TECH TALK: Digital Divide: Cellphones

5. Cellphones

The number of mobile-telephone subscribers will overtake that of fixed subscribers this year, according to new figures from the International Telecommunications Union, says the Economist (April 6, 2002). It continues: “The boom in mobile telephony has helped the world’s least developed countries above the important threshold of one telephone subscriber per 100 inhabitants.” This compares with 120 fixed lines and mobile users per 100 inhabitants in advanced countries and 20 in emerging countries.

Phones (fixed and mobile) are a great way to bridge the digital divide. A phone cuts away the isolation of the individual. It becomes a window to the world (just like television) – the difference being that the phone can be used much more as business tool. The cost of a GSM phone has fallen dramatically and is available for less than USD 100 (Rs 5,000). Prepaid phone cards are helping the bottom of the pyramid adopt a mobile phone as the primary mode of communications.

In many places, a cellphone helps provide connectivity to a community. Writes Kumar Venkat: “[In each village in Bangladesh], an entrepreneur purchases cellphone service from a subsidiary of Grameen Bank, and operates a pay-per-call service that in effect connects the whole village to the telephone network.”

The cellphone can also open up better business opportunities. In Kerala, for example, fishermen use their cellphones to check prices of fish with different seafood markets. Writes Saritha Rai in The New York Times (August 4, 2001):

In the seas southwest of Bangalore off the coast of southern India, the steady drone of motorized fishing boats is often interrupted by the ringing of mobile phones. Even as they land their catch in the boats, fishermen are already in touch with the dozen-odd seafood markets around here, checking prices at different ports.

One fisherman, Ratish Karthikeyan, says that since he acquired his BPL mobile service over a year ago, his profit on each eight-day fishing run in his trawler has doubled. Two months ago, for instance, Mr. Karthikeyan, 35, netted an extra $1,000 by using his phone to compare prices at Cochin with those at Quilon, a port 85 miles away.

The 5,000 fishermen who work off the coast of Kerala state are not alone in embracing wireless technology. From garment exporters in Tiruppur in the south to farmers in Punjab in the north, rural India has discovered the convenience of doing business on mobile phones. Many areas have never had conventional fixed-line service.

“As farmers and small-business men realize the impact of mobile communications on the pace and efficiency of their lives, usage is shooting up rapidly,” said Sandip Das, the chief executive of Fascel.

“Life without a mobile phone,” said Mr. Karthikeyan, the Cochin fisherman, “is unthinkable.”

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.