Some thoughts on mobile phones and the digital divide

Nokia 1100. The best selling phone in the world. Image courtesy Wikipedia.    




Nokia 1100. The best selling phone in the world. Image courtesy Wikipedia.


Ken Banks has a super article up on PC World on using mobile phones to address the digital divide. In it Ken points to two aspects of mobile phones and their usage that not everyone even in developing countries quite understands. 

“They can make and receive calls, they have an address book, they can send and receive SMS, and the built-in alarm is very popular.”

“with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn’t support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission. Accessing the Internet? Dream on.”

I don’t know anything about sub-saharan Africa, but in Sri Lanka, wireless internet access footprints are expanding year after year. Today it is possible to get 3G coverage in many urban areas and WiMax coverage even further out afield. GPRS coverage almost blankets most of the areas in Sri Lanka. Areas that don’t have any of this will only get smaller. Even in 2003, when I was often on the A9 to Jaffna, I used to check my email via my old and trusted Nokia 3410 on the road. Today, I can tether my mobile to my laptop and access the net at speeds close to the “broadband” I get from my ADSL at home.

However, the question is whether those at the Bottom of the Pyramid access the internet through their mobiles or have any interest in doing so. I would think not. At least, not yet. While voice telephony and SMS usage is high, the potential of (new) mobile and devices that can produce, access and disseminate web based content will take years to take root even in the areas that are covered with high-speed internet mobile access.

But is this really a problem? I note in a recent paper on mobile phones and governance that,

From Zimbabwe and Kenya to China and Kuwait , from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

I endorse Ken’s suggestion for the development of a subsidized, fully Internet-ready handset for developing markets, but his own work with FrontlineSMS suggests that for the millions who use the phones we discarded years ago at the bottom of the pyramid, replacing handsets is not really a priority even if they are subsidised. Value has to be seen and realised in being able to access mobile content via mobiles, and that value today is simply not there for most consumers particularly at the bottom of the pyramid. I submit that it will also not automatically come with a new device / handset.

Part of this value has to be created by imagining governance that is responsive through mobiles. Citizens who feel that using the web on their mobiles to access information, participate in local government, produce information for the benefit of their local community and use it as a device in much the same way we approach social networking (such as Facebook on PCs and our high-end handsets) may create value and buy-in to use web enabled mobiles and bear the total cost of ownership over time, which will include data charges. 

Telcos can play a role. Today, many data plans and much of the content that leverages high speed mobile internet are those linked to entertainment. There is ZERO emphasis on governance. The emphasis on the market and resulting applications help (agrarian) producers at the local level get a better deal, but doesn’t capture the interest of others at the grassroots. And without sufficient interest and subsequent benefit to self and community, there’s no motive to upgrade from the likes of the Nokia 1100.   

Civil society can play a role. By leveraging some of the new technologies that seamlessly merge the web on the PC and the web on the mobile to create social networks, it’s possible to create virtual communities that produce and exchange information on shared interests, goals and challenges. 

Telemedicine can also play a role as an incentive for mobile internet. 

The issue of cost that Ken points to is important. The mobile web has to work differently to the web on the PC. The devices don’t lend themselves to laborious Google searches. There is limited screen space to display information. There are issues of language, with some scripts such as Sinhala requiring a larger font size (and therefore more screen space or less information on smaller screens) than English / Romanic fonts. There are issues of literacy to boot.

I have always though of mobiles empowering communities as an eco-system of complementary technologies. The lowest common denominator and the most useful to date is SMS. Add to this vernacular IVR services (which requires limited literacy) and wholly SMS driven information retrieval (such as that which many banks have on mobiles in Sri Lanka with details of credit card special deals and offers) and you have a range of technologies that aren’t impeded by the lack of internet accessibility on existing mobile handsets in the hands of the majority of consumers.

Ken’s full sentence in one of the excerpts above is as follows,

The problem is that the Nokia 1100, as with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn’t support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission.

Emphasis mine.

It’s a problem yes if you see it as providing everyone with web access.

However, the point I wish to make is that the internet isn’t just about the web or accessing it over a mobile web browser. SMS and IVR can hook into real time, live data sources on the internet (e.g. at its simplest, think of weather forecasting on-demand over voice or SMS for fisherfolk). Mobiles with just SMS can provide information to the web (think Twitter’esque services) that can in turn feed back into mobiles via SMS (think the erstwhile Rasasa). Think subsidised numbers that IDPs can call to access and listen to radio programmes with vital information. Think Government Information services that use IVR, are free calls, that enable all consumers to access information otherwise only available through the web. Think of cybercafes as stations to access printed documentation that is printed on demand through innovative SMS services.

Using Ken’s FrontlineSMS and a range of other tools and services, such as Sahana’s SMS modules, I will over the next three years work on some of these areas in Sri Lanka.

6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on mobile phones and the digital divide

  1. Please join the Facebook group against Sri Lankan government effectively banning all high – end mobile phones in the name of a GPS ban( the bigger harm can be done by GPS devices and Car Nav, then why ban only phones ? ) in Sri Lanka and help make a voice of opposition against a backward trend in a developing world. Click here to join.
    We kindly expect some sort of publicity from you regarding this. Thank you !

    K FLYER from

  2. Thanks for the interesting and solid commentary on this, Sanjana

    There are many issues – some technical, and some in definition – which makes this a fascinating subject. Technically, I already spent a little time discussing some of the challenges in my article. The “problem” with lower end phones, as I put it, assumes that you don’t consider SMS and IVR as part of the mobile web ‘mix’ (which many people don’t).

    In a recent conference I was talking with a delegate about how or if FrontlineSMS was relevant to the mobile web. It was an interesting discussion. I’m not particularly bothered whether it is or isn’t, as long as NGOs find it useful (as they are). There’s still a tendency to dismiss SMS as an old and technically not-too-clever technology, but it’s still the most relevant and my interest is in finding solutions that can be widely adopted today. Whether SMS (and IVR, for that matter) have a wider role to play going forward, who knows?

    There’s a W3C Group working on these challenges which I’m co-chairing, if anyone’s interested. Details at:



    P.S. Looking forward to working with you on FrontlineSMS over the coming months and years…

  3. Sanjana / Ken

    It was really interesting article to read, I ended up with reading whole article including the comment made by Ken.

    Yes, you guys are correct; Nokia 1100 is the mostly used handset in developing countries. If you check subscriber databases of all Sri Lankan telecom operators you will see 1100 as the mostly used handset in Sri Lanka too.

    Most valued added services offered by telecom operators are for the entertainment, and this is the high time to make use mobile to deliver other more important contents. Actually Dialog Telekom has few initiatives in Sri Lanka such as SMS and Cell Broadcasting (CB) for Disaster Early Warning and 766 toll free hotline for free counseling service from “Sumiththrayo”.

    I think other than SMS and IVR we can make use USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) a session based technology supported by even low end handsets. Any GSM network supports that technology any that can be used as a text version of a IVR service.


  4. the growth of broadband subscribers and users in Indonesia are still very lucrative. Indonesia continues to be in the top position for mobile internet usage, second only to Rusia. Mobile (data) usage in Indonesia is big. About 5.4 million registerred users.

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