Abigail Keene-Babcock

Ericsson’s Plan: Rural Connectivity for the Millennium Villages

I recently came across an article on CNNMoney.com about world-leading supplier of telecommunications Ericsson’s plan to provide mobile phones and internet connectivity to the Millennium Villages. It caught my attention, since it relates to a flurry of recent activity on NextBillion. We’ve seen a lot of discussion and press about rural connectivity (DesiCrew in India), wireless internet possibilities (Al Hammond’s blog on rural Brazil), mobile phone networks (M-PESA), and other technological advances (Tom Friedman’s editorial, and Rob Katz from Pop!Tech). These have now become integral to many of the most innovative and expansive solutions for providing goods and services to the poor, but through market-based models.

Ericsson is partnering with The Earth Institute and with pan-African telecom MTN to bring mobile broadband connectivity to the Millennium Villages, beginning with the village of Mayange in Rwanda, with plans to extend to all seventy-nine Villages across 10 countries, reaching approximately 400,000 people.According to the article, there will be a toll-free phone service for medical emergencies, connecting patients with on-duty personnel at the Village’s health centers, and mobile sets will also be used as a tool for training community health workers in collecting and sharing basic health information.

And, paralleling recent discussions in the BOP field about designing applications, services, and technologies with the poor in mind, Ericsson (in partnership with the GSM Association’s Development Fund) has made it possible for its small-business entrepreneurs in the villages to sell shared voice and data services to villagers. Ericsson is also providing newly developed Solar Village Chargers for recharging mobile phone batteries to each village cluster.

So, this is fantastic, but still leaves room for some important questions.

Imagine yourself a subsistence farmer – first, you’ve got really great, high-quality seed to improve your harvest. There are trained healthcare workers who are well-stocked with supplies, and they are within easy walking distance of your home. Now you can even access a mobile phone, and are ?connected? to the world with broadband.

Life is good, and hopefully it will stay that way. You?re healthier, and with all of these goods and services that have been provided combined, your earning potential is now higher.

But, if in five years Ericsson doesn?t come back around and give out new phones, and if no one continues to maintain the mobile broadband connectivity indefinitely for free, will that service still be there for you and your kids? If you came to rely on that service, would you suddenly be able to afford it yourself?

To avoid sounding like the broken record of attacks on Jeff Sachs? camp and the theory of model villages (which I very much hesitate to do, since many thousands are going to reap a wide range of life-changing benefits from those programs), I want to focus on a challenge for Ericsson.

Could Ericsson also pour its talent, technology and philanthropic intentions into finding sustainable models that could reach millions more? Could it build on the experiences and lessons of M-PESA mobile banking, Drishtee internet kiosks, GrameenPhone and so many others that have, through a great deal imagination, testing, and re-working, not only designed products that are useful to the poor, but can be delivered through self-sustaining and often employment-generating mechanisms?

Free phones and broadband are great–in fact, paying my Comcast bill for wireless every month and recently having replaced a water-damaged cell phone remind me of just how great and impossible for most people this actually is (not just because Comcast has monopolized the ISP biz in my neighborhood, but also because wherever you go in the world, it does cost something to provide these products and services).

For people in the Millennium Villages, free may be the only price they can pay right now. But if Ericsson is really looking to get long-term bang for its philanthropic buck, it should also be looking to construct service models that do not just lay the groundwork for increased economic activity, but are models of economic scale in themselves.