Mobile phones are everywhere. They have long surpassed the Internet in number of users, and in some parts of the world, mobile phones now rival television in reach. The mobile tech economy (at least until recently) was booming with telcoms and handset manufacturers fiercely competing in emerging markets, and software giants like Microsoft and Google entering the mobile industry in earnest. There are now somewhere between 3.5 billion and 4 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, with the fastest growth happening in developing countries.

A new report by Internews, The Promise of Ubiquity, poses this question: Can media organizations in the developing world seize the opportunities that billions of mobile subscribers represent, and will they be able to deliver information services needed all over the world? The report’s producer, John West, has some interesting ideas, but does not have all the answers.

Mobiles in the developing world

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John West

West is no slacker in regard to questions about the impact of mobiles in the developing world. The former director of Internews Europe is an expert in the development and analysis of media and new media in emerging democracies and the Global South. His question — what role does mobile play in media, or more precisely, what role does media play in this mobile revolution — is not one that has an easy answer. West notes:

The opportunity is open to all, and the boundaries between telecom, tech and media companies is being blurred, just as they were for the Internet. If media do not move into this space with useful applications and services, others will and the role of the professional media sector will be diminished.

What makes mobiles so interesting for media organizations, particularly in the Global South?

In a single word: reach. West arduously points out that, according to his extrapolations from World Bank data, more than 20 million people in the 50 least developed countries have a mobile phone but no television. He also notes that mobile phones are a classic “Bottom of the Pyramid” industry and he even goes so far as to call them “poor-centric” — in that they work by collecting small subscription fees, that poorer subscribers can more easily afford, from a huge customer base. This makes mobiles a good way to reach an audience often shut out of the media landscape.

Some would disagree with West’s assessment that the mobile industry — both operators and handset manufacturers — is indeed “poor-centric” in its current approach, arguing that the industry in developing countries has stifled innovative mobile applications and information services for bottom-of-the-pyramid (and lower-yield) subscribers by a narrow focus on higher-end customers. West’s argument that telcoms are rapidly adding so-called value-added services is dubious, especially in Africa where mobile penetration rates still huddle around 35% of the population. Operators there have little incentive to add value-added services when 65% of the market still has to be reached with basic phone services.

Also, in making his case for mobile reach, West forgets that mobiles are not the first media to deeply permeate into the developing world: radio still has a greater reach than mobile phones. In fact, FM and AM radio on mobile phones, as is ubiquitous in Southeast Asia, comprises another form of “combined” media that West ignores but which nonetheless offers interesting opportunities for media organizations.

Mobile Opportunities

But be that as it may, West argues strongly that media organizations in the Global South had better “step onto the platform created by the explosion of mobile phones” — or other players will. This includes operators and mobile handset manufacturers, Google, and Microsoft. He suggests a number of text and voice services that media organizations should consider when thinking of how to best serve this emerging market — including news alerts, voice-driven classifieds, and structured community input via text or voice, to name a few.

West has a number of common-sense suggestions for media organizations in the Global South such as “knowing your market” and “knowing what you are offering.” He also eloquently describes the barriers that keep media organizations from adopting mobile media. These include critical factors such as cost, literacy, lack of local language applications, and a lack of viable business models that include the all-powerful mobile operators.

Arguably, media organizations generally are slower in adopting new technology, and need a broad overview to make the case why it is important to pay attention to mobiles. And for that, the report is a laudable effort, full of interesting data, and good country profiles.

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However, West’s technology overview for media organizations is surprisingly lacking in innovation. He suggests mobile barcodes as a way to access information services, Asterisk voice-over-IP servers, and the mobile web and data services. But these ideas are pedestrian, given the many mobile innovations all over the world ranging from Twitter and local clones in dozens of countries to South African mobile messaging service Mxxit, to USSD messaging in Africa to free group SMS services India operated by Google.

Problems ignored

Although West sees the deeper permeation of mobiles into the developing world as a positive, he does not address the serious threat inherent in new technologies that could enable new forms of surveillance and censorship. In Mobile Active’s report A Mobile Voice, we paid considerable attention to the many ways in which mobile services and communications could be tracked, censored, monitored, selectively shaped and blocked.

Also missing is a much more thoughtful discussion of what an enabling policy and regulatory environment for mobile and digital media in the Global South would look like. International affairs/democracy and development consultant Shanthi Kalathil said in a report to the Center for Media Assistance:

…the field of media development is rapidly converging with the ‘ICT for development’ field, which unlike media development situates itself more in the traditional poverty-reduction realm of development, as opposed to democracy and governance. This poses some interesting questions….In essence this is what convergence of these fields is pushing toward: an enabling environment that encompasses telecommunication reforms.

Lastly, West discusses only in passing the emergence of citizen media and the disintermediation and pluralism that new media has enabled — with citizens talking to one another without the gatekeepers of “traditional” media.

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Mobile is an exploding, vibrant, fluid, incredibly fragmented, and yes, ubiquitous technology and it remains to be seen whether media organizations as they exist today can adopt and adapt mobiles as information and media channels. And I am not sure West has much of a vision or an answer in that regard.

Katrin Verclas is a mobile industry analyst with a focus on how mobile phones are used for social impact. She is the co-founder of MobileActive.org, a global network of practitioners and technologists exploring the use of mobile phones for social change.

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