Mobile Technologies: new frontiers for development

By Shanti Jagannathan on Fri, 12 July 2013

A technology that has circled the world, connected up millions and impacted upon developed and developing countries is mobile telephony. The mobile phone has revolutionized the way we communicate, do business and access products and services. The pace of its spread in developing countries is nothing short of spectacular –faster and deeper than other technologies, such as computers, or even basic services, for that matter. As far back as 2006, when I was involved in a survey to develop a citizens’ report on the state of human development in 11 backward districts in India, there were villages that did not have a health sub center, electricity, fixed phone lines or computers, but most of them had cellphones!  By 2014, the number of cellphones and wireless devices is expected to exceed world population. 

Mobile technology has matured fast. Moving from voice traffic to data traffic has been at dizzying speed.  In 2012, global mobile data traffic was nearly twelve times the size of global Internet traffic in 2000. The number of mobile-only internet users is projected to reach 788 million, half of them in Asia Pacific.  

Both private and public sectors are drawing on mobile applications–for commerce, entertainment, education, health care and social services.  In the U.S, 31% of online shopping is on mobiles.  Consumers are using mobiles for banking, movie tickets, flight tickets, location services, entertainment and so on. 

What does this mean for development? Emerging markets are leading the growth in mobiles. The mobile offers unprecedented opportunities to reach development applications to millions. An estimated 2.5 b people do not have access to bank accounts and the mobile can be an instrument of financial inclusion. According to Mobile Money for the Unbanked, in 2012 there were 30 m mobile money customers. In Africa, there are now more mobile money accounts than bank accounts in Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania and Uganda, and more mobile money agent outlets than bank branches in 28 countries. Applications are helping to increase efficiency and avoid corruption. The Indian Railways launched an sms-based ticketing service earlier this month.  The Indian Mobile Seva of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology has launched a mobile appStore with 153 live applications for citizens to download and use. 

Mobiles can provide market information, educational material and health care. In India the National Rural Health Mission effectively used mobiles to reduce maternal mortality. Health workers in rural India were given mobile phones to track high-risk pregnant mothers.  SMS alerts were sent to expectant mothers on the next check-up which were further confirmed with district hospitals. This improved prenatal and post natal health in villages. Last month, Gambia started a project to monitor teacher attendance in schools through mobile phones.   

Despite considerable achievements, a lot more can be done to harness the power of mobiles to ensure greater benefits, particularly for excluded groups: 

  • Increasing speed of mobile broadband will increase access to applications 
  • Investing in high speed fixed broadband in rural hubs will help local enterprises to develop mobile applications  
  • Expanding applications for basic feature phones will amplify benefits to customers using basic handsets. In parallel, availability of cheap smartphones will bring applications to low income customers 
  • Adapting applications in multiple local languages and visual mediums will enhance opportunities for those with little or no education. Applications need to be free or purchased without credit card or bank accounts  
  • Cloud-based services can serve mass mobile markets faster. Companies such as biNu provide cloud-based solutions to non-smartphones that are on par with smartphones.     

Mobility is a game changer– it has helped emerging economies ‘leapfrog’ by jumping technology cycles.  Going forward, the main driver for change will be from applications that serve mass markets. Mobile money needs to expand in geometric progression in Asia.  The mobile platform can re-define the very nature of how education or health care is provided. In the US, mobile educational games are outselling educational games through PC/web/console modes. The benefit of such trends can be fully realized only if developing countries will enable enterprises to broaden the range of applications and services that citizens can access.