How to drive mobile data adoption for new smartphone users in the developing world

Widespread smartphone penetration in developing countries has been on the rise whatever the country or the operator. Consequently, a fierce battle has started between smartphone manufacturers to commercialize low-cost handsets; for example, Android announced in H2 2014 its Android One Initiative, then Mozilla announced its intention to launch a $33 Firefox OS 2G-only mobile phone to address the Indian mobile market specifically.

But, it’s important we remember that owning a smartphone does not necessarily mean you people use mobile data services. Ask any developing world mobile network operator’s Head of Data the following question: “Out of 100 people owning a smartphone, how many use data services regularly?” …. You’ll often get an embarrassed, evasive -if not wrong- answer. Simply because it’s one of the taboos of the mobile industry. It’s rare that operators admit the reality publicly. Smart Philippines did, and revealed that only 25% of their smartphone owners use data services. As a result, you wouldn’t be wrong in guessing that, in the developing world, only 20 to 25% of smartphones or data-enabled phones owners do use their mobiles for internet access. So, engaging people on smartphone data services is clearly a big frontier for our industry.

The first reason for this low data mobile usage often starts with pricey data, perceived as a barrier to Internet access in developing countries. Ongoing competition between carriers should solve this issue.

Another reason is user behavior: people who’ve owned a basic phone for years -and are moving to an inexpensive mobile data phone – are not fully aware of how to use a handset browser, or how to make the most of smartphone apps.

Put differently, operators have to deal with offering Value Added Services on new devices that are in-line with users’ habits of using services on basic phones, i.e. text-only and black & white. But with the intention of migrating them to mobile data.

So, how can we address these two requirements (getting more data users while educating them to data services)? Is there a way to kill two birds with one stone? Operators have widely adopted collaboration schemes with OTT giants. You won’t find a single carrier that has not launched a WhatsApp or FB special offer yet. At Gemalto, we brought our contribution  to that challenge by designing Facebook for SIM. On one hand, it provides a mobile interactive text version of Facebook that works on any handset – and on the other hand, it helps to increase the data usage of the Internet-enabled phones.

The results speak by themselves: out of 100 people successfully creating their Facebook account from this SMS-based app, 22% migrated to mobile data after only 30 days – thanks to a built-in mechanism helping users get more familiar with the handset’s browser. Surprisingly, this figure goes up to 100% for users with 20 friends or more in the Facebook community!

The Chinese philosopher Laozi used to say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The transition to mobile data for everyone across developing countries is a long journey, but significant first steps are being made.

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