by Sophia Pervez (co-founder of ClubInternet)
Much has happened over the last few years in the world of mobile in Pakistan. Mobile broadband licenses were finally issued to all operators, average smartphone prices dropped 39% (from $329 to $200) (source: GSMA), and just in 2015 Q1, there was a 124% increase in smartphone sales. (source: IDC).
Pakistan now has over 140M mobile subscribers out of which 15M use mobile internet. Given that mobile broadband is just in its infancy, this (10%) internet penetration is understandable. With expanding infrastructure and cheap data packages being offered, this number will increase drastically over the next few years.
However, when examining these numbers closely, one must not forget an important lesson emanating from neighboring India. Touting fast-growing internet penetration, the truth is that more than 80% Indian internet users are ‘static’ – i.e. only intermittently connected.
For example, if someone accidentally logged onto the Internet even once in the last 365 days, they may be counted as ‘connected’ too. In contrast to their Indian counterparts, are Pakistani numbers reported more meticulously and responsibly? Perhaps we can take them at face value, but nevertheless the Indian experience cannot be ignored.
There are valid questions over how numbers for internet users in a country are reported and what they signify
Having great interest in the impact of internet on living standards, my team and I have done a ton of exploration into the factors that enable hitherto unconnected people to actively first seek and then embrace digital lifestyles. I don’t mean them merely trying out social networking or instant messaging, but rather fully accelerating their internet journeys to the point where they become sophisticated, engaged internet consumers.
Via a series of in-depth usability experiments conducted in less affluent, mostly rural locales across the 4 provinces, we found that even when people had enough disposable income to afford mobile internet and a computing device (i.e. an entry-level smartphone) most people did not go online because of lack of relevance and an incapability to use internet services.
It’s a fallacy that digital devices and the internet are plug-n-play for those who have never experienced them before. When we see the elders and the children of us urban elites adopt such tech, they do so because they’re able to ape the dominant culture around them. In unconnected localities – where entire generations of people have never developed a culture of using modern technology – the expectation that digital tech is going to miraculously break through their natural resistance is naïve.
It’s a fallacy that digital devices and the internet are plug-n-play for those who have never experienced them before
However, this does not mean that such demographics aren’t curious. Even though the results of Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole-in-a-wall’ self-teaching experiment in Tamil Nadu ultimately became controversial, they did show that the desire to tinker is innate to humans.
After our research in rural areas, my team and I proceeded to put our findings to use in developing what we call ‘hyperlocalized’ smartphone tech that would be intuitive to wield for the digitally illiterate and truly accelerate their internet journeys. We tested this over a statistically significant sample size of around twenty thousand ‘unconnected’ users in partnership with one of Pakistan’s biggest mobile network operators. I would like to share some key findings here so our lessons can be used by the Pakistani ICT eco-system at large in whatever way they deem fit..
Here’s What Survey of 20k Unconnected Pakistanis Found
We found that initially, most of the content consumed was related to entertainment (up to 80%; 70% of that being video content). This is not new; years old Pakistani research here and here already points to the same conclusion. But here’s what’s different: as our users used our tech to onboard more diverse online activities, entertainment consumption dropped a full 50%, along with a corresponding increase in productive activities such as job searching, online video learning, video tutorials and germinal entrepreneurship.
And as these users matured even further, this changed behavior not only became crystallized, it was also seen to replicate among other users brought on board by our initial sample. Moreover, across each typical ‘internet journey’, every user on average went from using 3MB/day to 7MB/day, more than doubling their bandwidth consumption. Contrast this to a ‘control’ sample that barely topped 0.5MB/day.
As internet users in Pakistan become more mature, the proportion of time they spend on entertainment content drops significantly
All this means that by 2025 – the time by when most Pakistanis are scheduled to have internet access – there’s a realistic way to create an outcome where online Pakistanis spend approximately half of their time in online activities that directly contribute to their standards of living. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows such a shift easily contributing double digits to our GDP (i.e. more than 4 times what McKinsey predicted a few years ago).
Imagine being able to leapfrog – within a generation – to the same vicinity where the likes of India, China or Taiwan reside! This is a stunning finding, especially compared to how at our current trajectory, the economic gap between Pakistan and the aforementioned sample countries is actually set to widen within a generation.
Pakistan Is An Era of User 1.0 Right Now
Remember the days of web 1.0? Web 1.0 was essentially a collection of static web pages, prevalent in the 90s. Then in the 00s, web2.0 came to the fore with dynamic content. In similar vein way, Pakistan is currently in the era of what I call ‘user 1.0’ – a state where only a small percentage of Pakistan meaningfully understands and consumes the internet or digital technology.
The next era we need to transition to is what I call ‘user 2.0’ – a future state of affairs where all Pakistanis will have fully-developed mental models for digital technology, where those with not enough economic means will consciously change their saving patterns to buy computing devices, where they’ll recurringly consume the supply of the internet and digital services within their economic means, where they’ll drive ICT revenues all over the nation, where they’ll ignite internet economies in the vast landscape that hasn’t yet caught up, where they’ll experience measurable gains in standards of living intra and inter-generationally.
In essence, progressing to user 2.0 is going to be a big step toward our collective socioeconomic evolution as a nation state.
Technology that is ‘hyperlocalized’ is going to be key in onboarding the digitally illiterate
Notice that the march toward user 2.0 will not be led by marketing and clever product placement, at least not initially. Marketing will indeed have a secondary role to play, but first and foremost, what’s going to work is effective onboarding technology that is ‘hyperlocalized’ to the target audience’s needs. Brute force marketing simply cannot efficiently bring the digitally illiterate online in a way that fulfills the conditions of the era of user2.0.
So what’s going to work? Without giving away our own tech’s secret sauce, a general guideline I can share is that home-grown solutions need to take precedence over ones imported from elsewhere, developed with someone else’s needs in mind. This may sound trivial since on the surface our ICT industry already swears by this, but dig beneath the surface and one finds that many of our solutions are built by analogy, instead of originality. Mingle with your users, go live among them, adopt their lifestyles, try to ‘become them’, see the world (and its problems) through their eyes and shoes. That’s the only way. There’s no short cut to formulating solutions without feeling the problem in one’s own gut.
Home-grown solutions need to take precedence over ones imported from elsewhere & developed with someone else’s needs in mind
A few months ago, I exchanged views with the Internet.org team at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park. It was fascinating to see the scale at which internet.org is aiming to provide internet to the unconnected all over the world. But given this initiative’s recent bumps in India, it now seems to be stuck in the doldrums.
However, I do believe Pakistani’s themselves can play a big part in this mission, as long as our operators, OEMs and IT industrialists alike can target the capability and relevancy barriers as well as they’re targeting other barriers in internet penetration. Via catalyzing the transition toward user2.0, we can alter our economic trajectory and lead the world in this domain.