Are Asia’s poor on the Internet without even knowing it?

Posted on March 23, 2011  /  2 Comments

Evidence from LIRNEasia’s Teleuse@BOP3 survey of mobile use at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) suggests that by late 2008, 78 percent of BOP mobile owners in the study countries were using the functions of the Internet through their mobiles; nearly one third of them have never even heard of the Internet.

For the last three years, LIRNEasia has been arguing the case that many people in developing markets will have (if they already haven’t had) their first “Internet experience” through a mobile. Most of our 2008-2010 research program was based on this premise. It seems that the general discourse in the mobile research field is converging on this point, as evidence of growing mobile Internet use in these markets emerges.

In addition to this, LIRNEasia’s argument (which in fact CEO & Chair Rohan Samarajiva has been making from as early as 1999: written up in Samarajiva, R. & V. Shetty (2009), Net access for village peoples, Communications International, November: 68-70.) goes one step further.  We don’t mean that people in these markets will be opening up their mobile Web browser, typing in urls and surfing the mobile Internet. We argue that that the “Internet” should be considered as a meta-medium, which allows users to perform various functions that we usually consider to make up the “conventional” Internet experience. In the most simplistic form, these functions include:

  • Communication in multiple forms, synchronous/asynchronous, one-to-one/one-to-many, etc.
  • Information retrieval including search
  • Publication
  • Transactions (including payments)
  • Remote computing, and
  • Gaming (interactive) and participation in media competitions and programs

(See also for example,,,

After a recent conversation with Jonathan Donner  in Sohna, who seems to be thinking along similar lines,  I decided to look at our Teleuse@BOP3 survey respondents, and compare numbers – who says they’re on the Internet versus who really is (in light of the meta-medium conception of the Internet, using broad definitions of the individual functions). The results are shown in the graph above.

Nine percent of BOP mobile owners surveyed said that they had used the Internet when asked directly. But, when the (broad) meta-medium approach is considered, 78 percent of BOP mobile owners surveyed (almost nine times as many!) are actually using the Internet. That is, 78 percent of BOP mobile owners surveyed had used their mobile for at least one of the six functions listed above (excluding communication via voice calls and SMS).

Most of these meta-medium-Internet users already know what the Internet is (72%), but a considerable number (28%) have never heard of the Internet (graph above).

The functions that BOP mobile owners used the most were transactions (driven up by the inclusion of electronic re-loading of prepaid balances), with remote computing (driven up by prepaid balance checking) coming in second (graph above).

The survey data was collected in late 2008, so we expect the picture to look very different in the next round of surveys (just about to commence).














  1. People at the Bottom of Thailand’s Pyramid have been rather unfortunate, to say the least. Launching of 3G here has delayed and delayed and delayed and on and on for a variety of bureaucratic reasons. At the tip of the Pyramid, the urban rich have been using Blackberries for their mobile data communication. Blackbarries, of course, price themselves out of reach for those at the BOP. Meanwhile, media and all shades of NGOs here scrutinize every single move the telecom regulator to minute details to spot any possible tinge of corruption. The BOP being robbed of the opportunities to use low-cost data communication seems not to concern them.

  2. I think the author should have excluded the electronic recharging of the mobile phone credit.The internet may be the medium used, but users don’t realise it and it is a necessary action for the use of the device therefore it is not the user connecting out of choice.
    It happens to account for vast majority of the “78%”.