Empowering Communities: How Mobile Is Transforming Development

By Toure, Hamadoun I. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Empowering Communities: How Mobile Is Transforming Development


Toure, Hamadoun I., Harvard International Review


The role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), particularly broadband, in boosting economic growth and national competitiveness is now widely recognized. The ICT infrastructure is today both a vital national asset and an investment in a nation's future competitiveness in the growing global digital economy.

In developed countries, mobiles and smartphones are used for entertainment, browsing the web, and business interactions. In developing countries, mobile phones very often are the primary drivers of business. In the absence of fully developed and established infrastructure, mobiles are now used in a host of different ways for education, healthcare, cash transfers and--literally--to save lives. Mobile phones are empowering people to access information and make informed choices.

It took mobile phones 21 years to achieve the milestone of one billion subscriptions in 2002, compared to 125 years for fixed lines. Today, there are well over six billion mobile cellular subscriptions and mobile phones outnumber fixed lines by five to one, with half the world's subscriptions now located in low-income countries (Figure 1). Why is mobile so popular? For consumers, mobiles are personal, customized, and increasingly powerful in the absence of fixed line alternatives. Mobiles are converging with tablets and notebooks in functionality and Internet access. For operators, a mobile access network is cheap with fewer sunk costs and a faster payback horizon of 18 to 24 months compared to fixed access networks (although the backbone network may be based on fibre-optic technologies to handle growth in data traffic).

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Mobiles for Development

Today, mobiles are help provide access to basic education to millions of families with schoolchildren. They can help pregnant mothers monitor the progress of their pregnancy or track symptoms of illness. They are also enabling migrant workers to make cash payments to support families back home or farmers and fishermen to find the best price for their products (Box 1). Some commentators have argued that mobile phones played a significant role in facilitating citizen participation in the Arab Spring, mostly through convergence with social media, enabling the real-time organization of meetings to make the voices of ordinary people heard. According to the work of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, of which I am Vice-Chair, mobile technologies--and mobile broadband in particular--can also help boost progress towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In many developing countries today, the mobile sector is predominantly operated by privately-owned companies. For example, the rise of large pan-regional conglomerates such as Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN), Celtel or Digicel, has proven that selling to lower income customers can still be profitable and commercially viable. These companies approach their markets with strong commercial incentives to do business; today, mobile business models and ecosystems are evolving, which are boosting socio-economic development, spawning an entire mobile ecosystem of business and entrepreneurs, as well as meeting commercial profit motives. Indeed, mass-market approaches to the sale of mobile services to lower-income customers (for example, through micro-recharge cards) have fuelled the growth of mobile companies and conglomerates. Mobile networks are relatively easy to deploy, with rapid payback horizons and tried-and-tested business models that have been used elsewhere.

Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that broadband can boost GDP and income, helping combat poverty and hunger. Cross-country regression work by the World Bank suggests that a 10 percent increase in mobile penetration could boost GDP by 0.81 percent in low-and middle-income countries. County case studies suggest that mobile broadband has had a significant impact in some countries; in the Philippines, for example, mobile broadband adoption was found to add an estimated 0.

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