Smartphones aren’t making cybercafes obsolete in Global South

One might expect that with growing access to cheap smartphones around the world, cybercafes are destined for the wastebin of history. Why pay a fee to use a stodgy old desktop computer to get online? It’s all in the palms of our hands now.

A new study from the University of Washington turns that logic on its head. “One technology doesn’t replace the other. People need large, broadband service,” says Chris Coward, the director of UW’s Technology and Social Change Group. He says the five-year study shows definitively that mobile phones, contrary to some claims, “will not solve the access problem.”

Coward and his team scoured the earth, working with local research teams and surveying more than 5,000 computer users in Bangladesh, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Lithuania, Philippines and South Africa. What they found seems counter-intuitive.

“We saw large usership in every place we visited,” Coward says, of libraries, telecenters and cybercafes. Even in the United States, people are flocking to access the Internet through desktop computers in libraries in ever greater numbers.

Millions of people, but especially women, rural families and the unemployed, depend on public access venues for the Internet. “We were struck by the extent to which people come to these places to be with other people,” Coward explained. Often, they work with friends or colleagues on homework or business together. Many of the venues provide productivity software – Microsoft Word or Power Point – that users can’t get anywhere else.

There’s also heavy use of social media, which isn’t frivolous or unimportant, Coward emphasizes. He says one line of thinking posits that “development aid shouldn’t be spent on public utilizes if people are using it for those purposes.” But respondents to the study cited social networks like Facebook as critically important to finding work.

“In South Africa, we followed a bunch of teenagers who had not only mobile phones, but mobile Internet,” Coward explains – a six-month “deep dive” on the question of whether smartphones make public Internet access obsolete.

The answer was a resounding no. “The teens were heavy public access users for whole other set of needs,” Coward says, including homework and research, writing documents, and uploading photos they’d taken with their phones. Mobile data rates are expensive, so “they were very savvy in optimizing their productivity and minimizing the amount of money they’d spend,” taking advantage of larger screens and greater bandwidth.

Some have reacted to the study with surprise that there’s still such high usage of public access venues. “The international development community has a tendency to jump on to the next big thing,” he says, “and for the last couple years it’s been mobile phones.”

There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but when it comes at the expense of things that are already working, we have to question some of the priorities.” Coward and his team plan to present the study’s findings to policymakers in Washington D.C. soon.

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Ansel Herz

Ansel Herz is a freelance multimedia journalist whose objective is to “go to where the silence is." His work has been published by ABC News, The Nation magazine, the New York Daily News, Al Jazeera English, Free Speech Radio News, Inter-Press News and many other publications. A Seattle native and survivor of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Ansel is producer of Humanosphere's podcast, among other things. You can contact him at ansel.herz[at]gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @Ansel.