HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM – People in Southeast Asia spend the most time in the world accessing the internet through mobile devices, according to a new study conducted in part by Google, which reported that the region’s internet economy has moved past the $100 billion mark this year.
Southeast Asia Leads the World in Mobile Internet Use
Thais use mobile internet more than five hours a day, compared with more than four hours in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and three hours as the global average, according to the joint report released last week. That means “users in the region continue to be the most engaged in the world, spending significantly more time on the mobile internet than their global peers,” the report said. Google has been doing the report on Southeast Asia’s internet economy for years with Temasek, the sovereign wealth fund of the Singapore government. This year a management consulting firm, Bain & Company, joined as a third co-author of the report.
“The region’s internet economy continues to surpass all previous growth expectations, hitting another milestone this year: $100 billion,” the report said. The authors wrote they “are constantly surprised by how fast the internet economy is growing.”
Report Highlights Internet Use
The report highlights both the highs and the lows of the internet economy in Southeast Asia, from how quickly it has spread past big cities, to the challenges, such as the need to train people in new skills and provide efficient logistics.
The report, titled “e-Conomy SEA 2019 — Swipe up and to the right: Southeast Asia’s $100 billion internet economy,” focuses on five sectors that explain the growth story:
1. Online travel;
2. Online media, such as ads and streaming;
3. Ride hailing;
4. Online shopping; and
5. Digital financial services.
With data showing more than 90 percent of Southeast Asians get online primarily through smartphones, the report is a reminder of how the internet caught on differently here than in other parts of the world. While people in developed countries were introduced to the internet mostly through desktop and laptop computers, most people in Southeast Asia leapfrogged that step and went straight to mobile devices. Some will go their entire online lives without ever having touched a traditional computer.
Internet Use May Lead a More Even Economy
Just as many early users in the 1990s first envisioned the internet as a great equalizer, so there are signs that the spread of the internet could lead to a more even distribution of economic benefits in Southeast Asia. The “e-Conomy” report predicted a closing of the gap between rural areas and megacities of 10 million people plus, referred to as metros.
“As we see internet companies focus more on acquiring new users outside the metros, growth in the non-metro areas is expected to pick up,” the report said. “In fact, the internet economy in areas beyond the metros is projected to grow fourfold between 2019 and 2025, twice as fast as in metro areas.”
For instance rural Southeast Asians may live in areas where it is not profitable for banks to set up branches, but they can access financial services through smartphones.
Promoters in government and business have started to sell Southeast Asia as a single economy, bigger than the individual economies. The “e-Conomy” report predicted the 10 countries in the region will be the fourth biggest economic bloc in the world by 2030.
The Region is getting attention
The region’s unicorns — startups worth at least $1 billion — and tech growth are attracting attention. Japan’s billionaire tech investor Masayoshi Son, for instance, told Nikkei newspaper he used to envy U.S. and Chinese competitors but now sees Southeast Asia as a competitive motivator.
“[T]here are many companies from smaller economies like Southeast Asia that have the fire and are growing rapidly,” he said this month. “Japanese entrepreneurs, myself included, cannot make excuses.”
The “e-Conomy” report does not focus on many of the downsides of the internet economy, such as young Southeast Asians so addicted to online gaming their parents unplug internet routers at night, or the plastic waste that is exploding as more people order coffee or clothing online to be delivered. The internet is a story of growth, and growing pains too.