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New paths: exploring mobile-centric internet use in South Africa

Jonathan Donner and Shikoh Gitau


The title of this workshop, ‘beyond voice’, is illustrative of one of the central questions currently surrounding mobile communication in the developing world. Put simply, there is a great deal of enthusiasm around the notion that a large group of users will access the internet for the first time via data enabled mobile handsets. Recent estimates from India, for example (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, 2007), suggest there may be more mobile Internet connections than traditional PC Internet connections operational in the country. Concurrently, high-end smart phones promise browsing experiences which are steadily closing the gaps in speed and ease of use which have hampered earlier incarnations of the mobile internet, such as WAP.

But the raw enthusiasm, the aggregate statistics, and the glossy marketing images from the top-end of handset markets fail to capture the reality of mobile internet use in the developing world. The crux of this paper’s argument is that the research community knows comparatively little about this supposed community of users who access and use the Internet exclusively via mobile phones. We know little about who they are, how they discover and access the mobile internet, and how the mobile internet fits into their lives.

This paper reports on ongoing qualitative/exploratory research in low income communities in urban South Africa. Through convenience and snowball sampling, the researchers have sought out ‘early adopters’ among mobile-only internet users. The analysis of the interviews will delineate and describe distinctive new “paths” to Internet use that largely bypass PCs. We draw on a domestication approach (Haddon, 2003; Hahn & Kibora, 2008; Silverstone & Hirsch, 1992) to move beyond an ‘adoption’ or ‘diffusion’ paradigm and to complement aggregate statistical perspectives.

As exploratory research, this project cannot definitively identify all the new paths to the internet, nor the relative frequency with which individuals choose these paths. However, early findings will illustrate current and emerging practices in mobile-only internet use, as well as opportunities and constraints for policymakers interested in promoting or leveraging internet use among a much broader community of the world’s inhabitants


Publication typeInproceedings
Published inPresented at the Pre-Conference on Mobile Communication at the Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association
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