Internet penetration & smartphone ownership low, social media usage high in India

A recent study from Pew throws light on internet penetration and social media usage in developed and developing countries. As expected the growth of social media in developed countries has plateaued. The next wave of growth is going to be from emerging and developing countries.  India becomes very important for all internet companies outside India as only Indian has the mass user base they are looking for. When it comes to revenues in the digital space India is yet to catch up with its Western & China counterparts.

The report “Social Media Use Continues to Rise in Developing Countries but Plateaus Across Developed Ones” has compared many important metrics. The ones related to India have been summarized in this post.

The digital divide continues to narrow between wealthy and developing countries, and in India, this divide was narrowed because of Reliance Jio.

Good & Bad News: India’s Internet Penetration is at 25%, Global Average is 75%

India lags behind in internet penetration when compared to almost all countries shown on this map. A very harsh reality. But then this is also a great opportunity for all internet ventures in India as there is a lot of headroom for growth.

Map showing that internet penetration rates are high in North America, Europe and parts of the Asia-Pacific.

What can be done in India to increase internet penetration to 50-60%? Wired broadband is very capex intensive, return on this investment can be very slow (if at all). Also wired broadband doesn’t help the majority of India as most Indians use their mobile handset as the primary device to access the internet.

Feature phone, not Smartphone rules India

In 2017 the ownership of mobile phones in India was categorized as follows,

  • Smartphones: 22%
  • Feature phone: 51%
  • No mobile phone: 26%

The question is – can many more Indians afford smartphones but are not buying them as they don’t think the internet has much to offer them much? In 2015, a mere 9% in India were using landlines.

While we would like to see a huge rise in the ownership of smartphones, we cannot ignore the problem of e-waste which is hurting the environment. Reports say 40%66% of people want to change their handsets every 12 months.

For this report of Pew, participants from India were asked if they owned “iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows phone, Samsung smartphone, or Micromax“.

Map showing that smartphones are common in Europe and North America, while sub-Saharan Africa and India lag in ownership.

More than 90% of Smartphone Users in India Use Facebook or Twitter

Even though the internet penetration & smartphone ownership is low in India, it appears a majority of smartphone owners are addicted to Facebook and/or Twitter in India. Spending time on social networks is fine but it shouldn’t be the majority of the time. And now Whatsapp has become the killer app in India.

Map showing that social media is very popular in the Middle East and North America, but far from ubiquitous in Europe.

Conclusion From This Report – What India Really Needs

To summarize, in 2017 the percentage of adults in India who,

  • Use internet: 25%
  • Own a smartphone: 22%
  • Use social media (Facebook, Twitter): 20%
% of Adults in India20132014201520162017
Internet Use1620222125
Smartphone Ownership1214171822
Social Media Use813141420

There has been an impressive jump in internet penetration and smartphone ownership in 2016 and 2017. This can be attributed to the aggressive marketing from Reliance Jio, which forced other telcos too to introduce attractive deals. Not sure why the internet users decreased in 2016 from 2015, may be during that period Jio moved from free to pay?

There is a direct growth in social media usage with the growth of smartphone ownership. This table shows that over 90% of smartphone owners use Facebook or Twitter in India. Wonder what this metric would be if Pew had included Whatsapp in the survey!

Internet usage in India has to increase, but I would like to see the increase in non-social network areas – financial inclusion, agriculture, health, education, high-quality news.

Most of the content & services (ecom) in these verticals are available only in English, or at most in just one Indian language, Hindi. Several reports say the next 300-400 million users will be non-English speaking but is Digital India ready to welcome them?

A minority of present internet ventures in India have implemented Indic, they speak about it in conferences but it ends there. They haven’t realized what they are missing – a large customer base which is far bigger than their present customer base.


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