Mozilla-Backed Research Reveals Heavy Use of Subsidized Data in Rwanda

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Jochai Ben-Avie, Senior Global Policy Manager at Mozilla

Internet use and access in Rwanda has been exploding largely due to the Government of Rwanda’s Vision 2020 to enable Rwanda to leap-frog the key stages of industrialization and transform her agro-based economy into a service, information-rich and knowledge-based one that is globally competitive.

While internet penetration is relatively high, the diversity of content accessed by participants in this study is relatively low. This is of concern. Results of the research including the following findings:

According to a compelling Mozilla-backed research, carried out by Research ICT Africa, finds that significant barriers to internet access remains in four African countries – Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The research aimed to understand, from a comparative perspective, how the citizens use the internet when data is subsidised and when it is not.

For Rwanda’s case most participants only use a very limited number of websites and services, and make heavy use of subsidized data.

While the use of subsidized data services allows mobile network operators to retain a large number of subscribers that use the internet, an Airtel representative was quoted as saying the company is considering ending their current zero rating offers because the majority of users that are benefiting from zero rated services are no longer using other services, and therefore are not spending on data.

The types of bundles and packs from the three MNOs keep changing almost every week due to tough competition going on, and some promotion offers – including zero rated services – are not even publicized on the website to prevent competitors access to the information.

The majority of participants with mid or high income when asked how they would react if subsidized data was no longer available, responded that they may reduce the time spent on the internet, while participants with low incomes responded that they may stop using the internet.

Significant access barriers remain, especially in remote areas, including the cost of data as well as illiteracy and lack of understanding of foreign languages to manipulate devices and understand internet content.

“Rwanda has been a real leader in bringing people online, including through innovative models like internet connected buses and other public Wi-Fi efforts,” said Dr Alison Gillwald, Executive Director or Research ICT Africa. “The limited number of sites and services Rwandans use points to the need for the government and other stakeholders to consider issues beyond access that leave many Rwandans accessing just a small part of the internet.”

“While it’s inspiring to see the boom in internet access in Rwanda, many Rwandans are still stuck in the walled gardens of subsidized services and haven’t experienced the full diversity of the open internet,” said Jochai Ben-Avie, Mozilla’s Senior Global Policy Manager. “Rwanda is a fascinating testbed of different experiments in connecting the unconnected and we hope the Government of Rwanda and other stakeholders will focus on solutions like Equal Rating that seek to bring all of the internet to all people.”

The research sees opportunity and a greater outlook in the future of internet use for these countries. Infrastructural issues still need to be addressed in rural areas, in particular to increase quality of service, which would allow users to choose any operator offering the cheapest product. The intensity of use could be enhanced through redirecting universal services funds directed at access, often by subsidising the already planned roll out of services, towards supporting the rollout of public Wi-Fi points at all public facilities such as schools, clinics, libraries and police stations.

Other factors limiting the digital participation of the poor and unskilled, particularly women, will require policy interventions than extend way beyond digital policy to the much greater challenges of human development. Without interventions to redress broader social and economic inequality in society more the entry of more sophisticated services and devices will amplify digital inequality.

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