How mobile is slowly dominating the Internet

“They’re trying to catch the hotel’s WiFi signal,” a security guard explained, before shooing them off.

I was in Sierra Leone to speak at a conference on the future of media in Africa, at a time when legacy print media in other parts of the world was faltering as free online content eroded the huge profits they had enjoyed for decades.

I began by sharing a story about the people hanging around the hotel and how, in a few years, they’d have their own, affordable connections and would be consuming content on their phones.

Re-reading my presentation from that conference in early 2012, a few paragraphs leap out at me: “With the growth in the increasingly ubiquitous – and affordable – smartphone, this will be how more and more consumers connect to the Internet. In many parts of Africa today people are more likely to go online via a smartphone than using a desktop computer, and this is set to increase as mobile service providers increase investment to grow their GSM, Edge and 3G networks.”

This, I told delegates, presented opportunities for new revenue streams for African media. “The growth in mobile networks and connectivity available for an information hungry audience, the increased use of iPads and other tablet devices will also open up new opportunities for fleet footed publishers to grow beyond their traditional markets and medium,” I said in my presentation.

The flipside of this, I warned, was that those who failed to take cognisance of the coming mobile revolution and did not seek new and innovative ways of engaging readers as they consumed their news and other content online – especially via mobile – faced a real threat to their continued existence.

During a coffee break a local newspaper publisher approached me and suggested that I was being “alarmist” and that the future of print in Africa was safe and secure for years to come. “I won’t be throwing my hard-earned money away on a passing fad,” he told me blithely.

I really hope, for his sake, that he had a change of mind because everything I and others had warned of, has come to be – and then more so.

Three years on the mobile tsunami is dominating online traffic in the United States, as this Pew Reach Center 2015 State of the News Media report graphically illustrates. 

Highlights of the report include the fact that in the US 39 out of 50 of the top news sites get more traffic via mobile than from desktop.

Even more significantly, mobile advertising in the US grew from US$416m in 2009 to $19bn in 2014 – surpassing print advertising which has plummeted to $17bn since Google and other new online media ate their lunch while they napped and pretended it was “business as usual”.

“In 2014, $19bn was spent on mobile advertising, up 78 per cent from the $10.7bn spent in 2013,” the report reveals. “Even that huge increase is far less than increases of the past two years, which saw growth rates of more than 170 per cent and mobile ad spending now accounts for 37 per cent of all digital spending, up from 25 per cent last year.”

And while Africa has so far escaped the worst of the bloodletting that has occurred at American and European newspapers, it is only a matter of time before they will have to face up to the new realities of publishing in the 21st Century.

Arthur Goldstuck a South African journalist and commentator, who heads up WorldWideWorx, a leading tech research company, says: “Right now, across Africa, we’re seeing the most rapid migration yet from one communications technology to another, as the basic phone is left behind in favour of the smartphone. The high cost of data or poor performance of broadband – or both – is still hampering take-up of mobile services. However, once these structural and infrastructural challenges are resolved, we will see the wholesale transformation of other industries. 

“One of the first to be affected will be media, which will face both opportunity and challenge as the mass market begins to consume news, sport and other content on their mobile devices on a scale never seen before.”

The Ericsson Mobility Report in June last year forecast that by the end of 2014 there would be 635-million cell phones subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa, increasing to at least 930-million by the end of 2019.

“Digital technology is fast becoming a part of everyday life in sub-Saharan Africa,” the report says. “With a mobile penetration rate of 70 per cent at the end of 2013, sub-Saharan Africa is rapidly closing in on the global penetration rate of 92 per cent.”

More proof, if it is needed, that media should be pursuing a mobile strategy is the recent announcement by Google that it will now reward mobile-friendly websites – or, although not said directly, penalise those that aren’t.

The mobile culture is already firmly embedded on the southern tip of Africa as evidenced by the South Africa Mobile Report of March 2014, which surveyed uses of mobile and desktop users’ attitudes. It found that 92 per cent of the country’s Internet users owned a smartphone, and 80.2 per cent of them used their phones to access the Internet.

Once dependent on slow, expensive data pipelines from Europe and the US, faster and more accessible Internet access to countries across Africa is growing courtesy of the many undersea data pipelines being laid down the east and west coasts of the continent. These cables are helping to bring down the cost of connectivity and connecting Africa to the world like never before, opening exciting new opportunities for media.

African undersea cables ()

South Africa cable map ()

You do not need to be a rocket scientist to realise that the growth of smartphone ownership is an opportunity for African media, who can act using on the painful lessons learned in other parts of the world.

Or they can carry on as usual milking print for all it’s worth – and find there’s no chairs left to sit down on when the print party ends.

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