By Chilumba Mubashi – SDET II, Windows Mobile



The Digital Divide
In a United Nations publication covering African Recovery, it was noted that the continent of “Africa had the fewest telephone lines, radios, televisions sets, computers, and internet users of any part of the world”. This ratio of people, who have access to these technological resources versus those without, known as The Digital Divide, is severe in this part of the world - The United Nations gave a statistic of 1 out 130 having access to a computer. But the growing number of cell phone users in Africa is helping bridge that technology divide.

 


Mobile Phone Use Growth
According to the International Telecommunications Union, there are over 3 cell phone subscribers for every landline subscriber. This plays in well to support the idea of developing countries having a bigger share of the cellular market, as mobile infrastructures are much easier to put up than landlines which involve massive underground cabling.

 

Global Telecom Indicators for World Telecommunication Service Sector

  

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

Main (fixed) telephone lines (millions)

1'083

1'135

1'204

1'262

1'263

1'278

1'267

Mobile cellular subscribers (millions)

1'157

1'417

1'763

2'219

2'757

3'305

4'100


Source: © INTERNATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATION UNION, 2009
(
http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/at_glance/KeyTelecom99.html)



In the last few years, there has been a huge growth in the mobile cell phone use. Various mobile operators have entered different African markets to cover this demand for cellular services. This of course has also opened the door for mobile technological innovations which caters to the phone users.

Traditional voice calling by means of cell phones is still the most common use of the mobile devices. But voice calls are still regarded as pretty expensive. This has encouraged phone owners to use their phone by going for a cheaper option using Short Message Service (SMS) text messages. This service is widely available on most phones, and does not have the restriction of the device having to be internet capable. This is the most popular way people will interact with their device. The SMS blow up has even enabled petitions to be signed on the phone – an example is the African Union “Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa”; organizations urged mobile users to support the protocol by sending an SMS with the word “petition” and their name in the message (http://www.afrol.com/articles/13702)

With popularity of the service also comes innovations. In the 2008 Messaging Conference in Cannes, France, delegates were amazed by ground-breaking ways SMS was being used in Africa; especially in innovations such as banking services. I can immediately think of the M-Pesa story that Tawanda Sibanda touched on in the December 2008 Africans at Microsoft blog post .

But as internet capable phones become more widely available, there is now an increase in the number of people in Africa using their mobile to access the web. In a 2008 IT News Article, it was identified that internet penetration has become an indicator of a country’s financial well being. "for every 1% increase in a country’s internet penetration, GDP per capita increases by US$493, and a 1% increase in mobile penetration results in a per capita increase of US$240"
"In developing markets such as Africa, the mobile phone often provides consumers with their first exposure to the internet".

This development is aiding to bridge the digital divide in internet access. Because there are now more internet users in Africa (accessing the web on the phone), firms are being innovative, and starting to provide services that combine SMS and internet. Plus, bytes of data over internet are cheaper than bytes of data over SMS.

 


Sembuse: Kenya’s Social Interaction Mobile Platform
I just recently read about a company, Symbiotic, which has taken advantage of this Internet and SMS marriage. This East African firm based in Kenya, has come up with a product called ‘Sembuse’ which is an application you download onto your phone. The application provides social networking aspects by making available a way for people to setup profiles, and presenting a way to meet other people with similar interests or backgrounds. But the service also lures users onto it by providing SMS functionality built into the application. I believe the reason they can provide SMS much cheaply is because they use the internet to relay the text messages data across the phone networks. Traditional SMS has a restriction of only supporting up to 160 characters, but ‘Sembuse’ has expanded that by allowing up to 1000 characters for a single message, and at a lower cost than the 160 character message. The lower SMS cost is similar to South African’s MXit which Tawanda had also touched on in the December 2008 blog post.

 


An Opportunity For The Future
I believe there is still an opportunity in the mobile space to expand further, by providing ways to integrate phone camera pictures into applications, since most internet capable phones have cameras on them. Once the camera is considered, solutions integrating tag technology, like the one offered by Microsoft (http://tag.microsoft.com), would provide further web navigation usability. Tag technology provides photo to website functionality; user takes picture of bar-code like tag, and they are directed to a website. Phone tag technology is already being used by some marketers to veer potential customers to special promotions websites. So I see a lot of potential in this space.

 


Africa’s Rapid Mobile Growth Bridging the Divide
African countries are becoming role models for making technologies work in developing countries. The businesses coming up are also targeting people who ordinarily might not have been exposed to the technologies available. These success cases build on the opportunities that are being spoken about in the media, such as the recent 1 May 2009 headline in the issue of ‘Balancing Act News Update’ - “Africa’s rapid mobile Internet growth will drive network expansion and media spend”. The example cases are the stories which are reminding the world that the digital divide can indeed be reduced. We do not have to think of it through personal computers anymore, as mobile phones now have the capabilities to do most of the computing tasks that a traditional computer can do.

 

- "Africa takes on the digital divide"; African Recovery -
http://www.un.org/ecosocdev/geninfo/afrec/vol17no3/173tech.htm

- "Africa’s rapid mobile Internet growth will drive network expansion and media spend"; Balancing Act News update (Africa), ISSUE NO 452 1st May 2009 -
http://www.balancingact-africa.com

- "Africa leads global SMS trends"; BIZ Community -
http://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/78/24431.html

- "Internet penetration has become a key factor in financial well-being"; IT New Africa, August 28 2008 -
http://www.itnewsafrica.com/?p=965

- "SMS for better women rights in Africa"; afrol News -
http://www.afrol.com/articles/13702