Mobile Communications

The Rise of SMS-Delivered Content in Egypt

Despite the blossoming African tech scene, the uptake of smartphones in the region has been comparatively slow. The vast majority of the region is not fortunate enough to own a device with internet capabilities – the latest data suggests that fewer than 16% of African users have access to the internet – whether this is via a mobile or traditional computer. Smartphone penetration, whilst steadily climbing, is estimated between only 17-19%, although this figure varies wildly from country to country depending on affluence.

Whilst price is undoubtedly a key element, the fact that newer methods of communication cannot be relied upon is also critical. Much of Africa currently lacks the infrastructure needed to support stable internet connectivity. Where the infrastructure for internet access via phones is in place, cellular network data can be costly and has patchy connections, only made worse by the reality of regular blackouts.

Notably, the majority of the African population prefer to be pushed information rather than have to seek it out for themselves; 57% prefer mobile content and information to be pushed to them, in comparison to 14% who would rather go and look for it. Smartphones have so far achieved only disparate success as the feature phone can satisfy this demand for a much lesser cost.

Unreliable access to the wealth of information that the internet can offer is not an option for people facing turbulent times. Whilst citizens all over the globe will appreciate the importance of free and reachable sources of news, those in the West may not have grasped the very real significance it bears to those living in the developing world. Day-to-day life for the ordinary user in many countries across Africa and the Middle East can be a challenge. In Africa, breaking news services transcend the value of purely keeping the recipient informed; instead they are becoming a way for the reader to stay alive.

In times of conflict, for instance, news alerts provide vital information such as where roadblocks are, where and when protests are taking place and how they might be escalating.  Whilst peaceful regions are more concerned with who scored the latest goal or got voted out of a TV talent competition, for those countries experiencing upheaval real-time news updates are far more consequential. For example, breaking news content in Arab Spring countries has a 52% share of total content in comparison to 7% in more stable countries, where entertainment information is more popular. This delivery of information goes far beyond keeping users abreast of the latest headlines, but is part of an essential survival tool kit, both physically and psychologically.

In Egypt, this ‘need to know’ has become more visible in recent years, and it is the humble feature phone that is trusted to deliver the news above other less reliable channels. Over an estimated 1,575,000 Egyptian subscribers are currently signed up to receive content such as breaking international story updates and local newscasts via SMS, in comparison to approximately 107,000 in January 2011 during the peak of Arab Spring – an increase of almost 1500%. It was in this month that widespread protests broke out across the country, culminating on the 25th when thousands gathered in Tahrir Sqaure in Cairo demanding the resignation of then President Hosni Mubarak. During the most recent political unrest alone, subscriptions increased by almost a fifth between May and July 2013, leaping from approximately 1,288,000 to over 1,570,000. As of July, TA Telecom, an SMS-based mobile services company, has 87 news alert services available to users, compared with 11 in January 2011.

Egyptians want, and in many cases need, to be the first to hear breaking stories as they happen, and the mobile phone provides the most reliable and convenient channel to receive such information. It is through these up-to-the-minute updates that users are achieving a sense of security and peace of mind that might otherwise be unattainable.

With the likes of tech giants such as Google, IBM and Microsoft piling into the region, it is easy for both local and international companies to overlook the actual level of technological advancement that currently exists in the region. Although the smartphone storm nears, it has yet to hit Africa with its full force. The feature phone remains vitally importance to Africans, and Egypt is a perfect example of this. To its citizens, the mobile phone is the most widespread, most ubiquitous and most trustworthy device available, making it the best medium to deliver news. Whilst the West may have forgotten the feature phone long ago, it is ingrained in Egyptian society as a genuine lifeline for its people in times of social unrest.


Amr Shady is CEO and co-founder of TA Telecom


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Amr Shady

Amr Shady is CEO and co-founder of TA Telecom

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