Dec 23, 2005, By: Robert Clark, Wireless Asia
That particular non-event, and the anti-social behavior of ‘s police, took the headlines, such as they were. By the end, journalists were reduced to counting the number of delegates (19,400), sessions (316) and participating organizations (264).
It is worth recalling that one of the key missions of the grandly-named World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was to figure out ways of narrowing the digital divide.
And despite the grandstanding, WSIS did leave behind a few small straws of progress for the three billion citizens on planet earth who don’t have access to modern communications. I’m not talking about the 2,500 unknown tele-development projects claimed by the ITU, or its under-subscribed Digital Solidarity Fund.
ITU secretary-general Yoshio Utsumi sniffed that rich western nations, who elected not to write checks to his fund, suffered from a "limited" understanding of the divide. That’s one way of looking at it. Or it may be that governments these days are wary of throwing public monies at the UN. Or perhaps rather than kick in cash for "solidarity", donors prefer to fund real solutions.
Addressing the divide
One is the expansion of the village phone program pioneered by Grameen Telecom in . The concept has trialed successfully in and the main instigator, the Grameen Foundation , has picked up Nokia as a technology supporter.
There had been skepticism about how well the village phone concept would port to other markets beyond its home in . Supposedly ‘s high population density and homogeneity made it exceptional among developing nations.
Not so. The Ugandan trial has set up village phones in 2,800 villages, each serving 500 to 1,000 people. Another pilot is underway in , and Grameen is also exploring possibilities in the and.
The village phone is another application of the micro-finance concept pioneered by Professor Muhammad Yunus. Grameen Phone, a JV between Telenor and the non-profit Grameen Telecom, has put a phone service into 165,000 Bangladeshi villages, each yielding an ARPU higher than that of the average business user on the network.
The powerful thing about the Grameen approach is it’s not charity. Typically, one person – always a woman – in each village is given funding to buy a phone business, typically with a loan of about $180. She gets a phone, antenna, access to wholesale airtime rates, marketing collateral, and training. In turn she earns income by selling airtime to other villagers.
"Village phone is not selling a phone, it’s selling a business opportunity. We give them the opportunity to create an ICT-based business," said David Keogh, deputy director at the Grameen Foundation ‘s Grameen Technology Center.
While Nokia is backing the village phone, rival Ericsson has hooked up with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to improve rural mobile coverage.
Johan Bergendahl, Ericsson’s head of marketing, says one of the hard things was to get local operators on board. "It was difficult to encourage those operators sitting in cities with pretty good coverage" to take it seriously, he said. But under the model devised, operators can come in on a "pay as you grow" basis, eliminating most of the risk.
Skeptics might believe that the interest of Nokia and Ercisson is less about bridging the divide than setting themselves up for fresh orders of networks and handsets. Well, I should hope so.
It’s surely much healthier to treat the world’s under-privileged as customers or potential business partners than as hapless poor who need our charity and sympathy.
And if multinational vendors can do well while doing good, that is better than throwing taxpayer dollars on dubious charity projects and nebulous feel-good funds.