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Zero-rating failing to bring Africa online

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In a survey of how citizens of South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria use the internet when data is subsidised, no respondents said they came online through zero rating. Instead, zero rated services are used as one of many price control strategies.

The Mozilla-backed research, carried out by Research ICT Africa, found that significant barriers to internet access prevail in South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria.

This echoed research released two weeks ago by World Wide Worx, which showed in the Internet Access in South Africa 2017 report that affordability was a key obstacle in the way of Internet access for a large proportion of the population.

Research ICT Africa also found:

  • Various mobile data bundles (which are partially subsidized) tend to be more popular than zero rated offerings
  • In rural areas, the extent of internet use is limited by the sources of electricity to charge mobile phones, which need to be taken to different charging points, often overnight.
  • Digital skills and illiteracy greatly affect non-users as well – even those who have smart devices – limiting their internet use.
  • Being online, in particular on social media is perceived, in some cases, as interfering with users’ relationships.

“Moving beyond access challenges requires a rights-based approach to deal with barriers such as online privacy and security,” said Dr Alison Gillwald, Executive Director of Research ICT Africa. “The possibilities of achieving this in a context where offline rights to resources as basic as electricity do not exist is one of the biggest hurdles for users in South Africa.

“South Africans, instead of depend on or using zero rated data, are using subsidized services as one of many sophisticated cost-savings strategies,” said Jochai Ben-Avie, Senior Global Policy Manager at Mozilla. But there is a need to connect the unconnected and the focus should be more on barriers like electricity, digital literacy, competition, and gender power relations.

The research also showed:

  • Uptake of zero rating varied across the four countries. Awareness was low and scepticism of free services was high in Nigeria, whereas in Rwanda bundles with unlimited WhatsApp and Facebook were very popular. In Kenya and South Africa, the zero-rated services were welcomed for their cost-reducing nature.
  • There was substantial interest and uptake in Equal Rating-compliant, partially subsidized data bundles that provide access to the entire internet not just some parts of it (e.g., Cell C’s offering of 250MB between 1 am and 7 am for R6 in South Africa or an MTN bundle in Rwanda for Rwf 800 (USD 0.96) that provide 24 hours unlimited data).
  • Poor network quality and coverage limited the consumption of subsidised data since some respondents, especially in rural areas of Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, reported that telcos with those offerings did not have coverage in their area. Indeed, many of these users only have access via the most expensive operator in that country.
  • Women face additional barriers to internet use, including concern of being exposed to inappropriate content online and its consequences in their intimate relationships and family responsibilities.

“More must be done to connect the unconnected,” says Ben-Avie. “This research makes clear that it’s critical we all focus more on barriers like healthy competition outside urban areas, electricity, digital literacy, and gender power relations.”

The research sees opportunity and a greater outlook in the future of internet use for these countries. Again echoing the World Wide Worx research, the study found that Infrastructural issues still need to be addressed in rural areas, in particular to increase quality of service, which would allow users to choose any operator offering the cheapest product. The intensity of use could be enhanced through redirecting universal services funds directed at access, often by subsidising the already planned roll out of services, towards supporting the rollout of public Wi-Fi points at all public facilities such as schools, clinics, libraries and police stations.

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Personal computing devices sales still decline in MEA

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The Middle East and Africa (MEA) personal computing devices (PCD) market, which is made up of desktops, notebooks, workstations, and tablets, suffered a decline of -7.3% year on year in Q2 2017, according to the latest insights from International Data Corporation (IDC).

The global technology research and consulting firm’s Quarterly PCD Tracker for Q2 2017 shows that PCD shipments fell to around 6 million units for the quarter.

“As forecast, the market followed a similar pattern to recent quarters, with the downturn primarily stemming from a decline in shipments of slate tablets and desktops,” says Fouad Charakla, IDC’s senior research manager for client devices in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa. “This was the result of desktop users increasingly switching to mobile devices such as notebooks or even refurbished notebooks, while users of slate tablets shifted to smartphones. These trends translated into year-on-year declines of -21.9% for desktops and -15.7% for slate tablets in Q2 2017, while shipments of notebooks and detachable tablets increased 11.0% and 63.3%, respectively over the same period.”

“Market sentiment in the region remained low overall, although an aggressive push from some slate tablet vendors meant the market declined much slower than expected,” continues Charakla. “At the same time, heightened competition has also made it harder for certain players to sustain their slate tablet businesses and generate profits, causing them to lose interest in the slate tablet market altogether. Despite this, slate tablets are still the most popular computing device among home users in the region.”

Looking at the region’s key markets, IDC’s research shows that when compared to Q2 2016 overall PCD shipments were down -11.4% in the UAE, -8.9% in Turkey, and -6.7% in the ‘Rest of Middle East’ sub-region (comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Afghanistan). South Africa and Saudi Arabia bucked this trend, recording year-on-year increases of 3.5% and 9.6%, respectively.

A massive education delivery in Pakistan acted as a key driver for notebook shipments in the region overall. Similarly, the education sector was the biggest driver of detachable tablet shipments, triggered by a huge delivery in Kenya, as well as two other deliveries in Pakistan and Turkey, which enabled this category to achieve the fastest growth of all the PCD categories.

“While a component shortage prevented market players from reducing their prices too much, the average price of consumer notebooks experienced a considerable year-on-year decline in Q2 2017,” says Charakla. “This played a key role in driving demand from the consumer segment, and was reflected in the growing popularity of lower-priced notebook models.”

Looking at the PC market’s vendor rankings, each of the top five vendors maintained their respective positions compared to the previous quarter, with the top four all gaining share.

Middle East & Africa PC Market Vendor Shares – Q2 2016 vs. Q2 2017

Brand Q2 2016 Q2 2017
HP Inc. 23.7% 27.6%
Lenovo 19.8% 21.5%
Dell 16.3% 16.7%
ASUS 8.7% 9.4%
Acer Group 5.9% 4.1%
Others 25.7% 20.7%

Although Samsung continued to lead the tablet market, the vendor rankings in the space saw quite a few changes, with Huawei catapulting itself to second place. Lenovo also climbed up a position compared to the previous quarter, causing Apple to drop to fourth place.

Middle East & Africa Tablet Market Vendor Shares – Q2 2016 vs. Q2 2017

Brand Q2 2016 Q2 2017
Samsung 20.5% 18.9%
Huawei 11.2% 15.8%
Lenovo 12.7% 9.8%
Apple 9.1% 8.8%
Alcatel 2.9% 5.0%
Others 43.5% 41.7%

“Looking to the future, the MEA PCD market is expected to decline at a faster rate than previously forecast for 2017 as a whole,” says Charakla. “Technological shifts are playing a pivotal role in deciding the future of this market, with demand for certain products shifting to other PCD products and beyond (i.e., smartphones). Accordingly, shipments of slate tablets are expected to continue declining over the coming years as demand is cannibalized by smartphones. Meanwhile, the ongoing shift to mobile computing will see growth in the desktop market remain close to flat throughout IDC’s forecast period ending 2021. Notebook shipments will experience very slow growth beyond 2018, while detachable tablets will remain the fastest growing PCD category, eating away share from other computing devices.”

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Gazer cyber-spies exposed

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ESET has released new research into the activities of the Turla cyberespionage group, and specifically a previously undocumented backdoor that has been used to spy on consulates and embassies worldwide.

ESET’s research team are the first in the world to document the advanced backdoor malware, which they have named “Gazer”, despite evidence that it has been actively deployed in targeted attacks against governments and diplomats since at least 2016.

Gazer’s success can be explained by the advanced methods it uses to spy on its intended targets, and its ability to remain persistent on infected devices, embedding itself out of sight on victim’s computers in an attempt to steal information for a long period of time.

ESET researchers have discovered that Gazer has managed to infect a number of computers around the world, with the most victims being located in Europe. Curiously, ESET’s examination of a variety of different espionage campaigns which used Gazer has identified that the main target appears to have been Southeastern Europe as well as countries in the former Soviet Union Republic.

The attacks show all the hallmarks of past campaigns launched by the Turla hacking group, namely:

  • Targeted organisations are embassies and ministries;
  • Spearphishing delivers a first-stage backdoor such as Skipper;
  • A second stealthier backdoor (Gazer in this instance, but past examples have included Carbon and Kazuar) is put in place;
  • The second-stage backdoor receives encrypted instructions from the gang via C&C servers, using compromised, kegitimate websites as a proxy.

Another notable similarity between Gazer and past creations of the Turla cyberespionage group become obvious when the malware is analysed. Gazer makes extra efforts to evade detection by changing strings within its code, randomizing markers, and wiping files securely.

In the most recent example of the Gazer backdoor malware found by ESET’s research team, clear evidence was seen that someone had modified most of its strings, and inserted phrases related to video games throughout its code.

Don’t be fooled by the sense of humour that the Turla hacking group are showing here, falling foul of computer criminals is no laughing manner.

All organisations, whether governmental, diplomatic, law enforcement, or in traditional business, need to take today’s sophisticated threats serious and adopt a layered defence to reduce the chances of a security breach.

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