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Are data cost fears weakening SA`s mobile Internet penetration?

Mobile Internet usage in the US has risen a great deal, according to findings by ABI Research, with 28% of mobile phone users accessing the Internet at least once a day.

A recent World Wide Worx study found SA`s mobile Internet usage is also growing rapidly. The study, backed by FNB, found almost two-thirds of urban cellphone users have Internet-enabled phones.

However, of these users, less than half use this capability.

Cost confusion

Mark Strathmore, business-to-business manager for Nokia SA, says one of the reasons for this may be that "people completely misunderstand how much data certain activities take", and many still fear the high data costs. "Data costs are only coming down to reasonable rates now."

Tim Walter, GM for product and marketing at Nashua Mobile, agrees the issue is one of education. "Because it`s very difficult to judge on a browsing session how much data you`re consuming, people are slightly wary of it."

A study in the US by the Federal Communications Commission has found roughly 30 million Americans have experienced "bill shock", or unexpectedly high 3G data bills from their cellphone carriers.

Pieter de Villiers, CEO of Clickatell, says another reason for the low Internet usage may be "many people who have a smartphone may have received it as a gift or hand-me-down from a friend or relative, and simply cannot afford the data bundles the mobile operators offer. Mobile Internet usage in South Africa is still relatively expensive."

Chris Moseley, Acer`s consumer and telco sales manager - Africa and Levant, says users could be put off by a practical aspect. "The small screen size and keyboard of a smartphone means the user experience isn`t as good as it is on a mobile computer. Many users are also intimidated by, or unaware of, the full set of features their smartphones offer."

This begs the question, why own a Web-enabled phone in the first place?

Strathmore says often, people buy for the style and status of the product, and to eliminate "range anxiety. That`s a term that`s been coined by the electric car industry, to describe the anxiety that people have when they buy a car that can only drive, say, 200 miles on a charge and yet their journey to work is only 10 miles." For the same reason, people buy phones with myriad features that they don`t necessarily need.

De Villiers says: "Most handset companies produce more Web-enabled/smartphone models today than basic non-Internet phones; thus it is very likely that if you buy a phone today, even if it is just for voice and SMS use, it will have Web capabilities. There is therefore no direct correlation to the Internet-enabled handset penetration and the consumers` ability to afford mobile Internet access."

APPS, perhaps?

Using Internet-connected applications does not officially constitute mobile Web browsing, according to the World Wide Worx study, which excludes users from being in the mobile browser statistics.

Moseley says: "Many users enjoy the convenience of accessing social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter from their mobile phones. Personal information management (e-mail and calendaring) has also emerged as a killer app for the smartphone - many people feel they can no longer live without it."

Walter says two moments stood out for him at the recent Mobile World Congress: "When Eric Schmidt from Google was speaking, he singled out SA as one of the countries where the number of searches being done on Google via mobile phones is a significant percentage of the total searches within that territory. From that perspective, although our penetration isn`t that high, I think that it might be comparable, if not better, than some other parts of the world."

The other moment, he explained, was from a senior executive at Facebook, who said, regarding mobile adoption of Facebook within SA, on a per Facebook user basis, "we`re one of the leading territories who actually access Facebook via the mobile phone".

ComScore, in the US, has found social networking is the fastest-growing mobile content being accessed via applications, with a 240% change from April 2009 to April 2010.

Mobile internet

"I think Internet access within the country is still an issue. The number of people who have got access to Internet via PC or laptop is still far too low in this country, and because of that we`re seeing a lot of movement towards mobility where people`s primary access to the Internet is via their cellphone," says Walter.

Moseley believes mobile Internet usage is booming in South Africa. "Cellular data prices continue to fall steeply, network coverage is good and WiFi hotspots are proliferating around South Africa."

He also says many users are taking network access for granted when they`re out on the road with their netbooks, notebooks and phones. "We`re expecting growth to soar as prices continue to decline. Though there`s some overlap between the fixed-line and mobile broadband Internet base, far more South Africans are now accessing the Internet through a cellular connection than through an ADSL line."

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