Nimbus Blog, Trips

Would you pay over £800 a month for Internet?

I have just arrived back from a very tiring but positive 10-day trip which took me to Zambia, Malawi and Kenya. Whilst most of the places that I visited where very rural, mobile phone coverage was almost ubiquitous. In the few areas where this was not the case, the locals knew exactly at which rock, tree or landmark to stand, in order to obtain an adequate signal! I felt a touch of déjà vu when told of a particular rock in the Luangwa District of Zambia where people queued to make a call – much the same as I did as a child at our local phone box in England.

The majority of people I spoke to either owned a mobile phone or had the opportunity to borrow one from a family member or friend. Everyone I met saw the mobile phone as providing a positive impact on their lives to communicate and keep in touch with loved ones and business contacts. However, coming from a connected country blessed with fixed and wireless communications, it is not until you are in a remote village that you can actually appreciate the opportunity cost of not using  a mobile phone.  Sending a message to a family member even in a nearby town would necessitate a 2 hour walk along dusty, undulating and rutted paths to a bus stop; the cost of a bus fare in a usually overcrowded minibus; a similar walk at the other end of the bus stop and the risk that the person is not even at home! A process lasting perhaps a day or more has now been truncated by the simple mobile phone to keying in 10 digits and pressing a call button!

The affordances of mobile phone communications are driving seismic changes in spending patterns and redefining social and business patterns in Africa. It was common amongst the people I asked to be spending 40% of their income on talk time (airtime or top-up) with some people spending up to 70%! Health care professionals would often skip lunch and other meals in order to spend their money on airtime. Government, medical and business institutions commonly did not given their employees any airtime allowance, yet relied on the generosity and good will of diligent employees to use their own airtime to discharge the activities of their work.

Most people in Malawi and Zambia that I met were on handsets that only supported voice and SMS communications. Whilst the mobile providers are rolling out data services including 3G support there are four main issues on widespread adoption:

  1. The cost of handsets that support data services are relatively expensive compared to the basic handsets that are being highlighted through an array of special offers.
  2. The mobile operators do not make it easy to connect your phone to the internet. Of the seven SIM cards I bought on my short trip, I had to request from each provider that internet services were enabled on the SIM card – this was not offered in any outlet. Also, the settings needed to be manually set up on my phone, which in one case caused me to have to renew practically every setting on my Nexus One handset.
  3. The cost of data is not understood by users. This is especially important for people on low income as the ability to accommodate unexpected expenditure is very low. Despite the incredibly low cost of sending a mobile instant message compared with the cost of sending an SMS (about 1,000 times more expensive), people are more comfortable sending an SMS as they absolutely know the cost.
  4. The digital literacy levels in LDCs are good for calls and SMS but low for mobile internet.

Of equal concern was the cost of 3G data services. During my time in Malawi, I met Lazarus who has a 3G dongle which was supplied through his work. This dongle costs 15,000 kwacha per month which is about £60 and affords him 250 MB of data. This is in stark contrast with the 3G dongle that I have here in the UK, which cost me £15 month and affords me 2GB of data. Lazarus informed me that the average person in the Northern district of Malawi would earn between 20,000 and 30,000 kwacha a month. This would mean somebody with an average income will be spending 50% to 75% of their monthly income to have a 3G dongle. Putting this into a UK context, where an unskilled labourer earns on average £20,000 and a skilled labourer earns £40,000 this would put the cost of a 3G dongle between £830 and £1,167 a month. Whilst I realise that many people in Malawi won’t be using 3G dongles to access data services, it does highlight the extraordinarily high cost of access.

Access to information is vital to people living in rural Africa. By accessing crop and market information they can be sure to get the best price for their produce, whilst accessing health service online could be a life saver if you live 50 km from the nearest clinic. People have a right to information that could transform their lives and access via a mobile phone is the only way to reach millions of people effectively.

So why does internet connectivity cost so much in Africa? Surely it is time for governments to increase competition amongst network operators by regulating the price of airtime and internet connectivity if necessary! With people spending up to 70% of their income on airtime top-ups, I came away with an overwhelming feeling that the mobile operators are walking the same path of exploitation furrowed by other imperialists of ages past.


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