We spent the best part of 2016 working on two reports that analysed the emerging new internet access business models being applied to developing markets. One of them – the Digital Access in Africa report we wrote with DFID – specifically looked at a range of policy and private sector issues pertaining to internet access. In particular, this report has some interesting primary research into the usage of Facebook Zero, and offers user perspectives on its usage.
The second report is one we wrote for Dial and USAID – Closing the Access Gap – looks in more detail at what the business models and typologies of internet access are emerging, and argues what will or will not enable their success. We think this report offers a vital tool in the business model typology and case studies, and the discussion around these.
It was fantastic to work with all three organisations, and also with the world-class expert panels we convened for both projects. It has moved our own thinking on considerably, driven by the framework our Senior Director of Research Jonathan Donner develops in his book After Access. I think we’ve collectively learnt a lot about what business models might, and might not, work, and since this research was completed last year our thinking internally has developed a lot.
Upcoming research from Caribou on Digital Advertising in Emerging Markets will provide yet another lens on the access topic, by investigating how likely it is that traditional methods of monetising services via the attention economy will succeed in emerging markets. This, we hope, will provide additional analysis to these two reports by investigating whether zero-rating, ad-funded access from providers who have advertising as their primary way of monetising customers is a viable way of closing the access gap.
We’ve come a long way in looking at whether un-metered, broadband, always-on connectivity is a meaningful and viable product for low-income users, as we rightly believe that un-fettered access to an open-internet is the right goal to aim for. But for users used to a metered-mindset, to use Jonathan Donner’s phrase, who increasingly don’t even conceptually understand what the open internet is, let alone understand why they should pay for it, the internet may look more like ‘topping up Facebook’, where access and service are inextricably linked.
For these consumers, closing the access gap may mean enveloping them within a digital platform, and a hegemonic digital ecosystem. In future research we hope to build on the arguments within these two research reports, and ask more questions about the issues around this potential future, and also question the underlying economics of providing subsidised access in general.