Mobile phones and the digital divide

The problem is that the Nokia 1100, as with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn't support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission. Accessing the Internet? Dream on. But this is not the only problem. Network coverage in many rural areas lacks data support even if the phones did have it, although this is admittedly changing. There are also issues of language and content but, more importantly, cost. Someone with little spare income doesn't want to spend a large chunk of it scratching around the Web to find what he or she is looking for. In many countries, GPRS pricing models are, at best, confusing. While an SMS carries a fixed cost, calculating how many kilobytes of data make up a Web page is anybody's guess.

The opportunity at the bottom of the pyramid is huge, and handset manufacturers and network providers alike are working hard to fill it with phones. For them, the most important issue is cost, because that's what's most important to their customer. And if this means providing trimmed-down handsets at the lowest possible prices, then so be it. This current reality sees many of these phones with no GPRS, no browser, no Java, no camera, no color screen -- the very technologies that form the linchpin of our plans to promote the mobile phone as the tool to help close the digital divide.

So, if we're serious about using mobile to help some of the poorest members of society, how about diverting international development funding toward providing a subsidized, fully Internet-ready handset for developing markets? (It's been tried before but lacked coordination.) Aid donors are already providing funds to the network operators, after all. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Uganda, for example, the International Finance Corporation (an arm of the World Bank) provided US$320 to Celtel to help expand and upgrade its mobile networks. Network coverage, important as it is, is only part of the equation. From the perspective of the digital divide, who's addressing the handset issue other than companies responding to market forces (which I've already argued are often more fixed on price)?

During an interview last year with the BBC, I commented, "Voice is still the killer app in many developing countries. Data is going to be playing catch-up for a long time to come." I still believe this to be true, but things are beginning to change. As often happens, the most exciting change will come from within. In some of the more encouraging moves of late, the increasing visibility (and size) of the developer community in places like Kenya is hugely welcome and significant. This is where real progress will be made and likely where the potential for mobiles to help solve problems of the digital divide will finally be realized.

Ken Banks devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, and has spent the last 15 years working on projects in Africa.

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Ken Banks

IDG News Service
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