Mobile operators in emerging markets such as Brazil and South Africa are experiencing increased traffic and demand for free data as the coronavirus pandemic drives users online. That’s according to recent online search data from Upstream’s Zero-D, an ad-funded free mobile internet platform designed to keep users connected to the digital world even when they have run out of data.
Demand for free access to essential online services is highest in Brazil, with searches for “internet gratis” (free internet) surpassed only by searches for “Facebook” in the data from March 2020 to May 2020. In addition, Free Fire, a free online video game which took Brazil by storm in 2019, continues to dominate the entertainment category. Searches for “Free Fire” surpassed “Netflix” by more than 664 percent in Brazil, presenting mobile operators in the region with a unique challenge.
Demand for internet gratis is not unusual in Brazil. Prior to the pandemic, it accounted for an average of 38 percent of all online searches recorded by Zero-D. Following the outbreak, in the months from March to May, it jumped to 43 percent. Similarly, data from South Africa shows that the top trending online question before the outbreak of COVID-19 was “How to get free data?”. Following the outbreak, this question was surpassed only by “What is coronavirus?” and “When are schools opening?”, highlighting an increased interest in topics to do with health and the new reality of the pandemic.
This comes as mobile operators continue to play a critical role in keeping communities connected throughout emerging markets. However, as the pandemic and associated lockdown measures are impacting people’s income and their ability to physically top-up their mobile data credit, pressure is mounting on the industry to provide free or discounted means of accessing basic online services.
Kostas Kastanis, Deputy CEO at Upstream, has been a long-time advocate of the role that free data and services can play in helping emerging markets bridge the digital divide. On the subject of the pandemic effect, he said: “For hundreds of millions of people globally, topping up their mobile phone is not something they can physically do or afford to do when they run out of credit. This means they’re missing out on connectivity with all of the social and economic opportunities that come with it. During the pandemic this has become more evident with the internet becoming an essential vehicle for accessing critical information on public health.”
According to the data gathered by Upstream’s Zero-D, the primary reasons for seeking free internet access are education, general health information and news about the COVID-19 pandemic. In South Africa, interest in general health news saw a dramatic five-fold increase as the outbreak developed, jumping from just 5.2 percent between December 2019 and February 2020, to 28.6 percent by May 2020.
Similarly, the second highest trending question in Brazil during the months of March to May 2020 was “What are the symptoms of coronavirus?”, demonstrating a genuine need for information as the pandemic unfolded. Before the pandemic, 5.8 percent of news-related traffic in Brazil was health related. After the outbreak, Zero-D’s data saw that figure jump to 30 percent, making health the number one news category in the country.
Zero-D, Upstream’s ad-funded free mobile internet platform, is helping mobile operators bridge the digital divide in emerging markets by keeping users connected to the digital world even when they have run out of data. Zero-rated consumer portals such as Vodacom’s ConnectU in South Africa, which is powered by Zero-D, have proved an invaluable tool for mobile users, especially during these trying times, keeping them connected and offering them free access to a range of essential services such as job boards, educational resources, news pages, and many other useful resources. In effect, offering a seamless out-of-data digital experience for the operator’s customers and a sustainability platform in one.
Kastanis continues: “Connecting mobile users across emerging markets is as much a mission as it is a business for us. With our solution not only do we empower millions of consumers to remain connected to digital information, a crucial need that would not have been afforded to them otherwise, but we also provide the mobile operator with a new, democratic, open for all, sustainability platform that at the same time can enhance their bottom line with reduced churn and increased revenues”.