November 2007

Mobile technologies for development

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Introduction
We have moved away from a time when perhaps the only mode of communication was the postal department. Today, we are living in a time when mobile handsets have become an important part of our lives and it just takes a mere push of a button to communicate. Mobile technologies represent a rapidly growing sector in developing countries, and several new research and development activities are being undertaken.

The scope of applications for development is wide, and as these applications can reach the unlettered people also, the impact on development, needs to be examined closely. Hence there is a need to engage the key operators, government policy makers, and service providers to build a development perspective and explore the possibilities of bridging the urban-rural divide.

The mServe track (http://www.eindia.net.in/mserve/index.asp) at the eIndia 2007 Conference (http://www.eindia.net.in/) in New Delhi,  encapsulated the idea of using mobile technologies for development. How can technologies like wireless, mobile services, etc. help in bottom of the pyramid interventions for provision of citizen services, health expertise, etc? It addressed the issues of content localisation, infrastructure, power requirements, and traversed the whole ambit of m-Government.

India today has the third largest wireless telecommunications network providers base, after USA and China. As of now, tele-density in India stands at 19.86%. Out of this, the urban tele-density's share is as high as 48%, whereas the overall rural density is only 6%.

There is a huge gap between urban and rural India when it comes to using mobile devices and services, which is a matter of grave concern.

Discussion snippets
R N Prabhakar, member, TRAI, said,  “India is developing fast and mobile phones play a very significant role in this. It provides easy communication, but the true use of mobiles is yet to begin as the mobile is still to enter the hinterlands of the country.”

While stating some of the reasons for the non-availability of mobile connections in rural areas, he said that the “lack of mobile communication in rural areas persists because of lack of power supply and even if generators are used, the cost of maintenance becomes very high, as accessibility of fuel in interiors is again an issue in iteself. And since there is dearth of power supply, it becomes difficult to even charge mobile handsets. Also the prices of the handsets are high when we look at it from the perspective of a farmer or a labourer. Lastly, mobiles come in handy when a person travels long distance in case of cities, but in villages, people hardly do so”.

Later, Kapil Ahuja, Marketing Head – Nokia Siemens Networks, India said, “It is true that the mobile has not entered the deeper regions properly but once it does so, it will be of big help to people. First, it will help people to plan their travel in advance since in villages, commuting long distance is always troublesome. Secondly, it will help them in dealing with vendors as they are not able to sell goods because of lack of communication. Lastly, mobile communications help in keeping in touch with loved ones. In case of emergency too, mobile phones come in very handy”. He also said that, “it would be incorrect to say that private sector is not doing anything to solve the problem. We have started working on things such as new and innovative power plants, solar and wind power based plants, etc. However, private sector alone can not do everything. The government has to lend its full support for the improvement of rural India.” He also gave examples of how service providers have started selling recharge coupons of low denominations, and life time validity SIM cards, keeping in mind that it often becomes difficult for customers to use mobile services as the cost of both handsets and services are high.

It was great to see both the private and public sector agreeing on reasons as to why rural India is still behind in communication and both trying in their respective areas to solve this problem.

Use of content, features and applications
Gone are the days when mobile handsets were used only to make calls. These days mobile handsets have multiple usages from being a camera to being used as a music player, from sending emails to bank transactions. But again all these are for the urban consumers, people who barely know how to read and write, for them these features serve no purpose.

Mahesh Prasad, President, Reliance Communications said that the mobile in India has reached its heights. “We have crossed 150 million subscribers now and we are adding 7 million subscriber every month on an average.. however, this success story has a flip side. 70% of the population that resides in rural India has no access to mobile. Yes, it is true that power is a big concern, however the features of the mobile handsets doesn't suit them. for them, handsets should have small screen, as most people can only do sequential navigation. The QWERTY keyboard that we use in urban side is of little use to them, as they do not know how to use it. The non availability of content in their own language, as most phones are in Hindi or English, it makes things little more difficult for them. But these are some common issues, it still remains an academician's dream to find out what will actually work with rural market in terms of Application, Features and Content.”

Prasad also cited an example of how a taxi driver learned to use his handset by using R-world to download a ring tone. He said though the infotainment is of little value it does help people in learning the proper use of mobile handsets.

Shrikant S Naidu, Manager Application Research Centre, Motorola Labs India continued – “It is true that rural India should have had mobile connectivity by this time. However due to resource problems the process took time. These were external factors, the major problem is still in the area of creating the correct application for people living in hinterland. Some mobile companies have already begun their work but again the features are limited. In a mobile, features matter a lot, and perhaps a village would not require very trendy applications, but the handsets should be made according to their understanding, so that they can use it.” He also added that mobile handsets would give more job opportunities, which for the time being is very limited apart from better health and education, as it'll help everybody to stay connected to each other.

It was clear that everybody was talking of mobiles reaching to the interiors of India which in turn would work for the betterment of the country. However, even for the mobile handset manufacturers, it seemed a difficult task to give an answer to the question as to what kind of content, application and features would suit the consumer in rural India. Probably, a clear and workable solution isn't much far away.

Some recommendations:

  • mServe practices involve the operators, the service providers, regulators, and the bodies looking into security, legal and ethical issues and representation from all these sectors. It's a good beginning, more should follow!
  • Create a platform for extended knowledge sharing, like a magazine/portal/web space.
  • Help build relationships between the various possible partners/organisations.
  • Promote the use of shared infrastructure in rural areas to subsidise the operational expenditure.
  • Case studies from more countries would be welcome.
  • Focus should also be on providing better and easier user experience
  • Localisation of user Interface, content and applications is the key to achieve larger acceptance among the rural masses.
  • Wimax will be the future technology to look forward to while delivering high end data to users.
  • Involving more developed nations was floated as an idea, as the developing world could learn from their experiences.   

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