Net Neutrality In Afrika Was Dead Long Before It Was Born

When I used to work at an Internet cafe in during vacation before joining university back in 2006, the Internet landscape in a small suburb outside Kampala city looked a lot different than it does today. I worked primarily as a teller and a customer support agent helping walk-in clients navigate the Internet which mainly constituted Yahoo mail, Google search and New vision or Monitor which are Uganda’s local dailies.

When I passed by the same area during the first week of July 2017, the Internet cafe had closed. Mobile had officially eaten the Afrikan continent.

Now, instead of people walking miles to an Internet cafe to search for information or send emails, they can do the same right from the palm of their hands. The mobile revolution was sweeping the continent and MTN with its famous “Everywhere you go” slogan was extending 3G mobile network coverage across every corner of Uganda.

A decade ago, the mobile networks dominated the digital space in Afrika. MTN Uganda had this “MTN WAP Page” which ideally was a gateway to the mobile Internet. This mobile web portal had all kinds of content: games, apps, music, wallpapers, etc. which the telco hoped would supplement their revenue streams. The browsing experience though felt really clumsy.

Smartphone Revolution

Then the smartphone revolution happened.

The Apple iPhone changed everything in 2007. The smartphone opened up a completely new way for us not only to experience digital content but also to connect with each other. The smartphone gave the internet a new face -- the mobile internet -- which made it even more accessible especially in Africa where desktop computers were still alien to many people.

"When I passed by the same area during the first week of July 2017, the Internet cafe had closed. Mobile had officially eaten the Afrikan continent."

The telcos quickly tore down their own walled gardens and embraced new ones. The Facebook empire was also on the horizon.

These new walled gardens seemed to be more lucrative now that the networks were losing revenue due to dwindling voice and SMS revenue. By this time, Silicon Valley giants were gaining mainstream attention while African-brewed social networks such as Mxit were slowly losing market share to powerful newcomers.

Simultaneously, feature phones were still prevalent in most countries in Afrika and the mobile networks were still running on 2G/EDGE. Facebook worked with phone vendors to pre-install their mobile Java application on the mobile handsets they sold.

Dubbed “Facebook for Every Phone” this native app worked on more than 3,000 different types of feature phones that cost about $20 from almost every handset manufacturer that still exists today.

This seemed to be quite popular with mobile users. By 2013, Facebook had announced that it had reached a remarkable milestone of more than 100 million people using Facebook For Every Phone each month.

Facebook for Every Phone Java App
Facebook For Every Phone.

On the mobile web, the social network giant in May 2010 worked with telcos to roll out Facebook Zero, a zero-rated purely-text-driven version of Facebook designed for slow networks and low-end handsets. This version of Facebook was and still is accessed for free at 0.facebook.com which surprisingly is still available on some mobile networks across the continent.

Today, of its 2 billion users, Facebook has almost 200 million users in Afrika. That’s about the population of Nigeria - Afrika’s most populous country - and Ghana combined. This is despite Facebook’s ill-fated internet.org / Free Basics offering, an “open platform” that provides select services and websites for free. The service was limited to those developers and companies that had partnered with Facebook. Some telcos welcomed the idea, for instance, Airtel Africa announced that they would be bringing Free Basics services to all 17 countries where they operate.

Facebook Empire

Mobile networks have since abandoned their own digital roadmaps to embrace the Facebook empire. In Uganda (and other countries on the continent), telcos have created Internet plans that give users access to specific social media networks. Dubbed “social bundles” or “WTF”, short for Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook, these mobile Internet plans have proved to be immensely popular especially among the young cash-strapped population.

Airtel Uganda WTF Plan

The consequence is that a whole generation is now growing up believing that the internet is Facebook. Blogs and web forums that dominated the web 2.0 internet have now been replaced by what Zuckerberg called a “social utility”. Content publishers and developers are now being forced to play inside Facebook’s ecosystem if they wish to reach their users.

The Consequences

I talked to a developer who told me he was developing a Facebook chat bot instead of a native Android app because once he sent his friends a link to the Google Play store to download his app, it wouldn’t open since they were subscribed to one of the social bundles. Similarly, content publishers are now forced to adopt Facebook instant articles because users have become wary of clicking on links that take them out of the main Facebook app.

To connect the next billion, Facebook started connectivity labs with the intention of bringing, even more, users who are currently offline onto its platform.

Facebook, it seems. wants to bypass mobile telcos to deliver access to the last mile - a strategy that will enable it to control almost the entire value chain. The social network is already running Wi-Fi networks in Nigeria and Kenya and has signed a deal to construct a fiber network in North Western parts of Uganda.

With Facebook running the data pipes itself, net neutrality will be a complete myth in Afrika if it isn’t already.

Cover Image Credit: Wikimedia COmmons

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