Digital Access Matters: The Benefits of Bringing High-Speed Internet To Low-Income Communities During COVID-19
Editor’s note: This article is part of NextBillion’s series “Enterprise in the Time of Coronavirus,” which explores how the business and development sectors are responding to the pandemic. For news updates and analysis, virtual events, and links to useful resources related to the COVID-19 crisis, check out our coronavirus resource page.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a seismic shift in behaviour. And it’s not just due to government-imposed changes, such as social distancing and wearing a mask. People have largely adapted to the “stay at home when you can” situation: ordering food online, grocery shopping through e-commerce, working from home, video conferencing, you name it. But these measures are easier for some than others.
Living in densely-populated urban areas, like the low-income Kenyan neighborhoods Kibera or Kawangware, usually means there is not much “social distancing” one can practice – and self-quarantining away from other members of a household is even less realistic. Many jobs just don’t allow for working from home, especially in the “kadogo” economy (i.e.: the informal sector), where people have to go out and make their daily income to put food on the table. Some of these workers are informally contracted day laborers, who are usually the first ones to be let go if the demand for labor dries up. Others are micro-entrepreneurs, selling tea, snacks, and small household necessities along the roadside: Once local professionals start working from home, they no longer pass by, eliminating these vital revenue streams for many entrepreneurs. The economic hardship that results from these changes may cause more damage than the pandemic itself. But fortunately, solutions exist that are enabling more and more people in low-income communities to adopt a work-from-home lifestyle – and the repercussions of this trend are likely to outlast the pandemic.
The Challenges of Working from Home Without High-Speed Internet
Until Poa Internet started serving these communities a couple of years ago, living in these areas meant that working from home was near impossible, even for those with online or formal economy jobs. By and large, these neighbourhoods have been left behind by other formal internet service providers because of the challenges associated with serving them, including high cost of service and lower revenue opportunity. Without reliable home internet connectivity, there are few work-from-home options for residents.
Imagine you have an online job, for instance with companies that operate in the digital employment space in these markets, like Digital Divide Data, Samasource or CloudFactory. Normally, you would go to their central locations – production centers that host hundreds of digital workers. There, you would have your workstation and high-speed internet – which would be a necessity, as the different activities you’d complete might involve digital imaging and other data-heavy applications which could easily consume 2 GB per day.
In the wake of the pandemic, ideally you wouldn’t want to go to these hubs, as that would expose you to a greater risk of infection – in public transportation, in the office, everywhere. However, without access to high-speed home internet (other than through mobile data bundles, which would imply high data costs and require a mobile device that supports tethering to enable access on a computer), your options would be limited. Regardless of whether you or your employer pays, 2 GB a day adds up quite fast.
Poa Internet is providing affordable high-speed internet in these underserved communities. We have seen pent-up demand in both the uptake of new customers, as well as the usage of existing customers. Usage has increased by 50% since the announcement of the first case of COVID-19 here in Kenya in mid-March.
It is no surprise that staying at home has caused an increase in demand. With schools closed, parents need ways to educate and entertain their children. And with many jobs threatened in both the formal and informal economy, people are turning to the internet to create their own e-commerce businesses, and generate other online work and income-generating opportunities. Many new customers who have joined since the government introduced stay-at-home directives have done so as a result of their employers encouraging working from home. In some cases, the employers themselves have reached out to us to facilitate the process, with some seeking corporate partnerships to pay in bulk for their employees’ home internet.
Understanding Newly Connected Internet Users
Prior to COVID-19, Poa, in conjunction with a user-centered design studio, Picture Impact, conducted customer research to understand how our most consistently paying segment – and thus most frequently connected customers – use the internet. These customers are early adopters of home WiFi, and tend to be future-oriented, entrepreneurial and technically savvy. They use the internet in a variety of ways to add significant value to their lives, and can clearly see the opportunities home WiFi opens up to them. Many consider home internet a basic need. Learnings from this research give us a glimpse into how internet access is helping individuals to be more socially, economically and educationally resilient during this crisis.
Looking into these findings, customers most commonly reported using the internet for activities that help them connect to others, such as e-mail, WhatsApp and social media. In many cases, social media was one of the first exposure experiences customers had to the internet. But while connection certainly has a social element to it, it also helps customers further their goals. For example, many customers described how social media and internet communication allow them to advertise their services, communicate with their clients and build their networks. They cited connection via the internet as a crucial component of their ability to expand their businesses and achieve their goals.
Beyond these connections, customers reported using the internet for entertainment, doing work and reading. This second tier of usage is likely the factor that drives customers to sign up for home WiFi, as these activities bring value to their lives. One customer explained that he stopped buying newspapers and magazines and now reads news online, which has allowed him to access international news sources. Another detailed how the internet helps him research international suppliers for his business, and compare the cost of goods and import fees. Some customers referred to the internet as the “global village” – a place where people can access trends, ideas and resources from around the world to empower success in their own communities. Others described prioritizing the internet over strictly entertainment-focused services (e.g. satellite TV), as it provides value beyond entertainment, including knowledge and income-generating opportunities.
Finally, many customers described using the internet to maximize other types of value in their lives, beyond entertainment, work and reading. They reported using internet access for formal education, learning new skills and personal improvement. One customer, an elevator repairman, explained that he watches YouTube tutorials to learn how to do phone and computer repairs. This personal learning has allowed him to generate an additional income stream by troubleshooting friends’ technical problems, earning him a reputation as the neighbourhood “genius.” Another customer learned tailoring online, and has started a tailoring business as a result. She watches “do it yourself” videos to learn new techniques, and dreams of improving her design skills and expanding her business to specialise in wedding gowns. This amplification of value suggests that once the access bridge is crossed, customers obtain increasingly greater value from home internet.
In the wake of COVID-19, we expect these value-maximizing and income-generating online activities to help customers ride out the storm – and to continue delivering benefits after the crisis has ended. Now more than ever, we must work towards digital inclusion. The opportunity gap is widening between those who have access to the internet and those who do not. Therefore, we at Poa are committed to increasing internet access for the underserved and unconnected. As one customer put it, “our lives literally depend on the internet.”
Photo courtesy of Hello Lightbulb.