Mobile Web, Digital Divide, and Development

PC World has an enlightening article from Kiwanja’s Ken Banks about the growing disconnect between mobile applications envisioned for development and the realities on the ground.

…I see a widening knowledge, or awareness, gap. In the West, when we talk of mobiles helping close the digital divide, many people make a huge assumption about the technologies available to users in developing countries. We look at the mobile through rose-tinted glasses from the top of our ivory towers, through a Western prism or the lens of a 3G iPhone. Call it what you like.

Ken goes on to highlight Nokia 1100 that is hugely popular in the market. (His mentions of Nokia’s popularity brought back a blog-worthy memory, but that is for later.) Low-end phones like the N1100 do their job well but do not boast of any new-fangled data transmission or internet capabilities. In other words, they are not the devices that record video and upload to YouTube. He advocates for the funding of an internet-ready handset, subsidized by the development agencies.

ICT for Peacebuilding’s Sanjana Hattotuwa adds to the conversation with more information and thoughtful commentary. He points out that even a cheap internet-ready phone may not easily replace someone’s existing low-end handset unless “value can be seen and realized.” He also helpfully lists out how governance, telemedicine, telcos, and civil society can play a role in creating value-added services and making them accessible.

I want to add a somewhat old concept to this discussion: shared access and devices. While many in the base of the pyramid may not have an internet-ready or camera-enabled phone, it is quite possible that most have access to one through their networks. This is most definitely the case in India and I can safely bet that it holds true in many other countries as well.

Say for instance the agricultural extension program at the central university has a program that diagnoses plant disease and suggests control methods based on photo messages from a farmer. There are several ways in which this can reach the small-holding farmer at the base of the pyramid. May be the farmer will borrow a phone from someone. May be the agricultural university will have extension officers who go around with camera-enabled phones. May be a local entrepreneur will invest in a high-end phone and will provide such services at a cost.

Shard access model, which may have been in its last legs, may find a new life by way of the mobile web and in effect can have a far wider reach. But the lack of local content, application, and services can end up being bigger barriers than the cost of the devices or service plans.

Having said all that, and based on my experience in India, I have to second Sanjana’s concluding thought that SMS is the application with the most potential for development. Ken also agrees that this is the case. How can he not? He created FrontLine SMS after all!

Cell phone plans in India make SMS far cheaper than voice calls. As a result, SMS is booming in popularity and usage. Mass SMSes of jokes and cricket scores still rule. Pre-paid phone plans still SMS balances of time and money. However, in addition to these staples, SMS is already finding many other interesting outlets. Local governments are starting to provide tax and other information via SMS with plans for more SMS-enabled services in the future. Everything from bank payments to a movie ticket purchase can be done via SMS. Location-aware SMS messages have started trickling in, though it is mostly used by cell phone providers to notify customers of roaming charges when they cross from one coverage area to another.

Even with all that, I believe that we have barely scratched the surface of SMS applications and there is more interesting stuff to come. And come it will – mostly out of the ingeniousness of the local community.

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Categories: asia, regions, solutions

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