The Digital Divider

People tend to get pretty excited around mobile technology. In developing countries most of this excitement has centred around their proliferation into poorer rural, communication-starved areas, and their new-found potential in helping close the digital divide. Handset giants such as Nokia and Motorola believe that mobile devices will “close the digital divide in a way the PC never could”, industry bodies such as the GSM Association run their own “Bridging the Digital Divide” initiative, and international development agencies such as USAID pump hundreds of millions dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives based around mobiles and mobile technology.

But what do we really mean when we talk about the mobile helping close the digital divide? Clearly, mobiles are a relatively cheap device – when compared to personal or laptop computers, anyway. They are small and portable, have good battery life, provide instant voice communications, have SMS functionality and they have the potential to provide access to the internet.

Even the poorest members of society find ways to own one. But Houston, we have a problem.

I’ve been lucky over the past few years to have spoken at numerous conferences, workshops and companies about the uses of mobile technology in international conservation and development, and it’s something I truly enjoy doing. However, I’ve slowly noticed a knowledge gap, or should we say an 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. Call it what you like. Think about it. Most of us have fancy phones and are gifted with pretty good network coverage to drive them. Not only can we make calls, we can take good quality photos, we can make and edit little movies and upload them to the web, we can surf the web, we can play neat games, and we can download neat bits of software. Our overall experience is generally a pleasant one. Why else would we want a phone? So, with mobiles able to do all of this, their potential in developing countries is clear, right? Well, maybe…

Let’s start by looking at the worlds best selling phone – the Nokia 1100 (pictured). Anyone who’s spent any time in a developing country recently would not have failed to notice the number of these around. The reason? They’re Nokia (and people just seem to love Nokia), they’re sturdy, have good battery life, the user interface is easy and they’re cheap (selling for around $40 new in Uganda, for example). They do everything the user wants – they can make and receive calls, they can send and receive SMS and the built-in alarm is very popular (only last month in Kampala my taxi driver was telling me with great excitement how his alarm still sounds, even when his phone is switched off). These are the kinds of phones in the hands of many people in the very rural areas where we see the mobile as the tool to help close the digital divide.

The problem here 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 (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 WAP 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 colour screen – the very technologies which form the lynchpin 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 close the digital divide, how about diverting international development funding towards providing a subsidised, fully-internet ready handset for developing markets? Aid donors are already providing funds to the network operators, after all. In the DRC, Madagascar, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Uganda for example, the IFC (an arm of the World Bank) recently provided US$320 to five operations of Celtel to help expand and upgrade its mobile networks (you can read more about that here). 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?

During a recent interview with the BBC I commented that “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’ve received many comments of support – and a few in disagreement – since this was published. This is a very important debate, and I hope it is one which finally starts to get some serious discussion.

6 thoughts on “The Digital Divider

  1. hash says:

    Ken, you hit the nail on the head with this post. Data is the “killer app” for Africa’s “killer platform”, the mobile phone.

    The two problems are:

    1) A large number of the phones not being data capable.
    2) If they were all data capable, then the network couldn’t support them.

    I asked some Kenyans what they would do if I could show them a cheaper way to message each other, but they would need another (better) phone in order to do it. They all said they would go buy a GPRS enabled phone in order to use the service.

    I think this proves out in places like South Africa, where you see the explosive growth of Java-based applications like MXit growing to over 4 million users.

    If the demand and usage for data plans on mobile phones increases, so too will the supply of the services by the carriers and the phone companies.

  2. Stephane says:

    Hi Ken,
    interesting article and interesting comment.I completely agree with your analysis, but i don’t subscribe to the conclusion.
    What is true is that accessing the Web from a mobile phone would be challenging: as you stated, you need high-end phone, high bandwidth,… all kind of things not available/affordable in Africa or South-East Asia rural areas.
    So as you said, those who think that accessing the Web from mobile phone is the solution to bridge the digital divide today are probably wrong, at least today and for next few years.
    That said, i strongly believe in the power of mobile phone and web technologies to bring services to rural areas, and improve people lives.
    Web technologies offers interoperability, easy service development and deployment, discoverability,… all those features are also the weaknesses of sms apps and for these reasons i don’t think that sms apps could work at large scale.
    GSM network could perfectly be used for data services, as far as the content is small. But developping text applications would be very small.
    No need of sound, image, video to offer government services, business services, health, banking, …
    The problem is clearly the availability of a very light-weight browser that would fit on your nokia 1100. Is it a technical challenge ? no ! since 1998 all phones had a wml browser. So it is easy technically. It is just a matter of convincing operators and handset manufacturers. That’s all my job ! it should not cost them a lot, and it could open great opportunities for all parties. Moreover, it could be really quick. all phones could be updated over the air or through a prom upgrade. That means that in few months, all existing phones could have a lightweight browser. Just a matter of decision from mobile players.
    And as soon as most mobile would have an easy-to-use browser, i’m sure that we would see thousands of apps flourishing, at a rate that would neverhh happen with sms apps.
    For more details on my view,read <few posts i wrote on this topic, and the home page i maintain at W3C.

  3. jke says:

    True, handset manufacturers could easily upgrade their firmwares to contain a mobile browser. They could, if they wanted to. Marketing…

    I am still fascinated at the benefit ppl have pulled from these crippled phones like the popular 1110 – making maximum use of the limited services. Maybe all we need is another sms-based killer application?

    Also, I’ve seen many ppl in Kenya with advanced phones – and many of them never used the GPRS services although their handsets had a browser. So i think there just needs to a demand for more services and ppl will switch for a better phone.

  4. Mohammad says:

    Hi…I am extremely excited by reading the article and comments…because we have achieved all that you people wish to achieve…our technology uses the most basic of phones (cell or landline), language is no more a barrier, allows access to internet resources without an internet connection/connectivity and heres the best part…ITS FREE!
    Would love to hear from all you people. And if kiwanja can be helped with this, we are open.

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