A new report from Panos questions whether mobile services can become cheap enough to meet rural needs, whether new technologies are making traditional fixed-line infrastructures obsolete, and whether the level of rural phone use will ever be enough to provide a profitable market for private providers or will substantial subsidy be needed to ensure rural services?
In the midst of the current enthusiasm for ‘ICTs for development’, it is often forgotten that most rural Africans do not yet even have access to telephones. Initiatives such as the World Summit on the Information Society aspire to bridge the digital divide in order to reduce poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals, but this aim risks being undermined if basic telephone connectivity is not first made available.
In most of rural Africa, there is only one telephone for every thousand people. It is true that the number of phones in Africa has risen enormously in the past decade, especially since liberalisation, but most of the new telephones are mobiles, and they are mostly in cities. For rural people, buying and using a mobile phone is very expensive – a single call can cost as much as half the daily wage of an agricultural worker.
Will mobile services become cheap enough to meet rural needs? Are satellite and other new technologies making traditional fixed-line infrastructures obsolete? Will the level of rural phone use ever be enough to provide a profitable market for private providers, or will substantial subsidy be needed to ensure rural services? These and other questions should be much more widely debated.
At present, the lack of rural connections is often hidden behind impressive overall figures for the growth of telephony. Important development Initiatives such as NEPAD and the World Summit on the Information Society focus on internet-based ICTs, and where they mention telephony at all it is in general terms. This report, based on case studies from Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia, argues that policy-makers should pay more attention to the challenge of providing telephones to rural people in Africa. If they do not, the development benefits of the information revolution will by-pass many of the world’s poorest people.
I don't think most NGO's realise the power of linking phone systems with local community broadcasters as a way of empowering communities. PANOS is one of the few exceptions.