- The mobile industry is growing in North Korea, of all places, where Egypt-based carrier Orascom has a joint venture with the government. Orascom reports an eight-fold increase in profits from the first quarter of the year to the second. The country of 23 million presently has only about 48,000 mobile subscribers, but plans to drop prices could greatly expand the user base. The North Korean government banned mobile phone service in April, 2004, to prevent word leaking about a deadly explosion at a train station, but the government now seems committed to letting mobiles spread. As we saw in Iran earlier this year, a populous empowered with mobile phones can create major headaches for authoritarian regimes.
- The people of Bangalore hosted the Mobile Tech 4 Social Change conference last week-- sounded like a great event. Notes from the sessions will be coming here, and MobileActive was tweeting up a storm, if you'd like to look back at their logs. The next MT4SC conference will be in South Africa at the end of October-- if you're in the neighborhood, be sure to drop by!
- Vodacom, South Africa's biggest mobile carrier, is introducing Betavine, an online R&D lab & community developed by Vodafone (the majority stakeholder in Vodacom). Betavine will allow collaboration among developers, entrepreneurs and innovators to build widgets and mobile applications for use in South Africa. This kind of collaboration and community building will be hugely important in creating applications that are relevant to the increasingly diverse user base of mobile phones.
- As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Nigerian IT firm GlobalCom was building a big fibre-optic line to connect Lagos to London. Well, the connection is complete, and Accra will soon be looped in to the network as well.
- Apple reached a deal with China Unicom-- China's second largest cell phone operator-- to sell the iPhone in China. Seems like a good move for China Unicom-- they have less than a third the number of customers as China Mobile (the biggest mobile operator in the world, by that metric), but offer a faster, more mature 3G network better suited to the data-intensive iPhone. This should help China Unicom solidify and grow their market share among China's urban elites, letting China Mobile keep their 500 million (!), mostly low-cost, low-bandwidth customers.
-Safaricom, Kenya's biggest mobile operator,has just introduced the first solar-charged mobile phone into the Kenyan market. The solar technology is about a lot more than being green-- for people in rural areas, beyond the reach of the electrical grid, electricity is perhaps the biggest obstacle to mobile use. Charging a phone means sharing a generator, or travelling to a town with reliable electricity. This solar phone will give millions of rural Kenyans a new way to join the global information network.
- The government of Ghana will not grant licenses to any more mobile network operators, to preclude further crowding of the industry, and to attempt to raise quality of service standards for all operators. Limiting competition doesn't seem like the best path forward here. A better policy solution would be to force operators to allow customers to keep their phone numbers if they switch carriers-- this would give mobile phone users the power to vote with their Cedis and migrate to the operators with the best service. (via Appfrica)
- In other Ghana news, Globacom, a new mobile phone carrier, is the process of laying high-bandwidth cables that will run from Europe, through Ghana, to Nigeria. Though very few Ghanaians have landline access to the web, the cable will make internet access faster and more readily available.
- Yesterday, I wrote that Nokia is getting into the mBanking space with a new service. Now, Facebook is beating a path in the same direction, with an early experiment to allow users to pay for services using their cell phones. This seems to be the first step toward a whole new currency traded largely by mobile... Exciting stuff. (via Mobile Active)
- While we were up at Netroots Nation, another convention was going on in Accra-- Maker Faire 2009-- where African innovators and inventors gathered to show off their work-- everything from cassava crushers to mobile apps. Here's a video about the proceedings:
Nearly three billion poor people in developing countries lack access to basic financial services such as savings, credit, insurance, and money transfers. As CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor) notes, “Access to financial services enables the poor to build their own path out of poverty …. When poor people have access to financial services, they invest in assets such as sending their children to school, buying medicines and more nutritious foods, fixing a leaky roof, or building income-earning potential by investing in their own enterprises.”...
Mobile technology has the potential to expand the reach of financial services to the poor. Branchless banking using mobile phones and a network of third-party agents (e.g. post offices, small retailers) can reduce the two biggest costs associated with providing financial services: building and maintaining a physical presence, and handling small transactions.
He goes on to describe M-PESA, one of the more successful mBanking services, based in Kenya and born of a partnership between the Vodaphone Group and DFID (the British development agency).
Well, there will soon be another option for would-be mBankers around the world-- Nokia announced today that it would begin offering mBanking services starting next year. The move (announced in a press release, reported by TechCrunch, Appfrica, & the FT), is part of Nokia's expansion beyond handset manufacturing to services.
The press release points out that, while there are only 1.6 billion bank accounts in the world, there are 4 billion mobile phones, and turning those handsets into financial tools will give billions financial power they currently lack. From the release:
Nokia Money has been designed to be as simple and convenient as making a voice call or sending an SMS. It will enable consumers to send money to another person just by using the person's mobile phone number, as well as to pay merchants for goods and services, pay their utility bills, or recharge their prepaid SIM cards (SIM top-up). The services can be accessed 24 hours a day from anywhere, meaning savings in travel costs and time.
Many of the details aren't yet clear-- Will the service operate independent of local carriers? Will it be fee-based? how interoperable will it be with other mBanking platforms? Still, given Nokia's heavyweight status among handset makers and name-recognition, this is one of the biggest steps forward in mBanking that we've seen to date.
The MIT Technology Review annually honors young innovators in their TR35 list of technologists changing our world. One of this year's notables is Nathan Eagle, who has been mining mobile phone data to improve public policy and provide income in the developing world:
For instance, he is working with city planners in Kenya and Rwanda to understand how slums grow and change in response to events such as natural disasters and declines in crop prices. And earlier this year, Eagle began using phone-derived data to build a more accurate model of the spread of malaria in Africa.
In February, he launched Txteagle, a service that lets any company send cell-phone users simple tasks such as text translation. Participants are paid with credits that can be used for phone service or redeemed for cash at special kiosks.
Txteagle was so successful that it quickly had many more people willing to take on the small tasks than there were tasks available. Eagle is planning to realaunch the program later this year in Kenya, Rwanda, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, with changes he hopes will make it sustainable.
When you think about how new all this technology is, its potential to improve our world seems endless. Think how far we've come since, say, 1990:
"Older politicians will have to get beyond their ideological blinders to recognize the opportunity waiting for any candidate or political party that can embrace both halves of the Millennial era civic ethos paradox."