In a world where checking your phone 96 times a day is the norm for some, it’s hard to imagine a life without the internet. With the integration of fiber broadband and researchers developing 6G technologysometimes the privilege of easy internet access blinds us to the reality that 37% of the world’s population (2.9 billion people) still does not have Internet access.
The Not-so-Global Web
Ask any technocrat about the internet, and they’ll tell you how associated it is with unlimited opportunities and the ability to connect with anyone across the globe. Unfortunately, countless studies have shown that low internet access hampers social mobility and access to opportunity. Internet access is an indicator of modern development, signaling that it is as much a virtual divide as a social one.
According to a recent UN report, only 57% of people in developing countries use the Internet compared to 90% of people in developed countries. In the 46 least developed countries, almost three-quarters of people have never been online.
With a population of 1.2 billion and a diverse range of 54 countries making up the continent, there is no single narrative that explains Africa’s lack of internet access (only 33% of Africans have internet access). In Latin America and the Caribbean, 32% of the population are without internet access.
In Asia, the contrast is striking. Tech powerhouses like China, Japan and India are beacons of innovation. However, across South Asia, 25% of people still lack internet access (including 1.1 billion people without access in India alone), thereby missing the essential innovation that shapes and defines the development of this region for the next generations to come.
We often take for granted what internet access does for us, but without it people are disconnected from basic services, education and even loved ones.
We had a conversation with a Dutch serial entrepreneur and founder of Talk360, Hans Osnabrugge, to discover how technology can help even those without connectivity and how to create tools that work for these users. Like a recent cohort of Rise program from Techleap.nlan exclusive accelerator for fast-growing Dutch scale-ups, the company is proving its potential to make a global impact.
Access for all: a long way to go
For Osnabrugge, simplifying connectivity is a goal he is passionate about. Since 2016, the CEO of Talk360 has worked tirelessly to make it easy for people to make international calls at affordable prices, even if the receiver doesn’t have internet access.
Beyond the telling tales of revolutionary internet access for all in Africa and India, Osnabrugge looks beyond the hype and fanfare by addressing the central problem: a lack of reliable connectivity – or any connection at all. As he tells The Next Web:
A 5G mast has smaller coverage than a 3G mast. Ensuring everyone in a town has coverage is one thing, but ensuring it reaches villages – which is already not done properly – is just too expensive. And it gets harder and harder.
Rural-urban inequalities are amplified by the lack of infrastructural support for people living in villages and towns far from the hubbub of city life. A lack of reliable power means those without the extra wealth to run a generator often find themselves without a reliable connection, even with internet access. This lack of investment in infrastructure in some parts of the developing world hampers investment in data centers, which reduces internet accessibility for people living in those areas.
While ensuring everyone has access to the internet is essential, it is clear that expanding coverage will not happen overnight. As new solutions and infrastructures are developed for the future, people need tools they can use to stay connected today.
Most of the solutions are already there. They are simply not accessible to everyone. [People] say, ‘Oh, they can download [the free apps] on their phone.’
But, to use them, both parties must have access to internet coverage and a smartphone.
And it’s not just access in rural areas that’s a problem. The digital divide is amplified in developing countries due to the disparity at each end of the socio-economic spectrum. In sprawling megacities, internet access is readily available to people in the upper echelons of society, but for city dwellers who may struggle to survive on a few dollars a day, internet access is not so easy, nor is it a priority in a daily life or death.
“Migrant communities especially in developing/emerging markets often have to deal with limited internet access because it’s unavailable, doesn’t work, or just plain too expensive,” Osnabrugge told TNW.
With Talk360, users can call any number around the world (even a landline) without racking up huge bills. This means, for example, that migrant workers who move to the city or even abroad can still call their relatives based in rural areas with poor connectivity.
Locate your product
Knowing who the Talk360 customer is and understanding their specific needs has helped Osnabrugge navigate this often overlooked area of innovation. To do this, Talk360 has notably recruited people from local communities into its team. These team members have been invaluable in the product development process by providing the information necessary to develop an accessible and affordable product for their users.
As Osnabrugge explained, when building for communities with little internet access, it’s essential to create a product that’s easy to use and not too tech-savvy. Forget the bells and whistles and focus more on creating a friendly user interface.
Language is another important consideration. If you are able to translate your product into local languages, it will help build both accessibility and trust.
It’s also important to remember that some of the payment options we take for granted today won’t always work for users with shaky, expensive, or absolutely no internet connectivity. You need to make sure the payment methods, currency, and prices actually work for your user.
Affordable denominations are key, so no $10 minimum when deploying a service in a township where $50 is the monthly salary.
Talk360 supports over 60 online payment methods, including vouchers purchasable at POS, mobile payments, wallets, debit and credit cards. Osnabrugge also sees potential for other payment methods in the future, saying:
The African payment culture is very diverse and dotted with cash, wallets, cards, crypto… you have 54 different currencies in Africa. Of course, crypto could be one of the best solutions.
Talk360 has also grown a network of 1.25 million resellers and will open its payment platform to more merchants this year, enabling other services to expand their reach across Africa and beyond. As the world moves online, that doesn’t mean connectivity has to stop for those who may not easily have the ability to use these tools.
Even if you have solved the conundrum of connectivity and considered how and where your users could access and pay for your services, building trust is one of the most important factors in getting users to adopt your tool. . As Osnabrugge explained:
Minimizing the lack of trust is essential to provide relevant solutions to these people. Trust is not easy, especially if your trust is too often broken and/or your community is neglected by business and government.