Mobile Africa Must Not Leave Its Villages Behind

Article excerpt

AFRICA has entered the information revolution. In 2003 alone over 13 million new mobile subscribers were added on the continent, a figure equivalent to the total number of telephone--fixed-line and mobile-subscribers in 1995. The number of mobile users in Uganda has multiplied 131 times. A combination of different media and the World Trade Organization's telecommunication agreement are two major forces behind this revolution. Government providers--often inefficient and hampered by expensive infrastructure with outdated technologies--have lost their monopolies in the new competitive environment. Today's Africa, with the fastest annual average growth rate in mobile subscriptions (65 per cent), is hailed as an exciting model for the telecommunications revolution. When compared with the world's and Europe's average (33 per cent and 35 per cent respectively), this is an impressive record.

The development implications are immense. Information is critical to development, and telecommunications as a means of connecting people (accessing and exchanging information) is a vital link in the development process. The Nobel laureate and development economist Amartya Sen says that deficiency of information and lack of social connectedness are two main reasons for human deprivation. Communication tools can help the poor to participate in development debates. This is particularly important for the poor and marginalised in Africa, where half the population earns less than a dollar a day.

However, a closer look at this revolution, examined from rural perspectives, shows that most of the growth has been in the cities. Overall national figures for teledensity--the number of phones per 100 people--hide the fact that there is only about one telephone per 1,000 people in some rural areas of Africa. Nearly a decade after liberalisation, the promise of delivering the last mile of connectivity has remained unfulfilled for the rural and poor in Africa. Mobile phones are too expensive for rural users and providing fixed-line connections is too costly for governments.

Some believe that mobiles can replace fixed lines and mobiles are more appropriate for providing services to rural areas because of lower infrastructure costs and easier delivery. At present costs of using mobiles are too high for most rural people but enthusiasts of technology argue that the cost of new technologies will eventually come down and meet rural needs. And many international development actors argue that market deregulation and competition will help bring down costs and close the communication gap between rural and urban communities. But current trends show that providers tend to concentrate on urban markets, shying away from rural areas saying they are not profitable enough. Service providers in Uganda cite the lack of infrastructure, such as roads and power, insecurity and low effective demand for their failure to extend services to most rural areas. The reasons for the increased use of mobile phones also include the low quality and unreliability of fixed-line services. In addition, pre-paid mobiles mean that many customers who would not otherwise be granted access to a phone if their credit status were checked first, are able to get connected. …