Currently, 3.8 billion people worldwide – about half of the world’s population – lack access to the Internet, yet Internet growth has slowed every year since 2015. The majority of people who don’t have Internet access are from developing economies, where lack of Internet connectivity stymies economic opportunities and severely limits access to important news and debates, educational opportunities, social groups and access to services across a number of verticals, including government, healthcare and financial.
Accessibility also is a primary impediment to Internet growth. While many people in more economically developed countries can’t imagine life without a mobile device (or two or three …), the reality is that more than 30 percent of the world’s population lacks mobile devices. Even for many of those that do have a mobile device – especially in developing markets – affordability is a significant barrier to continual Internet connectivity.
In countries like the Congo, for instance, an everyday activity that most people take for granted – such as reading the news online – typically costs around 30 percent of a weekly household income. Moreover, hundreds of millions of people do not have the ability to top off data credits when they run out, due to both financial limitations and physical restrictions.
There’s no question that in our increasingly digital world, Internet access is now a basic human right. Moreover, this right extends to mobile data, because for much of the world, mobile phones are the sole source of connectivity. The question, then, is what operators can do to bridge the divide and provide connectivity for the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Options for operators
Many countries have created universal service access funds, which are communal funds dedicated to expanding Internet connectivity and access opportunities for those least likely to be connected through market forces alone. However, many countries are finding that these funds simply aren’t enough of an incentive for operators. For instance, Africa has more than $408 million in unused USAF funds, enough to bring 6 million people online.
Another option is for operators to offer an ad-funded free mobile Internet platform, which provides subscribers with a connection to the digital world even when they have run out of data credit. Acting to close the massive gaps in connectivity for emerging markets, this type of platform provides essential Internet services, including basic information about local and international news, as well as the ability to search the web. and weather reports.
For mobile operators, the benefits of an ad-funded free mobile Internet platform are two-fold: The service answers a critical subscriber need for Internet coverage, while also initiating a new revenue opportunity for operators. Within the portal, subscribers are given the option of digitally topping up their service for increased airtime or data. Ad support for the free service provides mobile network operators (MNOs) a 1.5 percent boost in topline revenues from advertising.
Ultimately, this strategy enables mobile operators to generate advertising revenue when they would otherwise receive no income from customers who would not or could not purchase their next top-up. Because subscribers are supported by their mobile operator when they most need it, customer satisfaction is boosted, loyalty increases, and churn is reduced.
Plan in action
The ad-funded free Internet platform was utilized by Vodacom, South Africa’s largest mobile operator. In South Africa, it takes two days of working at the average wage to afford 1GB of data. As such, the vast majority of mobile subscribers are prepaid, and the cost of data is high, with more than 10 million mobile internet users regularly finding themselves out of data or without Internet access at any given time.
By utilizing ad-funded free Internet, Vodacom now provides Internet access to 25 million mobile users in South Africa. Already, 55 percent of Vodacom’s subscriber base engages with the portal, and users are averaging nearly six minutes as they “snack” on the free digital content available in the platform.
Subscribers that run out of data are automatically redirected to the Vodacom Flex portal, where they continue to have access to essential Internet services, including web search, local and international news and weather reports. The portal also gives subscribers the option of digitally topping up their service for increased airtime or data.
For all of the amazing things the Internet has done in the world, the reality is that technology is not a silver bullet that will solve the inequalities that exist, especially for people with limited income. But MNOs have a key opportunity to provide uninterrupted access to the Internet in a transparent and user-centered way, ultimately creating a more inclusive model that will bring millions – if not billions – online.