Mobile Data: Bridging The Internet Divide In Africa

The need for Nigeria to bridge the digital divide and improve internet penetration has been discussed for years. The need is immense and it looks like our leaders are yet to really identify any clear means of doing so.

My opinion is that the coming of GSM mobile technology to our shores about 3 years ago opened up a new vista that can help bridge that chasm significantly and speedily.

The American Model
Mobile data is not a big hit in the US because most business premises and homes are already wired or connected wirelessly.

The Japanese Model
The Japanese model is definitely something we can learn a few lessons from. The Japanese – adults or kids – are probably the most connected set of people on this planet. And this is because of data via mobile phones. As a matter of fact, the Japanese mobile industry is driven not so much by voice traffic as by data on CDMA, i-Mode and 3G platforms especially. People access their mails, make online payments and access a wide range of information via mobile phone data services.

Which Way Nigeria?
Here in Nigeria, our environment and present circumstances are just right for mobile data to be a big hit. Very few homes around the country have any form of Internet access. Even scarier is the fact that most business offices have no form of internet access as well.

The cost of acquiring a PC and subscribing for internet access alone is so unthinkable for the vast majority of people and businesses that it is clear that is not the way to go if we are serious about catching up with the rest of the world in cyberspace. Add to that the pathetic fact that one would also need to purchase and maintain a power generating set to be able to put one’s PC and internet connection to any productive use, and that case is lost.

Enter GSM Data
The average mobile phone on the market is either CSD-enabled or GPRS-enabled or both. Every network on ground in the country provides at least WAP access, and in other cases full internet access. In my opinion, most people with a mobile phone are walking around with the world in their pockets. All they need do is harness the potentials of their devices and network services.

Networks & Pricing
It is clear that the mobile networks need to work out subsidized tariffs for data calls (in the case of CSD) and connections (for GPRS). This will encourage the average Joe to put those data facilities to regular use.

Current trends show that at least 2 networks in Nigeria are driving GPRS-based data to be taken up my a huge chunk of their subscribers. A 3rd network appears to intend to limit GPRS services to “premium” customers, an action that will be tantamount to shooting themselves in the foot, if I may say so.

It is amazing what information is available on such a simple basic platform as WAP. Subscribers can do Google and Yahoo! searches, access and respond to mails, check currency exchange rates, stocks quotes, update themselves on news from around the world, and join worldwide discussion forums. In particular, these forums are veritable learning centres where we can tap into free and useful information that drive today’s world. As a network administrator, I even found a WAP site from which I could ping my clients’ hosting accounts to ensure they are running fine, and a couple of others from which I can run domain name searches! Even WAP is no longer as basic as it used to be.

With the advent of full websites that can now be accessed via WAP, the limits on WAP are fast fading (visit on your WAP 2.0/XHTML mobile phone to comprehend this). Of course, there are more and more phones being released with full Web browsers, further expanding the horizons of mobile data.

It is my submission that our country needs to take a serious look at how we can harness the power of mobile data in moving forward. In particular there is an urgent need for mass enlightenment of our population in this matter. Maybe, just maybe then we will truly be using what we have to get what we want.

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