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An engineer reflects on why mobile revolution is not being replicated in other utilities

The author of the op ed is an Australian Professor of Engineering who worked mostly on water projects in South Asia.

In Australia, a copious water supply and sanitation takes around 2 per cent of the economic resources of a family. In South Asia, barely enough potable water to survive can take 20-40 per cent of a family’s economic resources. Effective engineering in Australia accounts for much of the difference.

Therefore, it is not the lack of money that influences national poverty as ineffective engineering that imposes crippling high costs for water, energy and other essential services. Good engineering liberates human effort for social developments such as governance, healthcare, education, social services and even recreation.

The puzzle to him is the success of mobile and the failure of other utilities (an issue we seek to address in our 2012-14 research).

The mobile phone revolution has transformed expensive, corrupt, inefficient government monopolies with appalling service into thriving, profitable enterprises providing high quality service at minimal cost, around the world. India is no exception.

Although we can’t be sure, there seem to be some key human factors. First, mobile technology increases investor confidence: people can’t steal the service without paying. The phone won’t work without a pre-paid card or reliable credit. Second, the technology provides reliable and efficient ways to collect a vast number of small payments and reassures users that their credit will be secure. Third, the social chasms between engineers and the technicians who work with the equipment are easier to surmount than in the case of water and electricity. Fourth, the saving in time, measured as an economic value, more than makes up for the cost for users.

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