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Make Your Digital Service Work Offline, Online and Everywhere in Between

By Guest Writer on September 21, 2023

internet access online offline

There used to be a clear divide between “online” and “offline”. Before the mobile Internet, when you were online you could download as much as you wanted. When you left your home or office, you were offline.

In 2021 over 50% of people in Low Income and Lower Middle Income Countries (LMICs) used mobile Internet. That connectivity is often limited, the average data usage per mobile connection per month is 82% lower in Sub-Saharan Africa than in India and 76% lower than in North America (before considering that in North America most Internet traffic still uses fixed connections). Users in LMICs often have limited download caps and times when a connection is slow or unreliable.

One gigabyte (1GB) of mobile data (enough to watch two hours of standard quality YouTube video) still costs an average of 1.7% of average monthly income in LMICs, increasing to 3.4% and 5% in Sub-Sarahan Africa and Afghanistan respectively. Making sure your digital service works properly with browser caches often reduces data usage by over 50%. In education and health situations where multiple nearby users need to access the same content, offline sharing between devices can reduce bandwidth usage 97% and dramatically increase download speeds.

Even when mobile data is relatively expensive, if used efficiently it will often be cheaper than the alternatives in some situations, such as when fuel is required to get a person on a motorbike to collect data on site.

Think offline-first, not offline-only

Offline-first means making an experience that works as well as possible offline and uses connectivity when available. For example, a child at school might use educational games on shared tablets. Those games can work offline and synchronize progress if/when a connection is available. The use of connectivity if and when available opens up new possibilities; such as allowing parents to stay up to date with their child’s progress. It doesn’t need to detract from delivering the best possible experience offline when connectivity isn’t available at school and/or home.

Use less data

There are often ways that an experience can be designed to use a lot less data whilst delivering the same experience to the user, like using an LED bulb instead of the old incandescent bulb. Optimizing videos for mobile devices can reduce their size by 50-85% compared to the default size of videos when recorded by phone cameras. Images in the newer webp format are 25-35% smaller than the older (still more widely used) jpeg format. Make sure that apps and websites cache data properly so it doesn’t need to be downloaded again when users return.

Share between nearby devices

Groups of nearby users often want to use the same content; for example a group of teachers using teacher training content. If you have 30 teachers in the same school who want to use a piece of content, why download it from the Internet 30 times?

Ustad Mobile has developed two open-source libraries that can be included in any Android app to make this easier: Meshrabiya can create a mesh network of Android devices to enable dozens (maybe hundreds) of them to connect to each other, even when there is no WiFi access point. It is the first such system (as far as we know) for Android that works on any device instead of requiring a “rooted” or custom version of Android. It’s also fast, it can transfer 1GB (e.g. two hours of standard quality video) in 27 seconds.

Once devices are connected Retriever can simplify communication with nearby devices to find and download content (images, game files, etc) locally instead of downloading from the Internet again where possible, and downloads from the Internet where that content is not available locally.

Nearby device networking can also open up new possibilities for nearby users to interact with each other; for example teachers can see reports on student progress immediately without waiting for Internet connectivity.

Test services properly

It’s critical to start testing a digital service the way your users will experience it. Web browsers have built-in options to allow you to simulate a slower connection. On Android you can install apps that allow you to limit speeds.

Test your digital service using a device similar to what you expect your user to have; the performance you see on a $800 flagship phone will not be the same as the performance you see on a $50 low-end phone. Are you a decision maker for a digital service intended for use in a low or middle income country? If you want to see what 95%+ of your users will see, you need an Android device.

Be Online, Offline, Everywhere

As the cost of mobile data and devices continues to fall, the number of people who will have some, but not unlimited, access to connectivity is set to continue to grow rapidly. Ustad Mobile has been able to use mesh networking, nearby sharing and compression to do more with less data.

Just like it makes sense to take advantage of the devices many (but not all) already own and have access to, it makes sense to use the connectivity that a growing number of users in LMICs have access to. Digital services should use the connectivity users already have where available, which doesn’t need to come at the expense of the experience delivered to users when they’re offline.

By Mike Dawson of Ustadmobile

Filed Under: Connectivity
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