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The Benefits Of USSD For Developing Markets

The mass uptake of SMS at the turn of the millennium wasn't planned, and while the use of the technology has fallen in the wake of programs like WhatsApp, it doesn't look like it's going to disappear completely any time soon. But there's another feature available on all devices, so far untapped, that has the potential to transform communications and commerce in developing markets: USSD. While there are 3.5bn internet users (ITU, 2016), there are 4.7bn individual mobile subscribers and 7bn devices (GSMA, 2015) meaning that USSD is more compatible. Unstructured Supplementary Services Data (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.

USSD is most often used as a method of validating a user or triggering a service or action through a menu that is pushed to your mobile device. It is unique in that unlike more modern means of communication, it does not rely on data to work. USSD's limited data connection creates the possibility of an extended internet that can make online services available to the billions around the world without access to data. Although USSD is mostly used in the developing world where there is limited telecom infrastructure, such as parts of Africa to manage consumers accounts securely, the potential uses for USSD are inevitable.

One way it is already being used in developing markets is in providing access to Facebook, by providing secure login over 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 projects in the pipeline to do the same with Wikipedia and other popular websites.

Alongside this growth, USSD is expected to become even more compatible in business, particularly in cases requiring simple highly secure peer-to-peer connections. USSD is free for a client and rather inexpensive for businesses to set up and run, making the technology a really simple and cost effective way of communicating with customers.

Security is perhaps one of the biggest advantages USSD offers its customers, it could also be the answer to a growing issue and concern among the telecom and financial market. SIM Swap, a trend which saw a huge rise in 2015. Fraudsters have found a significant loophole in how banks use a customer's mobile number to verify and authenticate access to their online banking accounts. By contacting an operator and answering a few security questions, with information gathered from social media and the web, fraudsters can cancel a current SIM, set up a new one, and use your mobile number to reset your online banking and empty your account.

SIM Swap is a growing problem, especially in developing countries such as Nigeria, companies now utilise USSD to create a safe, instant way of verifying customer details allowing them 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.

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

Most mobile network providers in Africa, for example Vodacom and MTN, use USSD in a significant way, according to a study conducted by Pew Research only 37% of people aged over 18 own a smartphone in South Africa, which means that for organisations to reach a mass audience, USSD alongside with SMS will continue to increase its stability. Due to this and the lack of data connectivity available to the masses, companies are having to condense tech they use in the 1st world into a dataless form, that is accessible to all.

This is why USSD is expected to emerge as an extension to the internet across areas of Africa, Southern America and the developing world. 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 strength and usability.

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Content by: Emmanuel Ini Jerome
A brand researcher for

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