I just called to say….I love my mobile phone!

On this World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (May 17), I have a confession to make. I carry a murder weapon on my person every day and night, and I go to bed with it next to me within easy reach. I rely on it for my work, my leisure and my pleasure. And I won’t part with it under any circumstances.

Neither would more than 3.3 billion people worldwide — or half of humanity.

I’m talking about the humble and increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone, now the world’s most widely used and fastest spreading consumer technology item.

And if any paranoid law enforcement agency worries about its murder potential…relax, people – we are talking figuratively here!

How come it’s a murder weapon when it has no sharp edges and is too light weight to do much damage?

What the mobile has already stabbed, and is in the process of effectively finishing off, is the development sector’s over-hyped and under-delivered phenomenon called the ‘telecentre’.

For those outside the charmed development circles (which is most of humanity), the Wikipedia describes telecentre as “a public place where people can access computers, the Internet and other digital technologies that enable people to gather information, create, learn and communicate with others while they develop essential 21st century digital skills.”

So how is the mobile phone slowly killing the telecentres, into which governments, the United Nations agencies and other development organisations have pumped tens of millions of dollars of development aid money in the past decade?

Well, it’s rapidly making telecentres redundant by putting most or all of their services into literally pocket-sized units. If everyone could carry around a miniaturised, personalised gadget that has the added privacy value, why visit a community access point?

At least this is the persuasive point made by LIRNEasia researcher Helani Galpaya, who made a presentation in September 2007 at the Annenberg School for Communication in the US.

Courtesy Joy of Tech

She argued that, although telecentres, which have become the bright “stars” in many e-development programs in Asian countries, do have a role to play in providing ‘higher’-end citizen services to people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Philippines and Thailand, telephones are the cheaper, immediate and ubiquitous tool for Asian governments to inform, transact and interact with almost 400 million of their most needy citizens.

And in these emerging Asian economies, when we talk of telephones it’s predominantly mobiles. In my native Sri Lanka, for example, there were 10.7 million phone subscribers by end 2007 – of them, almost 8 million were mobile users. Mobiles outnumber fixed phones by 3 to 1, and the disparity continues to widen.

Mobile kills the telecentre star‘ was the title of Helani’s presentation – it’s a play on a 1979 song celebrating the golden era of radio, “Video killed the radio star.” For the trivia buffs, it was the first music video shown on MTV.

The song has been the subject of various parodies, and Helani’s isn’t the first or last. But in this instance, I would heartily cheer the rapid demise of the telecentre, which is both conceptually and operationally flawed in many developing countries where it has been tried out. (While at it, let me repeat something that baffles me: how is it that not a single development donor or UN agency foresaw the phenomenal rise of mobile phones in the majority world, and instead bet all their ICT money on computers and internet? And why can’t some of them still appreciate the potential of mobiles, keep harping on obsolete telecentres and other troubled initiatives like One Laptop Per Child?).

It’s also worth noting that hard core development activists were initially against mobile phones, arguing instead for more public payphones, especially in rural areas. Only very recently have they started acknowledging that, just maybe, mobile phone can create or improve jobs, generate incomes and move millions out of poverty. In the humanitarian sector, as I wrote in October 2007, aid workers are still uncertain how to make best use of mobiles in their relief work.

Why are mobile phones somehow not ‘sexy enough’ for these men and women in suits who typically look at our real world problems from 33,000 feet above the ground?

But hey, why bother with doomed concepts like telecentres, when we can instead discuss about the lively and vibrant mobiles? (When the telecentres finally die after being kept on life support by gullible aid donors for a few more years, I hope to write a suitable obituary.)

Meanwhile, who’s afraid of mobile phones except the failed prophets of development and unimaginative humanitarian workers? There’s a handful of crusty, old fashioned people, usually those who can’t figure out just how to use the new fangled devices that do a lot more than just talk. Then there are tyrannical governments who fear the power of instant communication being in the hands of their own people.

The rest of us have now adjusted to Life After the Mobile Arrived. We may love it, or love to hate it — but can we imagine life without it?

And since we’re a blog about moving images, here’s a short film that I wrote and TVE Asia Pacific produced for LIRNEasia in late 2007. It was filmed in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and was based on
LIRNEasia’s path-breaking 2006 survey on telephone use at the bottom of the pyramid in emerging Asia. We
premiered at the 3rd Global Knowledge conference in Kuala Lumpur in December 2007.

The film’s synopsis reads:
With the next billion telecom users expected mainly from the emerging markets, we urgently need to understand telecom use, especially at the bottom of the pyramid. Who is using what devices for which purposes — and how much are they willing or able to pay? Capturing highlights of LIRNEasia’s 2006 survey in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, this film shows that when it comes to phone use, the poor are not very different from anyone else.

Teleuse@BOP Part 1 of 2

Teleuse@BOP Part 2 of 2

And now, just when you think I’m a harmless mobile junkie, here’s my real confession:
I own more than one mobile phone (hey, doesn’t everybody?) and stashed away in my travel bag I have a collection of SIM cards with active mobile accounts in half a dozen Asian countries that I visit regularly.

One day soon, when there are enough people like myself moving across jealously guarded political borders, those ITU statistics on ICTs would become seriously skewed….

TVE Asia Pacific News: Film highlights telephone revolution in Asia’s emerging markets
Teleuse@BOP Film screened at GK3
LIRNEasia 2006 survey on telephone use at the bottom of the pyramid in emerging Asia

11 Responses to “I just called to say….I love my mobile phone!”

  1. Sandra Says:

    Interesting post, but I fear your choice of dramatic language can do more harm than good. I agree with you on the misdirected efforts called tele-centres, but governments and donors have staked their reputation on these and are unlikely to pull out. They may now view mobile phones with even deeper suspicion than before…as a technology they cannot easily tame and mould into their agendas.

  2. Bidit Dey Says:

    After finishing the fieldwork for my doctoral research, that investigates how mobile ICTs can be used and appropriated by the rural farmers, I am not convinced that mobile telephony and telecentres can be mutually exclusive. I created small groups of farmers in remote rural Bangladeshi villages and gave one mobile telephone to each of the groups who were connected within themselves and with the local telecentres. I worked with Grameenphone Community Information Centre and D-Net’s Community Based Technology Centre. In both cases the farmers’ groups got access to different farming information (i.e. sources of fertilizers, solution for plant diseases and pest attack) from these centres, that have internet connectivity. Again these centres have internet connections through the EDGE enabled mobile telephones.
    It is also important to mention that in the rural areas telecentres have a broader role to play than just offering telephone services. Donor funded telecentres can disseminate information with regard to public health, livelyhood, public awareness campaigns, weather forecast and so forth. Mobile telephony can be used to take these benefits to the remote rural people. Hence, mobile telephony can be used for a two way communication between the rural people and telecentres.
    In a country like Bangladesh with very poor infrastructure for fixed phones mobile telephony can be the an effective means for reaching the unreachables.

  3. Bangladesh Corporate Blog Says:

    Also, one should keep in mind that not all types of information can be delivered to the target rural audience through mobile phones. There are technical limitations such as small screen size, character limits in text messages, air time tariffs etc. which makes mobile phones ideal for communication purposes only, not for all information dissemination. Also, shared access mechanisms such as telecenters are supposed to be affordable for the rural populace whereas personal access mechanisms such as mobile phones are strictly dependent on personal usage trend and affordibility. Telecenters and mobiles phones can be treated as not mutually exclusive strategies in ICT4D initiatives in developing countries.

  4. Rufina Fernandes Says:

    It is very interesting to understand different points of view on the Mobile phone vs Telecentre discussion.

    One of our programs named the NASSCOM Knowledge Network is to create this national grid of Telecentres across India to build capacities of NGOs to help them serve their communities more wholistically. We facilitate NGOs by providing them content and applications on education, health and livelihood to serve their underserved communities. We invest hugely in training programs building the NGO and their coordinators skills on this content, soft skills like leadership & entrepreneurship to help them plan the financial sustainability of these telecentres/ knowledge centres. Connectivity does play an important role both for the market linkages, getting in touch with like minded organisations as well as just staying connected with the rest of the world. Within this sphere of connectivity, mobile does play an important role. But a telecentre/ knowledge centre is more than just one person, with a mobile phone and access.

    These telecentres/ knowledge centres are hubs of activitiy and knowledge for the communities in which they are situated. We must remember that in most rural places (I’m speaking here only of India but it’s true in most parts of the world too), that its the poorest of the poor that get left out. However let us accept for a moment that its the mobile phones that would replace telecentre/ knowledge centres. My question is would these users automatically go out and build capacities on social services of their underserved communities? Maybe yes, maybe no. Going by the scale of need, its best to do so with existing NGOs who are already working with grassroot communities. This will help them to know how to use it for accessing knowledge, people and markets. Hence training and capacity building of people at the grassroots is key to making all these technologies relevant and useful in the hands of the users.

    Whether its computers, internet, mobiles and other devices or technology, they are mere tools. What is important to deliver is social services like education, health and livelihood related content and capacity building. This could be a long term value proposition for ‘Telecentres’ or ‘knowledge centres’ or ‘Information centres’ or whatever name given to such entities.

    Partnering with NGOs who have the bent of mind, credibility and long term relationships with their communities, are better suited to setup Telecentres/ knowledge centres. Since they are already engaged in their respective field of work, adding a ‘technology element’ would increase their own value proposition and become a value addition to them rather than an additional ‘burden’ of some kind.

    While mobile technology is going to become more pervasive, i am unsure if its going to replace the telecentres or knowledge centres in the immediate future for substituting imparting of social services and building capacities of mass communities at the grassroots.

  5. Vikas Kanungo Says:

    At the outset, my congralutations for the insightful article! While I firmly believe that location based personalised services delivered through the mobile devices is the definite future, I see a possibility if the Telecenters or Shared Access Points can revision their strategies to include interfacing with end users through mobile devives as the key strategy .
    It is understandable that aqccepting a changed reality after being associated passionately with some of the development programs is a difficult things, a mid way correction in the wake of new developments in the mobile technologies will be wise. In my opinion, mobile networks can prove to be a formidable extension for the telecenters or any other knowledge centers.

    I would also like to advice the same to the government agencies obsessed with their computer based e-Government strategies. The time to embrace change is now unless they want to taste more failures at the cost of public money.
    We have set up a global observatory and knowledge portal on global developments in mobile based public services at the URL http://www.mgovworld.org to help various practitioners follow the developments worldover. The developments need to be accelerated. This can happen only if the government and development agencies can activately look at innovative interface of their current programs with mobile platform and allocate some of their resources to encourage innovative applications development based upon mobile/ wireless technologies.

    I would like to conclude with the statement ” Mobile Devices are the new frontier for third millenium Information Society”. Adapt to the reality or u will be obsolete soon .

    Vikas Kanungo
    Chairman – The Society for Promotion of e-Governance, India

  6. Khairuzzaman Says:

    Thanks for the article. I am working with the telecenters in Bangladesh and think Mobile phone can’t be harmful for telecenters. The fact in Bangladesh is most people are illiterate and they don’t know English. Most of our people are now using mobile phone for connectivity but it is limited for personal communication. For the livelihood information they are not using mobilephone and our experience said that without information center (telecenter) they are far from the livelihood information

  7. Khalid Saifullah Says:

    “What the mobile has already stabbed, and is in the process of effectively finishing off, is the development sector’s over-hyped and under-delivered phenomenon called the ‘telecentre’”- I differ with Mr. Nalaka Gunawardene’s viewpoint.

    Mr. Bidit already pointed out the use of mobile phones in telecentres of rural Bangladesh. Actually mobile phone enriched and accelerated the services of telecentres. I don’t understand, why and how mobile phone should be exclusively considered from telecentre domain. It is obvious that this small tool getting rich with various functions, and numerous services are being designed and implemented on it, such as weather forecast, etc. But it would be difficult to say it is the alternate to the computer or laptop. Telecentres are providing ICT services, as well as knowledge sharing, gathering and also in many cases ICT training programmes. Even if I have a computer with Internet connection, I can not say, I got everything. I have to go social institutions to learn, acquire and share knowledge, etc.

    But telecentres are for them who are at the bottom of the pyramid. It not only provides information but also makes conscious about rights.

    There is issue of “pumping millions and millions of dollars” and “successful case studies”. There are lots of success stories. But most of them are invisible. If a farmer get relief from insects that was unknown to him with the help of a telecentre, s/he is escaped from loss, and that is not a small amount. It should be considered as the benefit of investment.

    In a certain stage, may be the format or structure of telecentre will be changed, but social institutions wont be eliminated. Because, virtual learning is not alternate to a university, but a supporting tool to it.

  8. Katrin Says:

    Nalaka — I sure hope you are considering doing a workshop or two and some talks at http://mobileactive08.org in Johannesburg in October. Please check it out and I hope to see you there.. Let me know if you want to discuss further!

    All the best, Katrin

  9. David Damario Says:

    The Mobile Phone;
    I was one of the first people in Canada to have a mobile phone..(1984)..well it really was attached to my car as the batteries weighed about 25 lbs. Friends would use it and say things like..”Honey, guess where I am calling from…a car phone.”
    It was a simple device….that at the time I considered an excellent tool mainly for business.
    When I walk thru our shopping malls now and I see groups of people standing together…but all on mobile phones talking to people that are not there …well I am not sure that it really is helping one to one communication…but we must give it a chance…it will evolve just as my first Portable phone did. Lets give it a decade or two and see where it leads us….and one last thing. Please turn of your phones during movies…I do not need to hear a ring tone during a good movie.
    Thank you
    David Damario

  10. Sandra Says:

    I have read the post and all comments at once. It is amusing to see how a few defenders of telecentres popped up from nowhere. They will of course say these becoz their bread and butter depends on it, right? I wonder why no one using a telecentre joined this debate.

  11. smartphone lover Says:

    Thanks for this information…. I love phone too, they’re harm but still lovely

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