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Mobile phones for development: A report on Southeast Asia Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Upasna, India Mar 5, 2007
Technology , Human Rights   Opinions
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The developing countries in Southeast Asia have recently seen tremendous growth in mobile phone services. That villagers are beginning to buy mobile phones is indicative of an explosive growth in mobile services in countries where the poorest people live. About 85 percent of people who become new mobile phone subscribers everyday live in emerging markets, according to the mobile phone industry body, the GSMA. China and India have become leaders in the technology with the growth rate of six million mobiles per month in India alone. One of the reasons for such a growth is that it's easier and faster to put in cellular towers than to put in land lines, and as a result, cellular use is exploding. This growth has been lopsided, however, often primarily in bigger urban areas, meaning that penetration in the rural and remote locations has been limited.

Bridging the divide

Making various communication technologies relevant to people on the wrong side of this glaring digital divide is basically about providing information. After all, why would a small-scale farmer in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan want a mobile phone? Market information. Timely knowledge about who is buying potatoes today, what the buyers are willing to pay and where they are located can be vitally important to those who are just getting by. Computer are relatively expensive and not widespread in poorer areas and they also require the users to be literate - more importantly e-literate. However, mobile phone connectivity, with its ease of use, is easily adoptable, and, in nations plagued by connectivity lapses, this technology may well emerge as the key to bridging the divide.

The growth of mobile phones could rapidly bring the benefits of technology and communication networks to poor people. The prices have come down drastically, making cellular phones suitable for mass usage. However, in most areas around Southeast Asia, people have never had any connectivity, and in places where people have all the time but no money, it is not easy to ‘sell’ the concept of mobiles. Rural areas have specific needs. To consider:

• Is the mobile service need-based?
• Is it focused?
• Is it affordable?

It’s well-established that improving teledensity (the number of phones and cell phone towers in an area) provides more economic benefit than any other kind of infrastructure investment, including roads, electricity and even education. However, if mobile phones are only for providing communication services, it is unlikely that they would directly alleviate poverty and hence the adoption rates may not live up to expectations.

Mobile Services: Emerging Markets
Experts have found several areas in which mobile applications can be used to have a direct impact on the lives of rural people. These are primarily: health information, financial facilities, business development services, governance, and infotainment.

Business Development- Small businesses in rural areas often have to travel significant distances to markets or other places they can distribute their goods, and cannot make arrangements in advance with buyers or other sellers. Mobile phones could significantly change the logistical issues faced by rural traders and home entrepreneurs, by affording mobile-based ordering systems, delivery requests, and the ability to make more reliable and advance arrangements with business partners or clients.

Healthcare - New mobile services could better connect rural communities, creating networks to share and discuss health information and advice. Several such systems are already being researched.

Governance - Accessing information about public services remains a major challenge for many rural communities. Mobile phones provide a new platform through which rural communities will be able to access government information and services, using text, data, and audio browsing techniques.

Education - A range of educational services could be provided via mobiles to children in remote villages and communities. Mobile phones could serve as an essential means for children to become connected to one another for educational and peer-learning activities. These are particularly important for communities that are either nomadic or have been displaced due to a natural disasters, war, etc.

Banking – Mobile banking might help to serve the three billion people who currently have no access to financial services, according to the World Bank. Mobile phones are already being used in rural areas as a tool for financial transactions as the owners of the phones trade airtime for goods and services. Mobile networks and financial services institutions could work together to test and develop new financial services in this area and address how people can transfer these credits into cash.

Entertainment - While the mainstream entertainment industry is already well aware of the emerging potential of mobile media, there are also many opportunities for local, peer-to-peer content to be created and distributed, affording new cultural and economic opportunities to rural communities.

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I am a telecommunications engineer with a policy background. Writing is something I love doing. It helps me pull together my views well and send a question, if any, to the cosmic world around me...one day I may get my answers...
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