in some cases, as interfering with users’ relationships.
“Moving beyond access challenges requires a rights-based approach to deal with barriers such as online privacy and security,” says Dr Alison Gillwald, executive director of Research ICT Africa. “The possibilities of achieving this in a context where offline rights to resources as basic as electricity do not exist is one of the biggest hurdles for users in South Africa.”
“South Africans, instead of depend on or using zero rated data, are using subsidized services as one of many sophisticated cost-savings strategies,” says Jochai Ben-Avie, senior global policy manager at Mozilla.
He believes there is a need to connect the unconnected and the focus should be more on barriers like electricity, digital literacy, competition, and gender power relations.
A 2016 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) report estimates that only about 25% of the population of Africa has access to the internet.
Overall, the research results included the following findings:
* In all the countries, across demographics, access to subsidised data did not result significantly in new users going online.
* Use of subsidised data is just one of many strategies employed by users to manage costs in these four African countries.
* Uptake of zero rating varied across the four countries. Awareness was low and scepticism of free services was high in Nigeria, whereas in Rwanda bundles with unlimited WhatsApp and Facebook were very popular. In Kenya and South Africa, the zero-rated services were welcomed for their cost-reducing nature.
* There was substantial interest and uptake in Equal Rating-compliant, partially subsidized data bundles that provide access to the entire internet not just some parts of it (for example, Cell C’s offering of 250Mb between 1 m and 7am for R6 in South Africa or an MTN bundle in Rwanda for Rwf 800 ($0.96) that provide 24 hours unlimited data).
* Poor network quality and coverage limited the consumption of subsidised data since some respondents, especially in rural areas of Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, reported that telcos with those offerings did not have coverage in their area. Indeed, many of these users only have access via the most expensive operator in that country.
* Women face additional barriers to internet use, including concern of being exposed to inappropriate content online and its consequences in their intimate relationships and family responsibilities.
“Our research reveals that a significant urban-rural divide remains in opportunities to access the Internet,” says Dr Gillwald. “Too often the debate over zero rating glosses over the fact that many people in rural communities don’t even have access to the best subsidised offerings and have to spend largely disproportionate amounts of their already low income on mobile access, and that’s assuming they can even find electricity to charge their devices.”
Given all the controversy around zero rating, it’s surprising to see how few research respondents in these African countries actually use or depend on zero rated data. We are, however, seeing a lot of interest in Equal Rating compliant models which provide access to all of the internet, not just some parts of it. Ben-Avie suggests, “More must be done to connect the unconnected. This research makes clear that it’s critical we all focus more on barriers like healthy competition outside urban areas, electricity, digital literacy, and gender power relations.”
The research indicates there is opportunity and a greater outlook in the future of Internet use for these countries.
Infrastructural issues still need to be addressed in rural areas, in particular to increase quality of service, which would allow users to choose any operator offering the cheapest product.
The intensity of use could be enhanced through redirecting universal services funds directed at access, often by subsidising the already planned roll out of services, towards supporting the rollout of public WiFi points at all public facilities such as schools, clinics, libraries and police stations.
Other factors limiting the digital participation of the poor and unskilled, particularly women, will require policy interventions than extend way beyond digital policy to the much greater challenges of human development. Without interventions to redress broader social and economic inequality in society more the entry of more sophisticated services and devices will amplify digital inequality.