Here in North America, mobile Internet traffic is dominated by YouTube and Facebook. So says Sandvine, a company with an unusually good view of the world’s Internet activity. YouTube accounts for nearly 20 percent of all mobile traffic, and Facebook tops 16 percent.

This is what you’d expect. Streaming video from a service like YouTube eats up more network bandwidth than any other type of online application, and in recent years, our smartphones and wireless networks have matured to the point where watching video from a handheld device is a common thing. Facebook is a social networking service, and video is now a primary part of the way people use it.

But the situation elsewhere in the world may surprise you. Take Africa, for instance. In terms of mobile traffic, the continent’s most dominant service is a tool that many in the US haven’t even heard of: WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is the smartphone messaging app Facebook bought for about $22 billion last year, and according to Sandvine—which helps big ISPs monitor and manage all the bits moving across their networks—it accounts for nearly 11 percent of all traffic to and from mobile devices in Africa.

This shows just how popular WhatsApp is across the continent, in large part because it lets people exchange texts without paying big fees to carriers. And it shows that people are using the service for more than just texting. Like other messaging services, it’s a way of trading photos and videos, too. And this year, the company expanded the service so it can make Internet phone calls, echoing services like Skype. According to Dan Deeth—the author of a new report from Sandvine on Internet traffic trends—those high traffic numbers reflect a shift towards voice calling as well as photo and video sharing.

“It’s a mix,” he says. “The texting is the smallest part. Once you get into photos and sending videos to each other and voice calling, that’s when traffic really starts to creep up.”

Top-10-Peak-Period-Applications-Africa-Mobile-Access-2 Sandvine

Differences in Evolution

In a larger sense, this shows that the Internet is evolving differently in the developing world than it has here in the US. Because network and phone technologies aren’t as mature—and because people have less money to spend on tech—low-bandwidth messaging apps like WhatsApp have become a primary gateway onto the Internet as whole. In Africa, web browsing accounts for 22 percent of mobile traffic, about twice as much as WhatsApp. But no other individual service is even close to WhatsApp’s numbers. Not YouTube. Not BitTorrent. Not Facebook.

That’s why Facebook acquired WhatsApp. Mark Zuckerberg and company now have a sizable foothold in areas where the Facebook social network is less viable and, indeed, less popular. This means that, more than ever, the company can grab new Internet users as they come online. And as technologies mature across the developing world, it can readily deploy new services to the masses. Through WhatsApp, it has already deployed voice calling. Next step: video calling.

In the Middle East, Sandvine says, Facebook accounts for 11 percent of mobile traffic. WhatsApp is at 3 percent. And Instagram, also owned by Facebook, tops 10 percent. All told, Zuckerberg and company control nearly a quarter of all traffic in the region. That’s a remarkable stat—and it shows how the company is poised to grab eyeballs across the developing world.

And don’t forget: Facebook is dominant here in the US as well. It accounts for more than 16 percent of mobile traffic and more than 2 percent of wire-line traffic. That means it has evolved to embrace the trend towards online video. And it means that the masses are embracing the trend from inside Facebook. The company certainly has its faults. But it knows how to change with the times. Others should take heed.

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WhatsApp Is How Facebook Will Dominate the World