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Are WiFi-only tablets and mobile devices impractical in hotspot-starved African countries?

By Wayan Vota on July 30, 2012

One disappointment with the new Google Nexus 7 tablet is the lack of 3G connectivity. It only has WiFi and some people wonder if that makes it impractical in developing countries where hotspots are rare and mobile data the primary connectivity option. I would humbly submit that laptops are usually also WiFi only, yet that doesn’t stop people from buying and using them with great utility.

Recently, Mister Mobility faced the same dilemma in Nigeria: how to access the Internet when he only had WiFi capable devices. He came up with two solutions that are both practical and simple:


Mifi: I make sure that I have a mifi device and subscribe to a data plan at only this point, which I share with laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Problem solved.

Hotspot on Smartphone: Or I ensure that I always have an Android smartphone in my kitty, subscribe to a data bundle on that, and share with tablet and laptop. This is what currently works for me.

And that’s what can work for you too. In fact, a WiFi-only tablet or laptop can actually be a better investment than buying a WiFI + 3G enabled iPad or Android. Why? The price difference between a 3G-enabled device is usually much greater than the cost of a Mifi – which can be used for other devices too.


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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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6 Comments to “Are WiFi-only tablets and mobile devices impractical in hotspot-starved African countries?”

  1. John Hawker says:

    I do exactly the same thing, because I can of course, I have the money! I have a number of laptops, mobiles, etc. This is good advice, but only for those with cash in our money’d wallets.

    But isn’t the point of innovation in ICT in developing countries to work within the budgetary constraints of the local communities and find appropriate technologies or if they don’t exist, suggest where they can be improved?

    In that case, buying two pieces of technology, where one could have been bought, really this is a valid criticism, the locals can’t afford the luxury, nor can perhaps the local projects afford the luxury of multiple technologies where one should suffice? Fail Fare anyone? I don’t mean to be too negative, take this in the vein of “Fail Fare”prediction “)

    I have a friend who has built a box recently that enables universal access to a variety ov internet access mediums, the initial concept is for a disaster, but also rural and remote areas, hanging off the end of a single IP connection, yo9u can then use WiFI, 2G, 3G, LAN whatever to access the internet. All through a single device with multiple points of access configurations.

    BBC did a story on his solution, which overcomes Google’s shortsightedness, or perhaps lack of real interest or real understanding of developing countries and opportunities.

    I think we should be, like your Fail Fare, look at how we can use criticism of a poor product and nudge that company in the right direction, not accept and buy multiple products that the poor can’t afford to do.

    Show Google the value of the market, and get them to add a 2/3G card slot. The cost in not significant.

    By the way, while we’re at it with Mobile networks, let’s look at Open GSM while we do, under the ITU isn’t there that little known universal access law that allows people to set up their own GSM networks IF none exist?

  2. Christian Ledermann says:

    “Or I ensure that I always have an Android smartphone in my kitty, subscribe to a data bundle on that, and share with tablet and laptop. This is what currently works for me.”

    +1, you probably have a smartphone anyway

  3. Mustafa Naseem says:

    Let’s face it: Google didn’t make the Nexus 7 for developing countries. Period. It was made as a rival to the Kindle Fire, helping Google establish itself in the 7inch niche market before Apple steps in. I am sure Google wanted to insert a 3G chip in the Nexus 7: (a) it would have made the tablet a stronger rival to the Ipad. (b) I am also sure that cost was not a consideration – the specs that Google has packed in the Nexus 7 to get their tablet business off to a great start barely allow them to recover their costs. (c) A 3G chip would allow the Google Now feature on Android’s Jellybean to acquaint itself to the user habits a lot better, allowing it to show better results. However, as the US market is currently positioned, more than anything else, inserting a 3G chip meant dealing with the wireless/mobile carriers. Something that Google didn’t want anything to do with.

    That being said, the Google Nexus is an amazing piece of technology, that I’m sure can have a profound impact in the developing world as well. Apart from the solutions that Wayan has pointed out in the blog, another thing that suits development needs (with respect to not having a 3G chip) is the battery life. The battery life of a product is a strong consideration in developing country settings, and having a 3G chip on board would have decreased the battery life to quite an extent (while 3G is turned on). So, I guess, we should take what we’re getting (a tablet designed for the developed world that is successfully bringing the price down) and hope that someone like Huawei can launch a developing country version (similar quality!) for an even better price? 🙂

  4. Tim Denny says:

    I must admit I do not even own an Android device… but all indications point to using an OTG USB cable which could then plug into a 3g dongle… issue solved…. same for the lack of MicroSD… you need to root the tablet and install Stickmount then you are good to go….

    I do hear your issues on the Nexus 7 not being fully flexible out of the box. But my understanding is that they cut some corners to ensure it is an affordable tablet… the extras like 3g and MicroSD slot can be added on as per the consumers needs… otherwise it sure looks like a top notch $200 tablet.

  5. Ezechias says:

    I present all my feilicitations with Inveneo to this great work if it efectue in Haiti because we BATI realison Lots of us feat thanks to this program.

    Goog job!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Dej says:

    In Nigeria, I used a Mifi for connectivity on the go because it gave me the ability to use any type of computing device with wifi on a single data plan. So it was actually a simple, less expensive solution than a 3G tablet or a smartphone data plan. The package even had unlimited data. In the US I do exactly the same thing paying less for a Tmobile prepaid line (with unlimited voice and text) and a Clear Wireless Mifi (with no data caps) than any smartphone data plan.