By Ayee Macaraig
“Asia will become the largest market for some of the biggest social media campaigns in the world.”
Business and technology industry leaders hailed the potential of Internet use in Asia, citing the uptake of social media in the continent.
The recently concluded United Nations’ 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held here drew global focus to Asia and Southeast Asia in particular, with delegates citing improved Internet penetration but also the need to address the digital divide and to provide access to rural and poor areas.
A workshop by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) noted that Asia and Africa lag behind more economically developed regions like North America and Western Europe in Internet penetration. APC said the divide is wider for disadvantaged groups like women, oppressed cultural groups, and people living in remote small island nations.
Delegates talked about the developments and challenges for Internet use in Asia, the largest and most populous continent. Internet technology company comScore has said that over 40% of global Internet users are now based in the Asia Pacific.
Here are the top 3 trends they highlighted:
1. Mobile Internet will be big
The focus in Asia in the next 3 years will be access, with a boom in mobile Internet.
Virat Bhatia of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) said smartphone use will continue to rise, with its cost far below that for fixed personal computers. Bhatia is a member of ICC BASIS, a group of companies and business associations from different sectors operating in developed and developing nations.
“We believe that 70% to 80%, if not more, of the new Internet users who will come online will do it on mobile Internet. Therefore, the cost of mobile devices, smartphones, higher quality bandwidth, spectrum will be key. It also requires a tax structure so that mobile devices can be put in more hands at lower price,” he told Rappler.
Bhatia said in countries like India, the digital divide has been “addressed significantly.” He said from having just one fixed line phone per 100 people in 1995, the country now has 40 phones for every 100 people due to large-scale investments.
Yet at a workshop titled “Internet universal affordable access: Are we there yet,” panelists said cost remains a huge hindrance to access in Asia and Africa. They cited the target set by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development of the International Telecommunications Union and UNESCO.
“Internet access should cost about or ideally less than 5% of annual [gross national] income. In Africa, it’s about 40% to 50% of annual income,” said APC’s Mike Jensen.
Beyond mobile Internet, technological innovation will help bring down the cost of access, panelists said.
Jennifer Haroon of Google’s Access Strategy and Operations discussed the company’s projects aimed at getting more people online.
“We look at new technologies: TV white space, Project Loon, where we deliver access through high-altitude balloons. We gave a grant to researchers in Stanford and Berkeley to develop network technology designs so we hope some of these new technologies will one day became alternative ways to access the Internet, not just through your mobile operator,” she said.
2. Social media a top activity
Delegates gave special attention to social media use in Asia. In China and India, 50% of Internet users are on social media.
“That is a tremendous number, meaning people are using it to communicate but also exchange some high-quality information. It’s the media being used by politicians to send out messages and by news editors to post stories. We expect this trend to grow. Asia will become the largest market for some of the biggest social media campaigns in the world,” said Bhatia.
Social networking also captures majority of screen time in Southeast Asia, according to comScore. Yet while more people express themselves on social media, many governments are also cracking down.
Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, observed a negative trend in the region: a move toward more repressive policies.
“We have seen the enactment of legislation that includes more criminal defamation, and also a lot more content regulation. So instead of actually moving forward, it’s moving back,” Venkiteswaran said.
3. The youth and localizing access
Industry leaders said the youth will be a major player in the future of Asian cyberspace.
“The speed at which the older generation would take on a new app on their phone would be much slower than a 14-year-old, so value-added services, apps is another area that will expand,” Bhatia said.
Bhatia said aside from the youth, people in rural areas and the underprivileged will benefit greatly from Internet access.
“If we wait to build hospitals and schools for all the population in Asia and Africa, we will have to wait another 20 years. ICTs provide this amazing opportunity to leapfrog the brick-and-mortar world to use e-learning, e-health, e-banking. It’s one of the most potent tools to take people out of stark poverty,” he added.
For Minoru TR Mori of iSolutions Micronesia, stakeholders must go beyond providing access to adapting Internet use to the local context to make communities see the value of technology in their daily life.
He said in an island in Micronesia, there is no money or banking but the community’s use of Skype turned out to be a revelation.
“We volunteered to rebuild a classroom, turn it into a computer lab. On our last day, we decided to demonstrate Skype. We fired up Skype and started calling around the world, contacting their relatives. Almost everybody was there, all the elders, the chiefs. Every time we connect, the community cheered and singed for us. It was really amazing,” he said.
“We expected them to be disconnected after 3 months, but guess what, they told their relatives off island to pay for it!”