Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Is the global digital divide still widening?: glitches in the mobile dream

Three billion unique mobile subscribers? Yes, it is a huge number. To learn that another mobile SIM is activated every passing second around the world is overwhelming. And today mobile technology is the easiest entry point to the internet too. Looking at this ICT uptake we tend to believe that the digital divide - the gap in access to digital opportunities between the rich and the poor - is a matter of history. The actual picture behind these numbers is rather different.

Mobile is not universal - that is a painful reality in the age of 4th generation technology (4G), apps and smart devices.

Across Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean and South Asia, the new digital divide experienced at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ has multiple guises - in terms of signal coverage, technology and policy environments.

A Coverage divide: Mobile communication relies on radio waves that are transmitted through transmission towers. Networks of these towers (base stations) enable the voice and data transfer of mobile phones. A variety of factors - such as demand, landscape, politics, community pressure, as well as investment issues - decide the geographical positioning of the towers. In rural Africa the running cost of a tower (40% of which is the fuel bill)  often exceeds the potential revenue, according to telecom sources. There is a shortage of about 60,000 towers in Africa to meet the needs and demand of the various populations. In this context one may have a mobile phone with a SIM card (that is counted in those billions), yet this may be almost equivalent to a dead piece of plastic in the absence of a mobile signal.

People climb on trees to access the mobile network, and that is the only way to use mobile phones in some parts of Sierra Leone - Reuters, 2013. 

A Technology divide: While telecommunications advances into third generation (3G) and even fourth generation (4G) mobile communication standards, the majority of the population (80% according to GSMA Intelligence) in developing countries is still living with second generation (2G) signal coverage. This limits the capabilities of mobile phones to accessing only voice and text messages. Furthermore, many of the world's poor are using basic 'feature phones' that do not have capabilities such as access to broadband, touchscreens, or high storage capacities. In other words, the poor have to limit their mobile phones to accessing only voice and text messages, while the rest of the world enjoys high-speed broadband, cloud computing and high definition mobile-TV.

Mobile phone is the first entry point to the internet for the majority poor and it falls short compared to PC-based internet access, and the ability to bridge the digital divide: New America Foundation, 2012. 
Mobile leap frogging and digital divide policy, Napoli P & Obar J 

A Policy divide: Does every developing country have a national ICT policy? No! Indeed it is difficult to accept the fact there are nations such as Nauru, and the Solomon Islands, who do not have a national ICT policy. And in some countries such as Myanmar, and Burundi, ICT policies are in draft form but not yet adopted. Even if adopted, how comprehensive are these policies?  Most of them are focused on one sector such as eGovernance, whereas agriculture, commerce and currency have not even been considered yet. Without effective national policies how can change happen on a national scale? In this context, in some countries there are no responsible government authorities to address the issues related to ICTs, investments, trading etc, whereas in some others there is no coordination mechanism in place to work between responsible authorities (for instance between ICT and Agriculture).

Mobile SIM is out of reach for many of the 48mn population in Myanmar.  SIM costs over US$100, mobile penetration is as low as 5-10%, Reuters, 2013.  

According to ITU's report titled 'Measuring the information society' (2012), if it is measured in terms of kbits per capita, the digital divide between the developed and developing world has increased to the ratio of 12:1. And this gap has widened over the last decade. 

Blog by Harsha Liyanage & Philip Edge 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Smart Devices to poor communities! Too early?

We all know Smart Devices have now  surpassed PCs in the global marketplace. But how relevant is that progress to the Bottom of the Pyramid communities? Are they ready to take up Smart Devices? Will they impact positively on their livelihoods? How sustainable (and scalable) are they?

We have gathered encouraging evidence from Sri Lanka to answer many questions and test underlying assumptions (if you are an optimist, as we are).

Are the BOP communities ready to take up smart devices?
There are two very interesting projects progressing in this area in Sri Lanka: Smart Villages and Android Village Hubs, both implemented by Sarvodaya-Fusion since 2011. Both projects have been introducing smart devices (Android Smartphones and Tablets) to about 15 rural communities in five districts as community-owned, shared devices.

With training kept as simple as providing basic instructions on how to operate the devices, plus some instruction about social media, the project team reports: 'a magical connection sparks on-the-spot' which fuels collective engagement, and unleashes creativity and enthusiasm. Udara Dharmasena, the project manager, reports that the best evidence of their excitement with these devices is the remarkable change of language from “who will support us?” to “how can we buy these?”.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Google's Android, dis-empowering the poor?

Yes, like most of you I love my iPad. At the same time I have promoted Google's Android since its early days. Simply, it fits better for the target group we serve most - the Bottom of the Pyramid. But, are we being misled in our optimism about Google Android? We have spent considerable time addressing this question and now share with you our concerns.
It is obviously exciting to see the potential to 'empower the poor' in terms of: a) developing country app developers can earn a reasonable income by selling Apps in Google Play (formerly Android Market), and; b) the apps developed by these developers serve a purpose that is more relevant to the local community.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Unwritten challanges in Mobile-4D projects, Why?

Mobile technology for development! Yes, we all try to taste the success of mobile: mobile applications for fund transfers in micro-insurance, introducing smart cards for health care, mobile apps for agricultural trading, and so on. We also note and quote the challenges when it comes to engaging the mass participation of the intended rural beneficiaries. We recently studied closely 10 selected projects, representing East Africa, East Asia and South Asia, to clarify the nature of these challenges. Our study shows that the three most common factors contributing to tensions, and often unwritten failures, were found to be:

  1. Tension between IT solution providers and project owners;
  2. Blind spots in the innovation process;
  3. Failure to introduce change management models for field staff.

Let’s look at the reality of these challenges in a bit more detail.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Changing role of telecentres (2000 - 2012 and beyond)

Interacting with University students is always an opportunity to reflect and refresh. Yesterday, I had that opportunity again at ICT4D Collective of Royal Holloway, University of London. Once again it was a visiting lecture to the postgraduate programme.
Do telecentres have a role to play in 2013, as they did have a decade ago?

A deeper look into the long journey that Sarvodaya-Fusion has traveled in Sri Lanka provides some interesting insights. These insights are enhanced by comparison with similar insights derived from my recent observations of telecentres in Rwanda.

Rwanda and Sri  Lanka, both have parallels in ICT4D

Governments in both countries recognize IT as a major component in their socio-economic development vision. (e.g. Mahinda Chintana in Sri Lanka and NICI III in Rwanda). Both countries enjoyed the support of World Bank funding (eSri Lanka and eRwanda). There are over 600 telecentres in Sri Lanka, and about 140 in Rwanda (with RTN). Telecentre leaders in both countries had the support of specialized donor support programmes, such as telecentre.org of IDRC, during 2005 - 2008. 


My photo
We are consultants for European organisations working in international development. Specialized in Innovation - Economic Sustainability - Social Impact Assessment in ICT4D and Mobile for Development (M4D) sectors. We have 20 + years of experiences and our clients include UN Agencies, EU, IDRC.

What we can offer you?

Are you involved in International development, introducing Information Communication Technologies and Mobile Phone applications to support disadvantage communities? Are you concerned about effective products and services in this sector, we can help to innovate them. Do you want to see their sustainability beyond funding cycle? We can help converting the project into a social enterprise. Do you want to understand the social impact? We can design a tailor made model to surface the social impact.