I read this article on TechCentral this morning (thanks for summing it up Duncan) and had some assumptions that I made and communicated to an overseas company reaffirmed.

The power of mobile technology and more specifically mobile Internet technology is the only answer to bring online services to the masses in South Africa. I’m definitely not the first person to make this revelation and there are a number of local organisations that are pioneering mobile technologies to deliver services to people that don’t have access to the Internet from a computer.

Less than 10% of our population has access to the Internet at home. I don’t see this changing much over the next five to ten years either. The barriers in place for a man in street to get access the Internet from home are almost insurmountable. Firstly he would need electricity at home, a luxury that a large percentage of our population does not have. He would need a computer (in whatever form), a telephone line (OK, there are other options to having a telephone line, but 3G usage rates are still way to high for them to be a feasible option), some kind of modem and an account with some form of ISP. No mean feat for someone that may earn less than R2,000 a month.

The problem that the man in street faces today is that the cellphone in his (or her) pocket is probably not a smartphone. The small screen and limited browser capabilities on his device limit his ability to view content and interact with online services. More expesive mobile devices (smartphones) solve this problem, so the question is, “When will the smartphone of today be the dumbphone of tomorrow ?”. At the rate that mobile technology is progressing, probably not that long. These advancements are what will make the Internet truly accessible to the South African public.

Imagine the possibilities that exist once everyone has a phone that can render a web 2.0 site. Accessing (well designed) government websites that provide you with valuable information, allowing you to see your rates account, paying your new vehicle registration, booking your drivers license, applying for a new ID book, etc etc. There are obviously some other challenges around security and verification, but at least part of the process can be online instead of waiting in the same queue three times before being able to get your drivers license renewed.

In the meantime I hope companies like Google continue to develop SMS based services that enable people in Uganda to benefit from online services with their dumbphones.

Cellphone users to hit 4,6bn this year: “The world will have 4,6bn mobile phone users by the end of the year, according to new research from the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU). At the same time, mobile broadband subscriptions are expected to reach 600m.
According to the ITU’s ‘The World in 2009: ICT Facts and Figures’ shows there are now more mobile […]

(Via TechCentral.)