Manuel Bueno

Mobile Phones and The Promise of Bringing the Base of the Pyramid into Networks

InternetAfter having devoted my last posts to more abstract aspects of the?base of the pyramid, Jim Rosenberg, from our sister organization CGAP, kindly brought me to the ground again with an e-mail about how to connect the BoP to Internet through their mobiles.

The beauty of the mobile phone?phenomenon in developing countries (and the reason for its success?at the BoP) is its capacity to?build linkages between people and markets, thus helping generate wealth in the short and long term for the agents involved thanks to a connection that previously didn’t exist.?The growth of it has been dramatic: Since 2000, the yearly growth of mobile?phone subscribers has averaged 24% and?only a few weeks ago, the International Telecommunication Union (United Nations’s branch dealing?with telecom issues) stated that mobile phone subscribers were likely to reach 4 billion before the end of 2008.

The BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are expected to account for over 1.3 billion subscribers, with China alone representing more than 600 million. India, on the other hand?was estimated to have 296 million subscribers back in July, yet its penetration rate is still around 20%, suggesting ample opportunities for growth.

Now, having a mobile phone represents not only an opportunity for generating connections between two users, but also an opportunity to connect with a network which is estimated to include 1.5 billion people, the Internet (about 26.6 billion pages). However, while the developed world is well served by extensive submarine fiber networks?the question remains on?how to enable the BoP’s connection?to the Internet.

Jim mentions two possible paths:

  1. Incredible as it may sound, using a satellite system. In fact, Google, Liberty Global (the world’s leading international cable operator) and HSBC signed a month ago an agreement with 03b networks to being deployment of a new global communications infrastructure, comprising 16 satellites to provide high-speed, low-cost Internet connectivity to emerging markets. Service activation is scheduled for late 2010.
  2. A longer-term answer might lie in a different technology which has been also touted in its own right as an interesting solution to electricity shortages in the BoP (but not quite there yet): light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, for short. Boston University’s College of Engineering is launching a program to develop the next generation of wireless communications technology based on visible light instead of radio waves. If successful, this initiative would develop an optical communication technology that would make an LED light the equivalent of a Wi-Fi access point.

It is difficult to predict the way in which mobile phones will make the jump from connecting people one-to-one to connecting people to a network. Likewise, it is difficult to predict, what the effects will be when that happens. However, one thing is for sure: it will be the second big leap in information accessibility at the BoP level and hopefully?a definitive one.