Lessons from the road — Getting more people connected starts with awareness

Telenor Group’s Mobile World Congress 2015 exhibition space.

This column originally ran in Bangkok’s The Nation newspaper on March 24, 2015.

At Mobile World Congress 2015, the biggest annual event in the telecom industry, the big attention getters were the topics of Internet inclusion and the role that operators, content developers and service providers can play in connecting more people.

Making Internet inclusion a reality for the mass market is a challenge our industry faces. Based on our presence in 13 worldwide markets, we have unique insight into how best to spread internet services. We deal every day with unique social issues related to technology, Internet skepticism and challenging business environments. From 18 years in Asia, we now know what the drivers of internet usage are in very different markets.

The perspective is of an operator bridging developed and developing markets — on-the-ground experience and solutions for emerging markets that these more western-oriented discussions may have otherwise missed.

Our solutions to getting more people connected to the Internet begin with awareness. In mass market Asia, for instance, the Internet is much more than what’s on Facebook and LINE. Believe it or not, lots of people still don’t even know what the Internet is. And if they do, their beliefs may be rife with misinformation, fear or disinterest. Governments, service providers and content developers need to know what the opportunities are and what content will actually minimize misperceptions and encourage use.

Relevant content is next, and this is where an intimate understanding of local, social and economic issues is vital. We have a connectivity target that we’ve been very public about — to get 200 million of our customers using the Internet in the next two years. To get there, we need to work with global content providers to bring locally relevant content to our potential customers. These content providers can span the banking sectors (particularly relevant in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar), agricultural- and startup communities. In countries like Thailand, we know that the latter two are nationally important and we have programs in place to promote both.

Our industry is making headway on content. Strategic partnerships with global content creators like Wikipedia, services like Facebook and WhatsApp are giving even the least experienced internet-users more compelling reasons to use. On a holistic level, 60 per cent of the world’s Internet content is now coming from Asia. Asian pick-up of content (primarily in the form of messaging apps) is going mass market.

Carolynne Schloeder, Head of Global Partnerships, Wikimedia Foundation speaking at the Telenor Youth Summit, 2014.

We need then to take internet into areas not being served and make sure it is affordable for the mass market. Accessibility is important not just in terms of geography, but in terms of data pricing and device costs. Fortunately, we are seeing that over time, market forces are beginning to take care of this with more creative data pricing schemes and the prices of handsets gradually dropping.

Progress is actually going much faster than we ever expected and we are seeing demand being built by the customers themselves. Myanmar is a great example. We launched with 2G and 3G there, understanding that some of our customers would leapfrog basic voice and text to mobile internet services. But what we’re actually seeing is that 50 percent of them are going right into mobile internet — from no mobile connectivity at all.

This is instant internet penetration and is on pace to catapult Myanmar into the same league as Thailand and Malaysia in a very short time. We are now aiming for 80 per cent of our customer base to be internet users by 2017. That’s a huge step up from today’s 30 per cent figure, globally. Internet inclusion is something that our industry peers at Mobile World Congress are now also taking as a strategic priority and we can all agree that it’s the right one for everyone.

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