Africa: How mobile phones are spreading the internet

A new article by the American media organisation CNN has examined the continued spread of mobile telephony.

Image credit: Africa-Confidential.com

In an article for US news outlet CNN.com entitled “Africa not just a mobile first continent – it’s mobile only” the renowned technology expert Toby Shapshak has been taking a closer look at Africa’s continuing continental thirst for mobile telephony.

Shapshak is interested in how people access and use the internet in Africa. He said:

“In Africa, hundreds of millions of people will experience the internet for the first time on a 2-inch cellphone screen. Probably in black and white. And probably only as text. They may not even know they are using the internet. Google, for instance, offers search and Gmail via SMS, the text message service that is still the most popular form of communication.”

Text messaging is important because it works on any kind of phone, especially the older so-called feature phones that still dominate. While the rest of the developed world is rushing headlong into smartphone heaven — with powerful touchscreen devices that are more mini computer than voice-calling phone — Africa’s workhorses are the kind of phone seen in European cities circa 1998.

The reason is simple: With a dearth of infrastructure, the vast majority of people (an estimated 1.5-billion globally, according to the UN) have no electricity. More people in Africa have a mobile phone than access to electricity. That means, for a phone to be functional, it needs decent battery life. These feature phones have anywhere up to a week. Secondly, many have the two other must-have features: an FM radio and a torch. Radio remains the killer app in Africa, especially for mass communication.”

As we wrote last year, today, more than 350m Africans – 30% of the continent’s population – have mobile phones. Seven countries (Botswana, Gabon, Libya, Morocco, Seychelles, South Africa and Tunisia) have more mobile phones than people. Investors plan massive upgrades, new infrastructure and innovative services, as prices of handsets and access move steadily downwards.

The continent is now the second-largest market in the world – having supplanted Latin America – and behind only Asia.

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