In celebration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information 2017, Kepios has collaborated with UNESCO to publish a special guide to Digital in Asia-Pacific in 2017.

This new study reports impressive growth across all key digital indicators around APAC, with users of the internet, social media, and mobile all showing solid increases since the 2016 report.

You can read all 200+ pages of this special report in the SlideShare embed above (click here if that’s not working for you), but read on below to discover the key highlights and insights.

Global overview

Levels of digital connectivity continue to increase all over the world, with some trends even showing signs of accelerating since January’s Global Digital in 2017 reports.

The latest active user numbers for September 2017 are:

  • 3.9 billion internet users (51% global penetration)

  • 3.1 billion active social media users (41% global penetration)

  • 5.1 billion unique mobile users (67% global penetration)

  • 2.8 billion active mobile social media users (37% global penetration)

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These numbers are already impressive in their own right, but the year-on-year growth figures tell an even more compelling story.

Global growth trends

Internet users have grown by 7% over the past 12 months, with more than 260 million people coming online for the first time since September 2016.

Mobile users have increased by 6% during the same period, with GSMA Intelligence reporting 303 million new mobile users since this time last year.

However, social media posted the strongest user gains over the past 12 months, with overall users up 15% year-on-year, and mobile social media users up an even stronger 16%.

In terms of absolute user growth, 406 million people started using social media in the past year, equating to growth of more than 1.11 million new users every single day – that’s almost 13 new users every second.

The equivalent annual growth rate in the Global Digital in 2017 report from January this year was roughly 12 new users every second, suggesting that social media sign-ups have actually accelerated in the first 8 months of 2017.

Analysis: the digital divide

Levels of connectivity still aren’t consistent around the world though, and barely one in three people living in Africa and South Asia have access to the internet today.

A number of challenges remain before the 1 billion ‘unconnected’ people in these regions can gain meaningful access to digital connectivity, including:

  • Viable infrastructure, especially mobile networks capable of delivering digital data at sufficient speeds;
  • Affordable devices and data plans;

  • Content that caters to people with lower levels of literacy; and

  • Content in local languages that addresses the interests and needs of local communities.

Improving levels of global connectivity remains a priority in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals though, and the UN reiterated its commitment to providing access to these unconnected communities in its recent report on the global State of Broadband.

However, while some parts of Asia-Pacific have some of the lowest levels of digital connectivity in the world, there is still cause for optimism.

Digital use surged around APAC in the past 12 months, with all countries showing meaningful gains across key statistical indicators.

APAC overview

The latest data show that there has been healthy growth in digital connectivity around Asia-Pacific since our previous APAC report in September 2016. The latest regional numbers show that there are now:

  • 1.94 billion internet users, up 8% year-on-year to reach 47% regional penetration;

  • 1.67 billion active social media users, up 17% to reach 40% regional penetration;

  • 3.93 billion mobile connections in the region, up 4% year-on-year; and

  • 1.63 billion mobile social media users, up 20% to reach 39% regional penetration.

As with the global landscape, it’s those growth figures that give the greatest cause for optimism, and that point to the most exciting potential for further developments in 2018.

Internet in APAC in 2017

There are now more than 1.9 billion internet users around APAC, equating to a regional penetration rate of 47% of the total population.

Internet use in Asia-Pacific has grown by 8% year-on-year, slightly ahead of the global average of 7%.

Encouragingly, more than 140 million people came online for the first time in APAC since September 2016, with Indonesia alone accounting for 45 million of these new users.

There have been no reliable new reports of internet use in India in the past 12 months though, so figures for one of the region’s most unconnected populations remain unchanged.

Japan tops the ranking of countries by internet penetration in this year’s report at 93%, closely followed by South Korea with 92%.

North Korea has the lowest levels of internet penetration in APAC, with less than 0.1% of the country’s total population online in September 2017. Internet penetration levels are also markedly lower in the Solomon Islands, where barely 10% of the total population accesses the internet today.

Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, and Kiribati all have internet penetration levels below 20%, whilst more than half of the countries in Asia-Pacific register internet penetration levels below 50%.

Almost two-thirds of Asia’s internet users access the web via mobile devices, but that percentage is much lower amongst nations in the Pacific islands, where average levels of mobile connectivity tend to be lower, and where data speeds are often comparatively slower, due to the geographic challenges of providing mobile networks across numerous islands separated by open ocean.

Social Media in APAC in 2017

People throughout Asia-Pacific continue their love affair with social media, with more than 40% of the region’s total population using at least one social media platform in the past 30 days.

Levels of social media use connectivity remain highest in the region’s most developed economies, with Brunei and South Korea both achieving social media penetration levels in excess of 80%.

The total number of active social media users in APAC grew by 17% over the past 12 months, with more than 240 million people using a social platform for the first time in the period since September 2016.

APAC accounted for almost 60% of global social media growth in the past year, and current trends show that every minute, more than 450 people in the region sign up to a social platform for the first time.

As with internet user growth, many of the strongest gains in social media users came from Pacific island states, which accounted for many of the fastest-growing user bases.

WeChat remains the largest social platform by active users in APAC, with Tencent’s latest earnings report suggesting that the platform now hosts more than 900 million monthly active users within the region.

Facebook comes in at second place, with roughly 717 million active users in Asia-Pacific. Gender ratios remain a concern though, with more than 60% of the platform’s users in APAC reporting their gender as male.

Moreover, in some countries in the region – notably Afghanistan (15% female), Pakistan (23% female), and Bangladesh (24% female) – Facebook’s user base remains heavily male-skewed, but this may be because some female users ‘mis-represent’ their gender on Facebook to avoid gender-related harassment.

More than three-quarters of Facebook’s users in APAC claim to be below the age of 35 too, although our research suggests that there may be significant anomalies in this data when compared to official census data for the same age groups.

In particular, building on the global findings that we reported back in March, the number of 18-year-old males using Facebook in APAC is 25% higher than the number of 18-year-olds alive in the region today, according to the latest available census data.

There may be several reasons for this discrepancy, but whatever the cause, our advice is to stop using demographic-based targeting for Facebook activities, and identify people based on their declared interests and actual behaviour instead.

Mobile social media in APAC in 2017

As we’ve reported in many of the previous reports in this ongoing series, mobile remains the primary device for social media access around Asia-Pacific.

98% of the region’s social media users access their top platforms via mobile devices, with countries including China, Japan, and South Korea registering mobile shares of close to 100%.

South Korea leads the pack for mobile social media penetration in APAC, with the latest data suggesting that 6 out of every 7 people in the country used Kakaotalk in the past 30 days.

Once again, it’s the Pacific islands that posted the fastest growth rates though, with mobile social use in Kiribati up a whopping 238% since this time last year.

WeChat is already a mobile-centric platform, so it’s clear that mobile dominates WeChat usage. However, mobile dominates on Facebook too, and barely 3% of the platform’s users in APAC access the service via a laptop or desktop computer alone.

It’s worth highlighting that feature phones now account for less than 0.5% of Facebook activity too, underscoring the rapid adoption of smartphones around the region in recent months.

Mobile connectivity in APAC in 2017

The number of active mobile connections in APAC grew by 4% over the past year, although a number of countries in this year’s study actually registered a year-on-year decline in the total number of connections, as people continue to consolidate the number of mobile devices that they use.

This consolidation is largely driven by access to social communication services such as messenger apps, which remove the need for people to maintain multiple contracts (and hence handsets) in order to benefit from intra-network pricing deals.

The number of mobile connections in APAC equates to roughly 95% of the region's total population, although it’s important to stress that this isn’t a true ‘penetration’ rate, because mobile connection figures do not correspond directly to unique users.

Macau tops the list of active connections compared to population, with the average user in the country now maintaining almost 2.4 active connections.

The Pacific islands registered strong growth in mobile connectivity too, but it’s worth highlighting the impressive growth rates in Myanmar and Timor-Leste as well.

As recently as 5 years ago, these two countries had some of the lowest levels of digital connectivity in the world, so it’s particularly encouraging to see them post such strong gains over the past 12 months.

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More than 80% of mobile users in APAC have ‘pay-as-you-go’ mobile contracts, meaning they must pay for their calls and internet data plans in advance.

Cost is a key factor in determining whether people can access digital services in many of the region’s developing economies, and whilst the situation is slowly improving, smartphones and mobile data are still beyond the reach of most of the region’s poorer inhabitants.

For context, around 400 million people in Asia-Pacific live on less than $1.90 per day, the UN’s global definition of extreme poverty, meaning that both connectivity and handsets are out of reach for most.

However, prices continue to fall each year, and there are now a number of Android-powered smartphones available for below US$50, with some costing as little as $20.

Partly thanks to these cheaper handsets, Android has extended its lead over iOS in Asia, and Alphabet’s platform now enables close to 80% of all mobile web traffic in the region.

Interestingly, however, iOS leads Android by a considerable margin across Oceania, with Apple devices responsible for more than 60% of all mobile web traffic in September 2017.

What to expect in 2018

The accelerating growth we’ve outline above points to the further spread of digital connectivity in APAC and beyond in 2018.

We predict that a number of developments will help accelerate digital access for ‘the next billion’ over the coming months.

In particular, voice control will make it easier for people with lower levels of literacy to interact with devices like smartphones, offering them access to tools such as web search, as well as enabling them to dictate emails and listen to audio versions of informative sites such as news and online encyclopediae.

The steadily falling costs of smartphones and mobile data will also bring mobile connectivity within reach for even more people, especially in countries in South Asia, where data prices are becoming increasingly competitive. There’s still a long way to go of course, but with each day that passes, digital connectivity comes within the reach of many thousands of new users.

Another important development will be access to faster connectivity. Whilst the UN’s recent Global Broadband report shows that developing economies still struggle with disappointing data speeds, Akamai’s ongoing State of the Internet reports show that the situation is improving steadily, and as more and more users come online, the commercial incentive to offer faster, cheaper data will likely work in favour of the next billion users.

Even without these developments though, current growth trends already suggest that we’ll see APAC internet users pass the 2 billion user milestone by mid-2018, so there’s plenty to look forward to over the next 12 months.

If you’re keen to keep track of these changes, look out for our next Global Digital report, which we’ll be publishing in early 2018.

Country by country: local landscapes

We’ve profiled 33 countries in depth in this special report for UNESCO's International Day for Universal Access to Information:

You’ll find key digital indicators and growth trends for all these countries, together with additional insights into Facebook usage and mobile connections for most of these countries too.

It’s worth noting that there are a few numbers in the local-level data that may surprise some readers though, especially when comparing internet users to social media users. For example, it’s not uncommon for social media users to equal, or even exceed, internet users, and whilst this may seem counterintuitive, there are a number of potential reasons for this discrepancy:

  • We collect social media user numbers from single-source commercial entities such as Facebook and Tencent, who have a financial incentive to ensure that advertisers know the latest size of their platforms’ audiences. In contract, internet user data must be collected using more arduous means such as surveys, because there is no 'single source' for internet user data. As a result, the publicly available data for internet use are usually many months older than social media user data, and as a result, internet user figures can be much lower than more recent social media user figures.
     

  • Where the latest available internet user numbers are either relatively old, or appear to be significantly lower than current social media user numbers, we have used the latest social media user numbers as a reliable proxy for the number of internet users, meaning that the two figures will be the same.
     

  • Many mobile networks in developing economies offer bundled access to top social media platforms as part of their contract deals, meaning that users can access these services without enjoying access to broader internet services, including the web. Whilst it’s technically true that all of these social platforms require ‘internet’ connectivity to function, our research shows that the average person on the street considers ‘internet access’ to mean unfettered web access, so access to one or two social media services alone does not constitute true 'internet access' as they would define it.
     

  • Some people also choose to restrict their behaviour to low-bandwidth social media activities such as mobile messaging, in order to limit their data costs. Internet browsing today can be an expensive activity for lower income users relying on pay-as-you-go mobile data, especially with the proliferation of auto-play video on social media, and image-intensive web experiences. This self-limiting user behaviour highlights the potential for businesses and organisations hoping to engage these lower-income audiences though, and companies like Facebook are already starting to cater to their needs with platforms like Facebook lite. However, we expect to see a rise in the number of local brands over the coming months who cater specifically to these lower-bandwidth users.

Country-level data for all of the 33 economies that we’ve profiled in this special UNESCO study are available for free in the full report (see the SlideShare embed above, or click here to view it or download it on SlideShare), but here’s a sneak peek of the latest country data for Indonesia to whet your appetite:

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