Why cellphone internet is bad for Africa

This post was originally written by A.J. Venter and posted on silentcoder.co.za under the Creative Commons Share-Alike License 3.0. I would love to hear the your views on this matter.

I have said it before, but not really spelled it out in detail but I think the proliferation of cellphones as the primary method of connectivity in Africa is not, as many have proposed, a cheap and practical solution to bridging the digital divide, on the contrary, it’s a very good way to make the rift permanent.

The essential reason is simple, cellphones will never be able to compete with full size devices in terms of capability. Cellular internet remains almost entirely a one-way thing. This is part of why, when a friend recently asked a group of West African African delegates to a conference how many of then visited facebook, almost every hand went up. When asked how many of them blogged, almost none did.

The single biggest issue in the digital divide today is not getting African’s access to content – it’s getting African created content accessible. Cellphones are extremely bad for this. Sure you could record a video or a song on a phone, but the quality is always going to be second rate. You can just about use this method to get news stories out… it’s never going to work for publishing a new song.

In Europe and the USA the biggest debates going on right now is those who see the benefit of the multiway internet arguing with those who are trying to preserve old business models that simply don’t work anymore. Newspapers, software companies, film and music distribution being the worst offenders. Instead of recognizing that in world where everybody can produce high quality content – supply and demand dictates that since the supply is now nearing infinity, the price must in turn approach zero – and learning how to find new ways of generating revenue, they are trying to maintain their status quo by lobbying for ever more oppressive copyright laws.

My views on this battle is well known, but the point of my current post is that it isn’t happening in Africa. ASAMI is making a valiant effort to be bastards in South Africa but that’s the entirety of the event to reach this continent. Nobody is lobying the AU to enforce stricter copyright requirements on it’s member countries.
Why ?

Because in Africa the corporations got exactly what they want. A consumer internet. It’s too slow to share anything more meaningfull than tweets and cellphone pix on (so it isn’t a threat to the artificial scarcity model) too limited to create any competing content and too restrictive to allow any new software or ideas to grow.
It’s one way – from the companies to the users, at premium rates.

The one thing scarier than the thought of possibly losing the internet battle in the developed world (an unlikely reality no matter how hard they lobby because ultimately, the maths just don’t work) … is the thought of never even having the opportunity to fight it in Africa.

It has been said that Africa’s major economic problem is that we lack product refinement capacity, we export raw materials, and then buy them back as usable products at ten times the price. Nigeria is a prime example, the nation with the fourth largest oil reserves on the planet also has the highest petrol price on the planet.

But our internet access is even worse off… now we’re consuming, buying products – and we don’t even get to export raw materials, we’re not competing at all, we’re not even part of the market in the other direction ! Slavery didn’t end two-hundred years ago, it’s just that the slaves are now carrying their chains in their own pockets and don’t need to be shipped anywhere first.

So we don’t get to contribute to the web in any meaningful way, anybody who has tried moblogging knows that anything longer than a paragraph is likely to you hospitalized for RSI in your thumb, so we’re still entirely dependent on media companies for news. We don’t get to download music except from cellphone ringtone suppliers – at premium rates (that actually works out more expensive than the CD’s , or only barely cheaper), we don’t get to watch streaming movies and we most certainly don’t get to use the power of the internet to get our own movies and music to a wider audience.

Who cares about the size of Nigeria’s film industry ? They will never compete with Hollywood because outside of a few choice film festivals, nobody has ever even seen a Nigerian film. They aren’t in the video-rental stores, they aren’t showing at the theaters – they may as well not exist, the one technology we have that could change this, could make them have the kind of success that has seen numerous independent films from all over the world grow to massive hits online – which ultimately led to real DVD sales etc. and made them financial successes, these ideas aren’t available to us.

Now sure it was an interesting experiment when one South African film maker made a full length movie shot entirely on cellphones, but he still needed a computer to put it together, and that was a particular artistic expression, it’s hardly the appropriate method for making good quality indy films in general.

I think I’ve made my point, so as usual, I shall end with a pithy summary of this post for the tweep generation: mobile internet isn’t.

One Reply to “Why cellphone internet is bad for Africa”

  1. Nice post. However, it is good to note that the underlying factors of the digital divide between Africa and the West is more complex than the post attempts to portray. Lets take a look.

    Poverty: Africa is the only continent (barring some parts of Asia), that people wake up and have no idea whatsoever what they are going to eat for the day. Such people will naturally not have the time and money to spend on a "luxury" like connectivity.

    If the majority of the people are wallowing in bone crushing poverty, how would anyone expect them to pay any attention to IT?

    Demand: Directly flowing from the point above, there is a direct relationship between the demand for IT and its general improvement and fall in price.

    If you take the cell phone for instance, about a decade ago, using the cell phone was considered a luxury that only few people were privileged to enjoy. Reception was real crappy and the handsets weigh about 5kg each.

    When the demand for cell phone service rose however, suddenly reception got better with a wider coverage, and the price of using the cell phone has dropped considerably.

    If there should be a massive demand for better connectivity, trust me, things will change.

    Lack of education and apathy: To most people in Africa, the internet is nothing other than a waste of time and money. In fact, I know of people who don't know anything called internet. Most of the African population are stark illiterates, how do we expect such a people to jump on the digital bandwagon?

    Then there are those who are educated but still are apathetic to IT. I work in an office where my colleagues know absolutely nothing about the concept of blogging. All they know doing on the computer other than run Pastel Accounting is to check their Yahoo mails and play Solitaire.

    General Infrastructure: Generally speaking, the infrastructure required to run the world class ICT is simply non existent. What sort of infrastructure do you expect to find in Somalia, Congo, or Burundi?

    Then there are a host of other factors such as culture, government attitude, media among others.

    Sure some corporations would forever want Africans to be using 5KB/S internet connections, but I am seriously of the view that the digital divide is more of an African created problem than any other reason.

    I would actually love Africans to do their homework well and be sure they absolve themselves of any finger pointing before laying the blame of the digital divide at the door step of the West.

    On a side note, Nigerian or African movies are not watched anywhere out there not because they were not shot with 3D cameras and technology but because they are mostly crap. I am an African but never watch any of those things we call movies here.

    They just don't inspire me one bit. They are just pure waste of time. They mostly lack creativity, writing skills and the actors do more to mis-educate than anything.

    Take a look at District 9 and how it was well received by the West, then you'll get to understand what I'm trying to say. If it is good, it will market itself. If it is crap, no one will watch it or be interested in it. Period.

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