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How ‘Mobile-First’ internet models could be increasing the digital divide in Africa

by Milicent Atieno
mobile-first africa

Across Africa, internet services and products are consumed mainly via the mobile phone; all thanks to the advent of smartphones. Africa has indeed been on the front line championing for a mobile-first solutions ton internet-based services.

But could the mobile-first approach (praised so much for leapfrogging the continent over multiple stages of development) be holding Africa back? Well, some panelists at last month’s Africa Tech Summit in Kigali, Rwanda seem to think so.

We hear about mobile-first Africa; it sounds sexy. But how much meaningful work can you get done through your mobile? Are we creating a divide? We are not going to be equal if mobile is the only way. Because mobile is for consuming,” said  Nanjira Sambuli, a digital equity advocacy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation.

Those views were shared by Ben Roberts, the CTO of Liquid Telecom Group, who said there are grave limitations with mobile-first approach.

Mobile-first is nice, and it is getting people connected, but you can’t do everything you want to do. There is never going to be enough spectrum for a city like Lagos to have 25 million people connecting to ultra-fast broadband at the same time. So you have to have other technology,” said Roberts.

Like other ISPs providing fiber-based internet connection, Liquid Telecom says there is hardly any financial justification for rolling out internet connection to the rural areas. Roberts, further admits that there are very many people living in urban areas across the continent with fiber nearby, but they are not connected. He is urging the governments across the continent to assist in getting the people connected.

Governments are particularly bad at infrastructure and making the cost of infrastructure low,” Roberts added. “The rural challenge is in the way spectrum is priced by regulators and government. When you go to rural areas there is complete white space of spectrum, it is not being used in any band, but it is being priced for the urban citizen.”

It would seem the high cost of providing internet particularly to rural Africa is a bottle-neck to operations of many potential ISPs. Erik Hersmans, the CEO of internet connectivity provider BRCK further added:

The elephant in the China closet is that even though we are getting more infrastructure and more devices, people can’t afford to pay for it.”

Although many people own smartphones, very few of them can afford to go on the internet for sufficient times to meet their needs on a regular basis.

It is not a tech problem; it is a business model problem. The internet will be free at some point, let’s come up with the business models for that now,” said Hersman.

Hersman’s view of the internet becoming free in the future is not that far-fetched. Already, Google and Facebook are deploying free internet infrastructure across the developing world. They certainly have identified a feasible business model that will provide users free access to the internet while at the same time serve the best interest of their bottom lines.

By 2020 MNOs may be using freemium models, and the revenue they are making will be from VAS,” said Kojo Boakye, the Africa public policy manager for connectivity and access at Facebook.

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