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Connecting Web-Based Services To People Without The Internet

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USSD and its role in enabling banks and merchants to reach mobile consumers when they have limited data access.
USSD and its role in enabling banks and merchants to reach mobile consumers when they have limited data access.

3.9 billion people globally do not have access to the internet, according to recent research from the United Nations telecommunications agency, International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The report reveals that 75% of Africans are offline; a startling figure given the explosive growth of mobile across the continent. The challenge for Africa, and for South Africa in particular, is lack of access to data and, or internet-enabled smartphones.

However, technology already extensively used throughout Africa today, could be the answer to helping drive digital transformation in Africa. Unstructured Supplementary Services Data or as it’s more commonly known USSD, is a Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication technology that is used to transfer data between mobile devices and a network in a safe, secure and temporary manner. It has the potential to revolutionise communications, commerce and mobile in developing markets, reaching subscribers that don’t have access to the internet.

USSD is set to provide an extension to the internet by providing enterprises and mobile network operators with access to all of their users. Although this technology has been in use for nearly 20 years, with modern technology through a platform-as-a-service offering, USSD has the potential to transform communications.

Most mobile network providers in Africa, for example Vodacom and MTN, use USSD in some form. According to a study conducted by Pew Research only 37% of people aged over 18 in South Africa own a smartphone, which means that for organisations to reach a mass audience, the use of USSD alongside SMS will continue to go from strength to strength.

The core benefit of USSD is that it doesn’t rely on data to operate. The technology’s limited data connection creates the possibility of an ‘extended internet’ that can reach the billions of people in areas where network coverage is at its most basic. Mostly used in the developing world, where there is limited telecom infrastructure, USSD is already improving engagement by enabling enterprise access to end users through a reliable cost effective means – being out of credit needs to no longer limit engagement.

With continued enterprise use, I’m expecting USSD to become even more commonplace in the enterprise, particularly in cases requiring simple highly secure peer-to-peer connections. USSD is also free for a client and rather inexpensive for businesses to set up and run, making the technology a simple and cost effective way of communicating with customers.

A key benefit for the enterprise is security. The technology creates a safe and instant way to verify customer details and allow access to their accounts. Unlike SMS and mobile apps, USSD notifications and menus are not stored on the device, making it safer for transmitting passwords or other sensitive information.

Some large enterprises have already explored how USSD can be leveraged to improve connectivity. In some areas for example, users can access Facebook over USSD. By providing a secure means to login, USSD users can view snippets of their newsfeed, update their status, post comments and send messages. The simple connection provides a means for data to be transferred from Facebook to mobile devices in areas without internet connections or to devices that don’t have internet capabilities – extending the internet. There are also services available to do the same with Wikipedia and other popular websites.

In many ways the benefits of USSD work both ways, by providing a cheap platform for businesses to contact and keep customers informed, and customers likewise benefit from a simple, quick and free communication channel directly to the organisation. The technology works on virtually all mobile devices, from the brand new smart phones to the older feature phones. USSD does not discriminate, as the interactive menu system utilised by the technology is not built into the mobile devices or sims themselves. Menus can be updated via a platform-as-a-service web server and operate on any device.

The transformational potential of the technology is why I expect USSD to emerge (or reemerge) as the extension to the internet, much of the developing world needs to improve connectivity. Without widespread data coverage, and the technological hardware to advance the way users communicate and manage money or guarantee security, we will continue to see USSD grow in use. Enterprises who can leverage the technology through platform-as-a-service offerings will be able to dramatically improve engagement and the way in which they communicate with customers without access to smartphone connectivity.

By Fabien Delanaud, General Manager of Myriad Connect

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