Mobile data has to get much cheaper, or more efficient, to connect the rest of the world

“Most of the world can’t afford mobile data at current prices”, starts a recent article on Quartz which highlights the high cost of using mobile data in emerging markets, relative to income.


The article is based on a  a new study by Strategy&, a unit of the consulting firm PwC, and defines ‘affordable’ as a prepaid data plan that allows up to 500 MB of use a month, and costing 5% or less of a person’s gross monthly income. About 43% of the world’s population can afford this level of mobile data usage today. In order to double that number, data costs have to fall by 70% globally, according to the study.

According to a global study on internet connectivity published by in February ’16, 500MB of data gets you, per day, about 800 plain-text emails, or 17 web pages, or eight minutes of video.

I think it absolutely appropriate this issue is steadily getting broader industry recognition and the Silicon Valley centric illusion is receding that soon everyone will have a smartphone along with plentiful mobile data to use it.

Of course the most often touted solutions to address the problem of high mobile data cost focus on rolling out more high-bandwidth networks or investing in alternative network delivery methods such as satellite, balloons, solar planes etc.

Very little is said about how to make more efficient use of existing infrastructure and bandwidth capacity or how to do more with the lower-cost devices that dominate emerging markets. Unfortunately the economic incentives are less for major industry stakeholders – less revenue for infrastructure equipment suppliers, mobile device manufacturers and retailers, lower ARPU for network operators and let’s face it, there’s less sex in media copy about how to do more with basic handsets or the 2G network compared to the latest greatest smartphone or how fast the next “G” networking standard might be.

In May 2016 biNu had 300,000 monthly active users in Zimbabwe (90% using Android smartphones) who on average spent 22 minutes per day on biNu consuming 49 pages of content (11.5 hrs & 1,473 page views per month). The content included news, sports results, social networking, messages, Google Search, books etc.

The amazing insight is that on average each biNu user in Zimbabwe consumed less than 13 MB of mobile data for the entire month.

That’s a 98% reduction to the suggested affordable standard of 500 MB of data per month.

Zero Rating in India – the Opportunity

The announcement by Bharti Airtel last April of the Airtel Zero platform ignited a huge debate around the concept of Net Neutrality and how it should be applied in India.

But some key questions remain unanswered: a) will zero-rating be sanctioned by government and industry regulator and b) what are the commercial opportunities for content providers, developers and marketers.

Will zero rating get the green light?

Airtel Zero proposes an open, non-discriminatory platform to provide content providers and app developers the option to pay for mobile data bandwidth consumed by their users, thereby making it free of data charges for end-users. This would mean a person with zero prepaid data credit on their Airtel SIM card could still access data services deployed through Airtel Zero. Airtel likens the approach to the established concept of toll free phone calls.

More than 75 percent of Indians do not use or have access to the Internet, but almost every Indian has a mobile phone. In a previous blog post I highlighted two primary barriers holding back Internet adoption: consumer affordability as well as the lack of network infrastructure and capacity. The Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi wants every Indian to get online and already is familiar with, introduced by Facebook and its partners, which provides diminished but free Internet services for the more than 100 million mobile subscribers of Reliance Communications.

The new realisation of mobile operators in emerging markets, with their strategic priority on growing data revenues, is that mobile consumers want to use data services more (in fact a lot more) but most can’t afford to pay for it, so why not enable content providers, developers and marketers who are desperate to engage with mobile consumers fund the cost of access. This is a 180 degree turn on traditional access pricing models, but it makes complete sense. For content providers zero-rating platforms represent a marketing investment to generate user growth and hopefully profitable commercial value.

At the same time as the Modi government in India has been busy promoting the benefits of the Digital India initiative for all its citizens, they’ve been under pressure from the minority of Indians who consume most of the nation’s bandwidth to pass legislation that would deny free Internet access to the poor, in the name of Net Neutrality. This recent New York Time article by Manu Joseph Protecting the Internet, but Depriving India’s Poor highlights the issue.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has been working through a process to finalise its recommendations on Net Neutrality to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and indications are it will recommend Zero Rating be allowed, as long as platforms offer the same terms and conditions for entry to all content providers and websites, and network traffic is not prioritised. A recent piece by Mahesh Uppal gives good insight to Trai’s net neutrality challenge and the benefits of expanding access to millions as well as promoting efficient use of scarce spectrum.

What does Zero-rating mean for user engagement?

There is no doubt that removing the cost and affordability barrier to getting more mobile consumers connected dramatically increases internet adoption and engagement.

The biNu mobile internet platform was designed ground-up to optimise mobile data bandwidth efficiency to provide super-fast user response times, even on low-cost underpowered 2G mobile devices.

The biNu mobile app for Android smartphones and Java feature phones currently provides a curated portal like experience to millions of active users globally with a range of Internet based content spanning multiple languages covering news, sports, social networking, search & translate, music, video, books, education, weather etc. The vast majority of biNu users are in emerging and developing countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Nine months ago biNu was zero-rated by the major mobile operator in Zimbabwe which resulted in strong viral user growth and 5 to 10 times higher user engagement compared with biNu users in India and other countries where they have to pay for their data consumption. Another interesting change was the proportion of smartphone users compared to feature phone users went from 20% to over 90%, with most people using low-cost Android devices.

Making zero-rating work commercially

The advent of zero rating platforms will cause content providers to have a much sharper focus on mobile bandwidth efficiency to make paying for data consumption commercially viable and sustainable. For the vast majority of app providers it will be a marketing investment and long term unsustainable growth loss leader.

biNu’s usage statistics in Zimbabwe from August 2015 are (average per user, per month):

  • 35 logins (1.2 per day)
  • 851 page view navigations (28.4 per day)
  • 346 minutes connect time (11.5 mins per day).

And incredibly, biNu’s mobile bandwidth efficiency means that on average each biNu user in Zimbabwe consumes only 4.3 MB of mobile data, per month, which is trivial when prepaid data packs are measured in 100s of MB or multiples of GB.

According to Airtel India’s current mobile recharge rates the retail price for 3 GB of prepaid mobile data is Rs. 659, which equates to US$3.34 per GB, or 0.33c per MB. Wholesale data pricing would likely be lower, but let’s use the published retail pricing for now.

Applying this cost of mobile data and assuming mobile consumers in India would have the same level of engagement as users in Zimbabwe if biNu were zero-rated, the data cost per user per month in India would be 1.4c (US$0.014), and the data cost per 1000 user page view navigations would be 1.6c (US$0.016).

Given current mobile advertising CPM rates in India range from 10c at the very low-end to over $1 per 1000 ad impressions, there is significant scope to leverage biNu’s bandwidth efficiency on zero-rating platforms to connect hundreds of millions of Indian mobile users to valued and useful, private and public internet services on the back of a commercially viable and sustainable technology platform.

Let’s see what it would like applying the same level of user engagement currently seen in Zimbabwe with Airtel India’s retail data costs measured against potential advertising value based on current market rates for mobile advertising to a model that scales monthly active users:

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 2.26.16 pm

By adding localised and focussed content offerings to the mix there’s scope to dramatically scale the level of user engagement, for example by 5X to around 6 logins, 140 page views and one hour connect time per user, per day:

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 2.26.33 pm

As long as incremental adoption and engagement is profitable, the sky’s the limit in terms of what could be achieved in a market of 1.3 billion people with 941 million mobile connections but of which only 11% have mobile broadband capability today.

So by way of example, deploying biNu delivered content (super-fast even on 2G connections) on a zero-rated platform in India to build a highly engaged smartphone and feature phone audience of 100 million active users would cost US$7m per month for mobile data but could generate between $40m to $100m per month in advertising revenue.

Wi-Fi Hotspot Networks

With growing network and spectrum congestion mobile operators are looking to offload mobile network data traffic to Wi-Fi hotspot networks, both their own and third party networks. The same rationale outlined above would apply to zero-rating access through Wi-Fi networks, with probably even greater bandwidth cost efficiencies as well as opportunity to up-sell paid data access to enhanced services such as video.

What Do You Watch on YouTube?

May 2015 was YouTube’s 10th birthday and according to its own statistics it now attracts one billion users, equivalent to the population of India, China or Africa, but 80% of its traffic still comes from the US. Curious about what our users on biNu were watching we polled users in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and India asking them what they primarily watched on YouTube.

Overwhelmingly users indicated that Music Videos was their first preference, followed by sport (due to 78% of respondents being male), followed by Other. Not included as choices in the poll was Gaming, TV shows and Comedy which could explain the high amount of people choosing Other. Education beat out News and only trailed Movie Trailers by 11%.

See the Infographic for more information and results. Contact us for a PDF version.


People in different countries like different stuff!

biNu has active users in every country around the world but mostly in emerging and developing countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The biNu virtual smartphone platform provides an array of apps and content for users including news, live sports results, messaging and social networking, Twitter, Google search and translate, YouTube, Worldreader books, religious books, Wordnik English dictionary, Wikipedia, entertainment news, health and lifestyle information, weather etc.

I’ve always been interested in the relative popularity of different content in different countries. It continually evolves as tastes and our content mix changes change and every month I’m fascinated to get a snapshot of this moving landscape.

Below are two matrix reports of the top 20 biNu apps ranked by our top 10 countries in April 2015. The first is ranked by active users and the second by page view activity.

biNu top apps by country - users - April 2015

biNu top apps by country - page views - April 2015

It’s interesting to see things like:

  • price sensitive mobile consumers in emerging markets have an eye out for free download opportunities
  • Africans love their soccer whilst the Indian subcontinent loves their cricket (surprise, surprise)
  • Zimbabweans and Nigerians like to read books
  • Twitter is popular in Indonesia, Mexico and Argentina
  • people in Iran enjoy the biNu social network
  • Voice of America news has good traction in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Iran
  • YouTube is popular in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Egypt and Argentina.

And next month it will all shift around a little… 🙂

Mobile Data Costs and Bandwidth Efficiency

The cost of mobile data is a major barrier to mobile internet adoption in many emerging and developing countries. It is a problem the biNu mobile internet platform is specifically designed to solve.

The recent McKinsey report Offline and falling behind: Barriers to Internet adoption summarises the barriers impeding more than 60 percent of the global population from getting online. Whilst an additional 500 million to 900 million people are forecast to join the online population by 2017, there will still be up to 4.2 billion people offline.

Two of the primary barriers highlighted are consumer affordability, and lack of network infrastructure and capacity. Even though projections show most people will get smartphones in the next decade, most of them still won’t have data access because the cost of data remains much more expensive than the price of a smartphone.

The April 2015 Ericsson Consumer Insight Summary Report focused on understanding the diverse behaviour and needs of smartphone mobile internet users in urban India. It highlights that of Indian smartphone owners who do not use mobile broadband, 88 percent feel it is too expensive and 48 percent are unable to distinguish between 2G and 3G speeds.

This reality creates powerful public policy and economic incentives to not only find ways to increase industry investment but also to utilise existing infrastructure and mobile bandwidth more efficiently.

The biNu mobile internet platform was designed ground-up to optimise use of mobile data bandwidth as much as possible and to provide super-fast user response times, even on low-cost underpowered 2G mobile devices.

biNu creates a virtualised smartphone experience for each user with all app processing performed in the cloud and hyper-efficient use of mobile bandwidth to deliver screen output to a user’s device. The net result is that biNu on a 2G feature phone or low-cost Android device delivers near instantaneous response times plus incredible bandwidth and data cost efficiency.

A wide range of internet based virtual apps are available to biNu users including news, live sports results, messaging and social networking, Twitter, Google search and translate, YouTube, Kindle like book reading, Wordnik English dictionary, Wikipedia, health and lifestyle news information, weather etc.

The table below summarises average data usage of biNu users in March 2015. As well as the global average, data is also broken out for India and for Zimbabwe where biNu currently is zero-rated by Econet, the country’s largest mobile operator.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 12.54.58 am

The global average data usage for a biNu user spending nearly one hour online and generating 220 page views is less than 1 MB per month.

Even in Zimbabwe where biNu is zero rated and usage is 5-10 times higher, average data usage per user per month is 5MB.

In an age where monthly mobile data consumption typically is measured as hundreds of MB or multiple GB per user, the bandwidth efficiency of biNu has huge potential to help get more people online, more often in emerging and developing countries.

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