Mobiles Phones to Bridge Digital Divide

The Economist writes:

Rather than trying to close the divide for the sake of it, the more sensible goal is to determine how best to use technology to promote bottom-up development. And the answer to that question turns out to be remarkably clear: by promoting the spread not of PCs and the internet, but of mobile phones.

Plenty of evidence suggests that the mobile phone is the technology with the greatest impact on development. A new paper finds that mobile phones raise long-term growth rates, that their impact is twice as big in developing nations as in developed ones, and that an extra ten phones per 100 people in a typical developing country increases GDP growth by 0.6 percentage points.

And when it comes to mobile phones, there is no need for intervention or funding from the UN: even the world’s poorest people are already rushing to embrace mobile phones, because their economic benefits are so apparent. Mobile phones do not rely on a permanent electricity supply and can be used by people who cannot read or write.

From another article:

Given the mixed opinions on the ground, then, the real issue is not whether investing in ICTs can help development (it can, in some cases, and for some people), but whether the overall benefits of doing so outweigh those of investing in, say, education or health. Leonard Waverman of the London Business School has compared the impact on GDP of increases in teledensity (the number of telephones per 100 people) and the primary-school completion rate. He found that an increase of 100 basis points in teledensity raised GDP by about twice as much as the same increase in primary-school completion. As Dr Waverman acknowledges, however, his calculations do not take into account the respective investment costsand it is the cost of ICTs that makes people such as Mr Gates so sceptical of their applicability to the developing world.

Indeed, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai (formerly Madras), argues that cost is the deciding factor in determining whether the digital divide will ever be bridged. To that end, Dr Jhunjhunwala and his colleagues are working on a number of low-cost devices, including a remote banking machine and a fixed wireless system that cuts the cost of access by more than half. But such innovation takes time and is itself expensive.

The Economist has got one-third of the story right. The other two-thirds:

1. Multimedia-enabled thin clients: think of them as phones with bigger I/O capabilities and peripheral options. In the developed world, we call the PCs 🙂 The TCs will have the same internal specs as the phones — as we have also seen with the Blackfin device we are building. The big I/O is needed for many things.

2. Grid Services: centralised apps and data storage. Because the cellphone has a wireless connection, it can connect to the network. Do all the heavyweight lifting on the server.

The TCs and Mobile phones will complement each other — needed between them is seamless mobility. This is where the “virtual Desktop” comes in — I can start reading a book on a mobile phone, and continue reading it on my TC, and then perhaps back on the phone, for example. All of this is possible if state (what the user is doing) is stored on the server.

This is how commPuting in emerging markets will look like.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.