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.

Inspiring the local [by default]

I’m all for local solutions to local problems. Or even locally-inspired solutions to local (or national) problems. Or nationally-inspired solutions to local or national problems. I think you get the picture. But one thing I’m not quite so keen on is the default state of international solutions to local problems, or national problems in some cases. Sure, you can quite rightly argue that certain solutions need to be developed internationally to obtain economies of scale, particularly if your solution involves manufacturing, or if you’re working on the environment or in the health arena (after all, malaria is malaria, wherever you are). Just take the One Laptop Per Child Project, or OLPC, for example. For all it’s good and bad points – and I’m not going to go into any of those here – it troubles me on two interconnected fronts. Firstly, it’s international trying to solve local, and secondly, it really doesn’t need to be. Once again we’ve reverted to the ‘default state’ (one day I’ll draw up a diagram of how this should work. I keep getting asked what my ‘model’ is!).

(One point I’d like to quickly clarify here is my own belief in providing tools and not solutions wherever possible. Capacity-building is generally far more effective this way. This blog entry, however, deals with the issue of “solutions” because these are usually what’s offered. Hopefully one day this will also change).

With all the hype around the OLPC project you could have easily thought that it was the only computer-based ‘digital divide’ solution in town. Well, you’d be wrong. It’s quite possible that you may not have heard of some of the others, despite the big names behind them. How about the Eduwise laptop from Intel, or FonePlus by Microsoft? No? Maybe..? Okay, the Personal Internet Communicator from AMD, the chip maker? These are all being touted as THE solution to the digital divide problem (that’s providing internet connectivity/IT to the worlds’ poor, to you and me). A couple of these solutions use similar, but others distinctly different, technical approaches. But the one thing they have in common is they are all US-based responses to problems outside of the US.

Ever heard of NetTV, NETPC or Novatium? Well, soon you could be hearing a lot more. Ramesh Jain, one of the men behind Novatium, is an Indian. Not surprisingly he knows India, and he’s working on his own (not surprisingly, Indian) solution to India’s own digital divide. Luckily for Ramesh (if that’s the right word to use), his government rejected an offer of a million OLPC’s on the grounds that they were too expensive. His solution – a unit based on a cheap cell-phone chip, no hard drive, a keyboard, a screen and a couple of USB ports – comes in right on the $100 mark (OLPC is hovering around $140 these days). What’s more, Ramesh believes he can get the price down to nearer $70.

What’s so different about the two approaches – other than the obvious technical ones and the fact that one is a national and the other an international solution – is that Negroponte’s OLPC is based on heavy subsidies from private and public philanthropy. Ramesh is in it to make money. OLPC- and NetPC-style initiatives often lack sustainability, a ‘minor’ issue which often ends up totally spoiling the party. Look at the history books – the superhighway is scattered with the remains of initiatives forced to leave early with their USB cables dangling between their legs.

Now, a local or national approach to the problem, based on a socially-focused business model? That could just work. It certainly ticks all the right boxes for me.

Battle at the bottom of the pyramid

You can imagine the headlines.

“Western giants battle over the hearts, minds (and ultimately the wallets?) of Africa’s rural poor”

I’m talking about the battle going on right under our noses between MIT and Microsoft, or Nicholas Negroponte and Bill Gates, or the $100 laptop and a Windows/mobile device (as yet unnamed since it’s not even in existence). Or all three if you like.

For those of you who might not know, the $100 laptop is a product of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a non-profit association dedicated to researching and developing a laptop to revolutionise ICT access for the ‘rural poor’ in developing countries. The idea was announced by Nicholas Negroponte at the World Economic Forum in January 2005.

The laptop itself is a rather bright little green thing, its most striking feature being a crank handle which gives it the power it needs to run. As is traditional in such cases, the idea has caused jubilation and alarm in equal measure, not least from Bill Gates himself who, not surprisingly perhaps, is a little miffed that the laptop designers have opted to use open source software, shunning his beloved Windows operating system. Maybe for this reason alone Mr. Gates has gone on the warpath, slamming the $100 laptop and claiming that some Windows-powered mobile device plugged into a keyboard and TV is the answer. All very interesting stuff, even if it doesn’t exist yet (or does it?!).

All of this strikes me as yet another example of top-down interventionism. Are these projects (or visions in Bill’s case) needs-driven, or big business agenda-driven? And whose needs? If it’s the ‘rural poor’ then are their needs real or perceived? Who’s representing the ‘rural poor’ in all of this? What do they think (not that they can all collectively respond, naturally)? I imagine it’s like being in a hospital bed with two doctors standing over you arguing about how you’re feeling and what’s best for you. As the patient, surely you have some say? In a similar way, the ‘rural poor’ should not be treated as passive recipients of whichever ICT becomes dominant, based on battles of ideas, money and ideologies far, far away. Is it really for us to say what they really need?

“African women who do most of the work in the countryside don’t have time to sit with their children and research what crops they should be planting. What is needed is clean water and real schools”. How many would agree with that?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not particularly for or against initiatives like the $100 laptop. It’s just the process that I’m having a little difficulty with.