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Surprise! Free Public Internet Access Venues Do Not Compete with Mobile Phones for Users

By Guest Writer on December 21, 2012

The Public Access, Private Mobile report studied the interplay of shared access and the mobile Internet for teenagers in Cape Town.

It covered a large amount of ground, presenting findings from three interconnected data gathering exercises in a variety of ways. We started with four illustrative stories from Sbu, Sandisiwe, Jayden, and Ayanda, and then we contextualized and generalized from these stories via five overarching claims.


Three claims addressed how things are:

C1A: Public access and private mobiles offer different affordances. Among low-income users, free use (such as that in a library) supports more resource-intensive goals (storage space, time, bandwidth) and stable media production, while paid use (such as via a phone) supports time-sensitive goals and transient media production.

C1B: Teenage users have developed complex, fine-grained practices which help them to negotiate the respective strengths and weaknesses of public access and private mobiles—including practices that help to minimize costs and maximize convenience—and a keen sense of which affordances or use settings will be more productive to reach given goals.

C2: The Public Access Venue (PAV) provides non-substitutable impact to resource-constrained users, even those with “the Internet in their pocket.”

C3: Public access supports the development of generative digital literacies associated with hyperlinked media, while mobile access supports everyday social literacies.

Two claims addressed how things could be:

C4: Teens can use a combination of mobile and public access Internet resources to participate in generative social networks (though not all do so).

C5: PAV operators can improve venue rules and skills to encourage the complementary use of the mobile Internet.

Our interactions with teenage PAV users did not offer much evidence to support a claim that the free PAV and paid mobile Internet access are functional substitutes. Instead, to a certain extent, they are largely unrelated phenomena, at least in terms of the ways they are learned and (more important) the habitus they support.

Looking beyond our sample, this study provides considerable evidence of the importance of PAVs in the lives of a wide range of young people. In the South African context, PAVs provide a safe space where young people can focus on schoolwork, learn from peers, enjoy some level of access to online resources, and engage in genres of online participation which could potentially allow them to improve their chances of success at school or connect with more powerful networks in society.

Public access, private mobile: The interplay of shared access and the mobile Internet for Teenagers in Cape Town was led by Marion Walton of the University of Cape Town and Jonathan Donner of Microsoft Research India for Global Impact Study


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