Bangladesh has been on my mind a lot recently. Okay, in truth, it’s never not on my mind – my partner is Bangladeshi, our friends and family live there, we go back regularly, and I make it a point to follow what’s going on there even when I’m in London.
But work-wise, our team at Panoply Digital is working on two mobile services aimed at women in Bangladesh: one with South Africa-based Praekelt Foundation, the Girl Effect and BRAC, and the other with BBC Media Action Bangladesh.
So we’ve been looking again at the more recent evidence around mobile and mobile Internet in Bangladesh. Who are the haves and the have-nots? What do we know about levels of access and use for women and men? How have things changed in the last few years? How do we create access? How do we use mobile to reach the approximately 50 million people who live in poverty? What sort of mobile platforms should we be using to bring them essential education, healthcare or other information or services?
One common refrain I hear a lot from the tech sector in particular in Bangladesh is around the use of apps and internet-enabled services to reach the marginalised – ‘this is Digital Bangladesh, everyone has a smartphone these days, low-cost smartphones like Symphony (made in China for the Bangladesh market) are everywhere, we need to get with the times and design an app for these people, IVR is dead, 3G is here in Bangladesh now, everyone uses Facebook etc etc’.
Internet.org was launched in Bangladesh last year (seemingly without the controversy and debates that accompanied the Indian launch – and subsequent ruling in favour of net neutrality), and everyone seems to be about data, data plans, getting people online, Digital Bangladesh.
Sometimes I’ve felt like a lone voice in advocating strongly for IVR platforms, particularly for women, when levels of access and use of mobile, let along mobile Internet, are woefully low.
So two reports from the Alliance for Affordable Internet that were released last week piqued my interest. The first was a Bangladesh-specific case study, looking at levels of Internet access in Bangladesh, including mobile Internet.
The findings are unexpected and /or startling if you believe the rhetoric around Digital Bangladesh. I’ll summarise 4 key findings that jumped out at me:
- Less than 10% of Bangladesh’s population are broadband Internet users – meaning there are around 140 million who are unconnected. India, by comparison, has a 25% broadband penetration rate (but even that is below the regional average of 32%)
- Mobile internet penetration is just 30%
- Most of that is 2G connections; 3G, despite being launched amid much fanfare in 2014, represents the equivalent of 10% of Bangladesh’s total population (which doesn’t mean that 10% have access – people could be using 3G connections on multiple SIMs)
- Mobile data prices in Bangladesh are three times more than those of her regional neighbours, including India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; MNOs in Bangladesh were charging around $3.50 to $4.40 for a 1 GB per month internet package – given that one third of the population live on less than $2 a day, that’s unaffordable to most of the population.
Given these woeful statistics, you can see why someone might make a case for zero-rated data to ‘connect the unconnected’ and give people first-time access to the Internet.
But the second report by A4Ai looked at this in detail: the report was a research study, looking at what mobile data services people are actually using, and what mobile users think of these services – including zero-rated data – and looking at Bangladesh in particular. Again, some high-level findings:
- Use of zero-rated data was particularly high in Bangladesh compared to other countries: 10% of users on average had used zero-rated data at least once, whereas Bangladesh saw 21% of users using it at least once.
- 88% of people using zero-rating responded that they had used the Internet before using the zero-rated plan: that means 12% of zero-rating users surveyed started using the Internet with their zero-rated service
- Of all the 1,000 people surveyed in Bangladesh, all of them had smartphones and all of them were mobile Internet users (perhaps inevitable given the nature of the data collection through an online mobile survey tool).
- Only 30% of the Bangladeshi respondents were female – again, showing the gender imbalance of access to mobile and mobile Internet use
What these two reports and their findings meant to me was that it is very clear that there is a bigger issue in Internet access in Bangladesh than perhaps anyone realised, particularly for women – all the talk amongst mobile operators and stakeholders in Dhaka has been in the last few years around how access is growing and how people are coming online, but what it seems to me is that, if anything, the divide is the thing that is actually growing.
Prices don’t seem to have come down in a way you would expect, and Internet (and mobile Internet) is not actually even remotely affordable for the vast majority of the population, particularly women, who are far more price-sensitive than men.
I also don’t believe zero-rated data is the answer to connecting the unconnected, but I’m not exactly alone in that, and I think the A4Ai report goes some way to refuting the argument that giving people access to a walled garden doesn’t bring them online.
I’m not sure what the alternative is - there’s a lot of work that needs to be done at the policy level, for sure, around taxation and costs, but in terms of developing mobile solutions for women, I’m going to keep on plugging my one-woman campaign for IVR and using tech that fits the context.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.