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The figure is calculated by studying customer figures from fixed-line Internet service providers (ISPs), and – though not 100% accurate – it is a reliable estimate of the reach of fixed, home web access.

Long time ago

Back when Internet access was primarily through dial-up connections, a time when firms like AOL were titans of the Internet and even MySpace was yet to arrive on the scene, Internet penetration was the ultimate indicator of access.

This was a time when ‘going online’ was not a regular part of life and certainly not the always-on experience of today. Back then, the rate clearly showed just how many households that were both digitally-minded enough to seek access to the World Wide Web, and suitably affluent to afford it.

The Internet today

In short, Internet penetration rate was a very minimal; however the online space of today has changed massively. Not only has AOL shifted its position, and is now the owner of a globally-influencing media empire, but the frequency of locations where and devices used to access the web have evolved way beyond the dial-up days.

These days while taking breakfast, one can grab his Smartphone, log into his personal email account and get to the web.

The potential of mobile

Fixed-line is just one of the many ways we access the Internet today, and if we are to analyse and look at the way  the nations use the web – as Internet penetration is used for – then other popular touch points and platforms must be included. The issue is more significant when stepping out of the western web, where connection to the Internet is pretty much ubiquitous amongst society.

In regions like Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, Internet access is less widespread for a number of reasons. Cost is one key factor, as fixed-line Internet requires hardware – such as PCs – which are often luxury items beyond the reach of many. There is a strong culture of pre-pay in many developing markets, particularly visible when looking at mobile. ISPs require long-term agreements which many are reluctant to engage.

Finally, those in remote areas suffer from lack of access to technology, if ISPs don’t have the necessary infrastructure in place they can only offer a slow service, if anything at all.

Mobile Internet offers the potential to hurdle many of these obstacles, however its usage is not recognised in reports or analysis which assesses national access through Internet penetration rates.

The future

Operators in developing markets are beginning to offer services at affordable prices through pre-pay deals. The infrastructure demands of mobile are far lower than a fixed-line, and in most regions – even in developing markets – mobile enjoys near widespread service, although speeds do vary.

All of this represents potential for increasing Internet access. Right now, though their ownership is increasing, smartphones remain a niche that is not affordable to all. Android is helping manufacturers develop lower-priced yet sophisticated devices .

In Uganda and Africa, for example, broadband is an alien concept to a great many in a region where mobile Internet-enabled smartphones remain unaffordable to the masses.

For the time being, Internet penetration rate is a reasonable representation of those that have personal web access – be it mobile or PC-based. However, with large scale initiatives to provide low-price tablet computers in a number of developing markets – such as India and Thailand – under way, and smartphone ownership tipped to grow thanks to low-cost devices like Huawei’s $100 IDEOS phone in Kenya, mobile is set to become a key platform to access the Internet. Given the rigidity of current indicators, such as Internet penetration rate, little of the access and activity from mobile will be adequately reflected.

Facebook in Uganda

A good example of the shortcomings of current research is how Internet access in Uganda is analyzed. Reports and research frequently compare the use of services – such as total registrations for Facebook – against a country’s Internet penetration rate.

The rate is used, alongside country population figures, to give an estimate of the number of citizens with access to the web, a statistic that is referred to as the Internet user number, or ‘online population’. With online population established, the number of users of a site – for example Facebook – can be compared to give an estimate of how popular it is in the country.

There is one important factor missing from this equatio. Ugandans, in particular, as passionate mobile social network users. For a great many Facebook users in Uganda, for example, just being on Facebook does not guarantee that they also have Internet access at home as the research assumes. Internet cafes are popular hang-outs in the country and it is likely – though this figure cannot be proven – that a great many users access the web from cafes, other public Internet access points and their mobile phone.

Analyze accurately

The real issue is that too many reports and analysis makes use of the wrong metrics. Analysing a nation’s usage of Facebook by comparing it to Internet penetration is an indicator, but it is no reliable, factual piece of data.

In reality, there is no silver bullet to measure Internet access. Instead there are a number of differing factors and measurements which together can help provide an indication of how and where people are going online.

As developing regions increase their presence online, with the benefits of the web spreading to more people in the world, the need for strong analysis and reliable use of data will only increase. With mobile poised to play a key role in providing access, it is time for  a new thinking and new measurements to track the huge opportunity that Internet access can bring to the world.