Public Access, Private Mobile

Walton, M., Donner, J., 2012. Public access, private mobile: The interplay of shared accessand the mobile Internet for teenagers in Cape Town. Global Impact Study Research Report Series. Cape Town: University of Cape Town
image credit to Langa Walking Tour

I was granted the amazing opportunity of being a research assistant on a project spearheaded by the University of Washington’s Global Impact Project.  The study was based around the gist of “If you have the internet in your pocket, why do you still visit a public access venue?” – a response to the recent surge of literature pertaining to a new generation of “mobile-centric” internet users. We sought to explore why people were still using/or not using public access venues such as telecenters, libraries and internet cafes, given that they had access to the internet in their pocket and what the interplay is amongst these different forms of access.

The study focuses on the use of older teenage PAV (Public Access Venue) users in low-income, resource-constrained areas of Cape Town. This is especially relevant as young people encounter “information-related challenges associated with this transitional point between school, tertiary studies, and a forbidding job market where only one in eight adults under 25 years finds formal employment (5).”

Firstly, the authors situate this study within a South African context. They look at differential access as a product of economic extremities. Although South Africa is considered to be a middle-income country, it is “comprised of rich communities and poorer communities sharing both overlapping and adjacent geographies, themselves undergoing dynamic processes of change, both through spatial migration and economic mobility” (13).  On a practical level, hardware is expensive due to import costs and scarcity of local manufacturers. Athough cell coverage is good, the expensiveness of data encourages “careful attention to a ‘running meter'” (Chetty, Banks, Brush, Donner & Grinter, 2011). South Africa is considered to be one of the most “mobile-centric” (Gitau et al, 2010) environments in the world with 50 million mobile subscriptions (100% penetration), and only 743,000 fixed broadband subscribers in 2010. Although it is unclear how many of these mobile subscriptions are data-enabled and data-ready, the vast amount of registered users (13 million) on “internet-lite” (13) application Mxit and urban-based market research (which suggest there may be 9 million unique users of GPRS data channel) indicate a considerable percentage.

Due to this considerably diverse experience of the mobile internet, the authors look toward Author Goldstuck’s description (2010) of a conceptual “range” of access. He defines three distinct modes of accessing the internet on one’s phone:

Tier 1 – the WAP internet, Tier 2 – The Mobile Application Internet, Tier 3 – the Mobile Web Browsing.

see Goldstuck, A. (2010) The mobile internet pinned down. Retrieved from

In this way, South African internet users are sometimes not even actually aware that they are using an application or tool that is “internet-based”. The authors therefore refer to the use of the internet by a South AFrican audience as perhaps an “evolving communication repertoire” (14) as opposed to a singular “standalone phenomenon”. Although internationally, we are seeing a movement towards increasingly convergent technologies, with single companies creating software that integrates and spans over a collection of devices, South Africans are using technologies in ways that not only complement other forms of screen-based activity, but also analogue activities.

For this reason, as the authors explore, public discourses surrounding ICTs as “good” and narratives about a “digital divide” ignore the very essence of how technology is brought into existence: through needs. Normative assumptions about what individuals need, ignore patterns of consumption and “distinctive identities and institutions shaping differences in disposition, practice and access.” (15)

For this reason the concept of “habitus” is increasingly important: it addresses needs and wants manifested and reproduced through “household, class, and social histories”(15). It makes complex the very pillars on which the “divide” is conceptualized and provides a way to think about  “the link between technology change and the perpetuation of inequality”, as Kvasny and Keil (2006: 23) essentialise:

“When people embrace these initiatives, they are full of enthusiasm, and there is no question that some learning occurs and that the programs are beneficial.  However, there is no mechanism for people to go to the next step, whether that is technical certification, going to college, buying a personal computer or escaping the poverty that put them on the losing end of the divide in the first place”

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