The duo of hidden tariff and affordability have been identified as the major limitations, among many others, currently confronting the wider spread of Internet access in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Rwanda.
A research carried out by Mozilla, a free and open-source web browser, apart from identifying these limitations, also examined from a comparative perspective, how the citizens in these countries use the Internet when data is subsidised and when it is not.
Quoting 2016 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) report, which put Internet users in Africa at 25 per cent, Mozilla informed that it obtained 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 from these countries.
The web browser platform noted that in all the countries, across demographics, access to subsidised data did not result significantly in new users going online, but that the use of subsidised data was just one of the many strategies employed by users to manage costs in these four countries.
It noted that uptake of zero rating varied across the four countries, stressing that 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.
The Executive Director of Research ICT Africa, Dr. Alison Gillwald, said the research revealed that a significant urban-rural divide remains in opportunities to access the Internet.
“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,” he stated.
According to Mozilla, Zero rated services are still relatively new to the Nigerian market, with Airtel launching Facebook’s Free Basics and Facebook Flex only last year, stressing that awareness and use of zero rating remains low in Nigeria, a country which enjoys some of the cheapest data prices in Africa.
At a forum in Lagos, the Director, Licensing and Authorisation, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Ms. Funlola Akiode, while making reference to a 2017 statistics of Internet users across Africa, noted that Nigeria has the highest Internet users. “It may interest you to know that Nigeria, however, tends to be the lowest when measured in accordance with the penetration rate. For instance the penetration rate is put at 48.4 million, but when compared with the country’s population, it is just 0.3 or 34 per cent. While our population is increasing in geometric progression, the Internet usage and penetration rates are increasing in arithmetic progression.”
Mozilla observed that in Nigeria, many rural users see the Internet as their access to the civilised world, and the gateway to the places around the globe where they have friends and family.
It however, said there is a general belief that mobile network operators charge a hidden tariff, and whatever airtime is on the phone will be eventually deducted by the operator if one subscribes to a subsidised service.
“Many non-users want to use a “big phone” (a smartphone) and would rather wait until they can afford one than use a more limited version of the Internet,” it stated.
The Senior Global Policy Manager at Mozilla, Jochai Ben-Avie, pointed out that the research demonstrates that Nigerians want access to the entire Internet, not just some parts.
“If we’re to bring the entire Internet to all people, we need to do more to improve digital literacy and understanding of the Internet, especially among low-income individuals and those in rural and deep rural communities. At Mozilla, we believe in equal rating for all Internet users so that this shared global resource is not held hostage by the wealthy. Though the price of brand new smartphones keeps dropping, and they can be bought for as low as $20, affordability challenges persist.
“Even in a country with some of the lowest rates for data and devices in Africa, the cost of buying a smartphone in Nigeria is still a challenge for many,” said Gillwald. “Affordability gets disproportionate attention, but we need to do much more to improve digital literacy and supply side issues like network quality and speed.”