Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Not Your Father’s Internet

The results of a Nielsen survey on mobile Internet usage were presented in a Nigerian newspaper last week, and mobile service providers, content providers, operators and handset manufacturers may have felt some early holiday cheer. According to the study, the number of Nigerians who access the Internet through mobile phones, while still almost five times smaller than those who access the Internet through a PC, grew 25% in the last 6 months, compared to a mere 3% rise among PC users. The report also noted that mobile Internet users are younger than their PC-using counterparts, and they favor different websites. On a computer, people are likely to use Google or entertainment-oriented sites, while mobile Internet browsers go to the BBC News website, or check the results of sports, weather or local events.

Since the study doesn’t appear to be available for review, the reported results prompt some questions and comments. It is unclear whether Nielsen accounted for the difference between urban and rural populations. The expansion of mobile infrastructure in rural areas may make mobile connectivity the preferred (or the only) way to access the Web for many Nigerians. Or, if rural areas were excluded from the study altogether, the results may reflect the different interests, needs or preferences of urban respondents, who are often wealthier and better educated. The variables impacting mobile Internet usage in Nigeria (and elsewhere) include access, network infrastructure, disposable income, and needs. The rate of adoption will be determined by how quickly handset functionality expands, prices fall, and infrastructure develops.

Regardless of the pace of mobile Internet adoption, the results of the Nielsen study add another layer of support to the argument that mobile phones are becoming an increasingly important computing device for a large number of Africans (and many other developing-country residents). Content and service providers, handset manufacturers and mobile operators have an undeniable opportunity for business growth, as long as they maintain a sharp focus on the user preferences and infrastructure limitations in these markets.

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