Our Work 4 – Expert Opinions on the new Internet Access market

In the course of the Digital Lives in Ghana, Kenya & Uganda project, we had the opportunity to talk to leading researchers, practitioners, and innovators in the Information and Communication for Development (ICT4D) community. The 26 expert interviews allowed us to (re) consider the dynamic digital landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa from a variety of perspectives. The result was chapter two in the report – Cross-cutting Themes in Digitally-enabled Development.

As we began the interviews, we planned to explore issues around access—how new ways of providing last-mile internet access to resource constrained people in the developing world might influence the kind of internet experiences people would have. We also planned to probe on matters of space—how the ICT4D field’s narratives about access draw on what Mark Graham at the Oxford Internet Institute calls “spatial imaginaries”. And finally, we intended to focus the interviews on understanding use—particularly any potential divergences between idealized and actual use of the devices, networks, data and services in everyday life.

With these goals primed, it is perhaps not surprising that such involved conversations could flow from a simple ice-breaking question posed to interviewees– “is securing internet access for those without it important, and if so, why?”. No two conversations were alike, but several themes emerged:

  1. Several participants flagged “top-downism” —a confidence that digital outcomes can be prescribed or designed from above or afar—as a significant threat to the success of potential access efforts. All efforts to reinvent or improve access have to get the “last mile” connecting users to the network right – not just the technical connection, but the also the billing, the business model, the relationship, and the use case. Community buy-in and trust is essential. Success on these last mile factors may determine the fortunes of the various disruptive
  2. Comments from several experts led us to offer a suggestion to embrace entertainment and leisure practices as part of a more holistic understanding of users’ digital lives. As others have argued, understanding entertainment and social use of the internet is central to understanding the factors that drive uptake, development of digital skills, and the allocation of constrained resources to digital services and devices. Maryia Zheleva referenced her research in rural Zambia to illustrate this point:

If you go down to what users actually want to do with the Internet, they just want to use it the same way people in the more urban areas or in the Western world do. Do you know what the most accessed services on-line are that we have found? Facebook, Google and news … When it boils down to the end user, entertainment is the first thing that they demand, and then other things come around this.

  1. We identified the persistence of what several in the research community call second level digital divides—gaps in demand and differences in usage resulting from limited skills, literacies, and availability of appropriate content. Indeed some suggest the gaps may be amplified, even after the initial access challenges might seem to be addressed.
  2. Experts raised concerns about other ongoing differences of usage due to differences in the technical capabilities of various access modalities – that some configurations and trade-offs, like prepaid internet, zero-rated mobile data, or cached content, were “constrained connectivity” relative to a full and open internet

As we concluded the chapter, we suggested that the synthesis of these themes negates any suggestions, straw man or otherwise, that there is a single solution waiting in the wings which will address the remaining access and post-access challenges, and will vanquish the so-called digital divide. The heterogeneity of responses we received about what was coming next was itself good evidence that we should be pursuing multiple, approaches to address digital exclusion, rather than a single silver bullet.