Bridging the Digital Divide

Developing nations are using cheap and flexible cellular technology to connect rural areas and boost their economic development

By Sarah Parkes

In the dusty village of Iyokango on Uganda's far eastern border, Zulia Adio prepares for the day by opening the shutters of her self-built Village Phone booth. Already customers are beginning to queue sociably; some buy a mug of Zulia's home-brewed morwa to pass the time. Since becoming one of Uganda's first Grameen Village Phone Ladies last June, Zulia has been reselling basic voice service over a latest-generation Samsung cellphone to local villagers. Demand has been buoyant -- so much so, that the phone she got to help grow her tailoring and brewing business has already become an important income generator in its own right.

Providing women like Zulia with micro-credit loan financing and the equipment to operate a public telephone kiosk is not only helping break the poverty cycle in one of the world's poorest regions, it's also brought easy access to modern communications to community members who, just a few months earlier, had to walk nine kilometres to the nearest public phone. Improbable though it may seem in an area where access to low-tech necessities like clean water and basic health care remains an urgent priority, high-tech mobile cellular technology is proving one of the most successful drivers of economic development ever deployed.

The potential of cellular to connect chronically underserved communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America was a scenario few of the principal development agencies anticipated when mobile uptake first began to soar in Europe and the US in the mid-nineties. As a result, most aid programmes continued to focus on funding the rollout of the woefully inadequate landline networks that characterise most developing regions -- and particularly much of sub-Saharan Africa, where average fixed teledensity is still under one line per 100 inhabitants, and where waiting time for a line in countries like Angola, Liberia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe is upwards of ten years.

While the emergence of the Internet as a powerful communications tool has happily retrospectively vindicated development efforts in fixed services, for the moment it's the flexibility, cost-effectiveness and accessibility of mobile that's proving the greatest boon for improving access to simple voice and data communications in the developing world. Indeed, the number of mobile subscribers overtook their fixed line counterparts in most of Africa, Latin America and Asia back in 2000/2001, and combined annual growth rates from 1995-2002 exceeded 100 per cent per annum in a number of countries including India, Bangladesh, and much of Africa, where other means of access are poor or even non-existent.

The reasons behind mobile cellular's unprecedented success as a key technology for the developing world are simple: faster, cheaper network installation and an ability to overcome traditional geographical constraints like distance, dispersed island topography or rugged terrain. As soon as that was combined with prepaid pricing, which brought service within reach of millions who might otherwise have been disqualified through lack of 'credit worthiness', mobile became unstoppable as a solution to the chronic communications malaise affecting most of the world's poor.

"Mobile networks are quicker to provision for two simple reasons," explains ITU's Mike Minges, Head of the ITU's Telecommunications Data and Statistics Unit. "Technically, there are no lines to lay to subscriber premises - just a few base stations and backhaul networks to set up, and you've got a service. In addition, because mobile is more often the province of private companies than state-controlled institutions, providers have a strong incentive to get service up and running fast so they can start recouping their investment."

Simplified access via prepaid and over-the-counter handsets has also been crucial. "Empowering customers to connect themselves rather than waiting for the state to provide service has proved a highly successful paradigm in alleviating poor access to voice and limited data services," says Minges, noting that the number of SMS messages sent in the Philippines was already hovering at close to 160 per subscriber per month in 2002 - some four times higher than the world average.

"In terms of the potential of mobile cellular to bring access to ICTs to disadvantaged communities, affordability remains the key issue. Policies that stimulate competition will help, but innovative use of shared resources will remain the most important means of capitalising on the power of mobile in the short-to-medium term," adds Minges.

New Takes on Old Technologies

Of course, exploiting the power of ICTs as development catalysts is about much more than simply providing access to a cellphone. Some people living in isolated, tightly-knit communities might have little need to make a call even were a service available, but that doesn't mean infocommunications technologies can't offer enormous benefits.

One innovative scheme that's bringing a new take on high-speed communications to the tiny nation of Bhutan high in the Himalayas is an ITU-sponsored project called E-Post. Based around a new breed of low-cost hand-held PDA known as a Simputer, E-Post cuts the delivery time of snail-mail letters to outlying regions from four weeks to two days or less. ITU's Vishnu Mohan Calindi explains: "In remote parts of the country, mailmen from the nearest regional centre often walk two weeks or more through very challenging terrain to deliver the post. Our E-Post initiative allows the central post office to scan or re-type letters and deliver them electronically to the nearest local post office, where they can be downloaded onto a hand-held Simputer PDA. A postal worker then carries the PDA to the recipient, who can either read the letter onscreen, or have the Simputer read the text aloud through its text-to-speech capability". The system not only overcomes extremely long delivery delays, but represents a highly effective way of using advanced technology to bridge the Digital Divide by delivering information verbally to those with poor literacy, notes Calindi.

The brainchild of teams working under the auspices of the Bangalore Institute of Science, Simputers are now being evaluated as potential vehicles for everything from education and health to micro-credit services, as well as as electronic notebooks for daily agricultural journals, census collection devices or even transport reservation systems.

Costing around US$250 apiece, the Linux-based units feature an oversize screen, run on three AAA batteries, and use removable smart-card interfaces to deliver a range of applications in several Indian languages. Low power requirements, pen-based input, direct multilingual text-to-speech capabilities and the ability link to other devices like portable ultrasound monitors has seen the system already attract much interest from a number of development-focused organisations, including UNESCO and WorldSpace. Space Odyssey

While voice and data services delivered via cellphone or PDA can make a huge difference to quality of life in developing regions, for the time being cellular still can't help remote communities exploit the enormous potential of the Internet. In addition, there are many places where deployment of mobile networks remains prohibitively expensive or technically impossible, because of low population densities, low per capita disposable income or difficult terrain.

It's in such areas that satellite-based services really come into their own. Steady advances in VSAT technology, such as the advent of low-cost Ku-band systems and IP-oriented platforms, has seen small aperture systems become an increasingly favoured means of delivering fast data, voice and fax connectivity to government offices and local institutions in the developing world, as well as serving as a cornerstone of remote connectivity for national access initiatives like village telecentre programmes.

Leading VSAT developer Gilat, for example, is currently working with authorities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific to deliver telephone and Internet service to schools, multipurpose community telecentres and local businesses. In Peru, the company recently set up a public call office network serving 6,000 rural communities under the aegis of the country's National Programme for Rural Telecommunications Projects (FITEL). Peru's largest-ever fixed satellite deployment, each VSAT supports a PC LAN connection and three telephone channels for bundled telephony, fax and Internet access. In the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, meanwhile, Gilat has deployed a 1,000-site network for local basic service operator Tata Teleservices to provide affordable service through public phone and fax kiosks.

School projects include the deployment of 3,200 Internet-enabled sites in Brazil, and the company's Dial-Away voice and IP network service has also been adopted by South Africa's Telkom, which is using VSATs to help meet universal service obligations in the country's more remote regions.

Gilat's Director of Corporate Marketing, Barry Spielman, is an enthusiastic advocate of the potential of satellites in the developing world. "Modern VSAT networks are very fast and easy to deploy. No special expertise is needed; with an average set-up time of two and half hours, two people can install up to three connections a day. In South Africa, that meant we were able to roll-out a 1,600-site network in under two months - an impossible task with any other technology." Other advantages include reliable functioning in just about any climatic conditions and solar-powered operation in areas with irregular or non-existent power supply.

Gilat is currently working with a number of development agencies such as the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to bring Internet services to countries like Tanzania, Senegal and Uganda, which have some of the world's lowest on-line subscriber numbers. "Our revenues in Africa doubled last year," says Spielman, "but in many countries regulatory and technical barriers, such as high licence fees, continue to block deployment of a technology that has enormous potential to improve the lives of people in poor communities."

Spielman's comments are borne out by ITU figures, which show remarkable upsurges in Internet connections in markets where VSATs are freely deployed. Among the world's Least Developed Countries, Nepal has witnessed a 16-fold increase in IP connectivity since liberalisation of VSAT markets in 1999, while Uganda has reported a strong upswing in the number of users online since it partially deregulated its market five years ago.

A Voice from Above

Another company passionate about the power of satellites to help rural communities is WorldSpace, a Washington DC based outfit headed by charismatic African Noah Samara. Back in the mid-1990s, the company laid the foundations of the new Digital Satellite Radio industry by designing a system that uses geostationary satellites and low-cost cost portable receivers to broadcast entertainment and educational content to isolated communities in more than 100 different languages. Now, WorldSpace is further expanding its offering through the addition of data broadcasting services that focus on applications of benefit to users in the developing world, such as meteorological information, mapping data and educational programmes. The service uses the same basic platform as WorldSpace voice broadcasting, delivering one-way data streams to PCs via the USB port.

"When you're trying to determine the needs of disadvantaged communities, it's important not to take an all or nothing approach," comments WorldSpace COO Andy Ras-Work. "While WorldSpace data broadcasting doesn't offer the kind of two-way connectivity available over the Internet, it has the power to deliver very valuable information in a highly cost-effective way. A good example is weather, an information resource that's ironically very easy to access in the developed world, where it has little real impact on most people's lives. In the developing world where a great many inhabitants are farmers, access to weather information is critical to people's livelihoods, yet remains beyond the reach of a huge number of communities," he says.

With terrestrial radio limited by coverage constraints - the most well-developed networks still only reach around 80 per cent of a country's population - Samara's vision was to bring radio-based information and entertainment within easy reach of communities anywhere around the globe. Language was also an important consideration; for a variety of reasons, even those within reach of terrestrial systems often couldn't access them in their mother tongue, negating many of the potential benefits.

Between them, WorldSpace's two satellites, AfriStar and AsiaStar, now cover billions of potential users in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Both have three beams, each capable of delivering more than 40 CD-quality audio channels and a variety of web content and data directly to small portable receivers about the size of two cigarette boxes.

A receiver costs from US$100-150, and listeners can choose from subscription services to specialised channels or free-to-air content developed by WorldSpace or rebroadcast from feeds from the BBC, Radio France, All India Radio and other reputable sources. In addition, the company is directly involved in a number of educational initiatives, including a project in China to develop health-related programming, and the Africa Learning Channel, which now boasts more than 50 million listeners. Radio Days

The humble radio - this time locally-based, terrestrial service - is also a key element in the success of UNESCO's Community Multimedia Centre (CMC) programme. CMCs provide an innovative combination of low-cost, low-power community FM radio stations and telecentres supplying anything from basic telephony all the way up to full phone, fax, photocopying and Internet facilities. UNESCO's first CMC was established in Kothmale, Sri Lanka back in 1999, and since then, the success of the radio/IT technology mix has seen seven further CMCs set up around the world, from the Caribbean to Africa to Bhutan, with 11 more planned by the end of the year.

"The reason for our focus on integration of the two technologies is simple," says Stella Hughes, head of the Media and Society Section of UNESCO's Communication and Information Sector in Paris. "It's only when the Internet and ICTs are combined with community radio that all members of a community -- irrespective of the language they speak or their level of education -- can fully participate in identifying, accessing and exchanging information that's relevant to their real-life needs."

Interestingly, Hughes and her team have found that radio can serve as a highly effective bridge across the digital divide by providing a form of Internet access to those who are reluctant, or unable, to dial-up on their own. Known as 'radio browsing', the concept revolves around community presenters using the Internet as an information resource for topical, listener-driven programmes. "Basically," explains Hughes, "a listener or presenter proposes a topic for a forthcoming programme - say a health issue like AIDS. Listeners then submit questions in any format - phone, fax, email, post, or simply by stopping and asking the presenter on the village high street. The presenter researches the topic off-air over the Internet, and then presents the information he or she has sourced from the web on the programme. By overcoming language, access, generational and cultural barriers, radio browsing is proving a very successful way of bringing the power of the web to the community at large, and is also helping reinforce community awareness of the web as a good information resource."

To further enhance the effectiveness CMC resources, UNESCO has developed CDs covering areas like farming practice and health and hygiene in several languages, including minority African languages like Mandinka, Pular and Wolof. The organisation also places strong emphasis on local content development, and to this end recently launched a new Multimedia Training Kit designed to help people develop the skills needed to make best use of newly-available technologies. Created in partnership with organisations like the Association for Progressive Development, OneWorld International, Radio for Development and others, the kit is conceived as a set of interchangeable building blocks. Modules will include topics like 'presenting on radio' and 'writing for the web', and will be available in English, French and Spanish.

Where access to the airwaves proves difficult, UNESCO is also actively developing work-arounds that exploit advances in ICT technology. One example is a women's community cable radio network, which uses computing technology to produce and disseminate programmes made at the Budhikote Community Multimedia Centre 100km east of Bangalore to 750 surrounding households. The initiative of a number of local women's self-help groups who found themselves unable to obtain a traditional community broadcasting licence, the network is helping impart information in two local languages on issues like sericulture (silk-worm farming), organic agriculture, child and reproductive health, and micro-credit programmes.

If the problem is lack of a reliable electricity supply to power radio and ICT services, Hughes' team also has answers - from a suitcase-sized FM broadcast studio that runs off solar power or a standard car battery, to a prize-winning thermal power system from French developer Serras Thermoelectrics that uses heat energy generated by oil lamps to power a radio or WorldSpace DSR receiver, or even recharge a mobile phone.

The suitcase radio is the invention of Wantok Enterprise's Ron Robbins, a retired Canadian electronics specialist who spent much of his career setting up communications systems in remote regions stretching from the glacial wastes of the Yukon to the sweltering Papua New Guinea jungle. A tiny fraction of the cost of a standard broadcast transmitter, the systems range from US$3,750 for a 30-watt unit up to US$4,775 for the most popular 100-watt system, and have a range from 15km up to 60km or more, depending on local geography. Robbins says a car battery interface was chosen because it represents the only global universal voltage, adding that solar-powered operation is favoured in most developing regions, where sunshine is often the one resource that isn't in short supply.

Fixed Ideas

With so many innovations based around newer technologies like PDAs and satellite networks, the one ICT that seemed destined to be left out in the cold when it came to rural development was the simple POTS telephone. Thanks to developments in call processing technology, however, even the humble bakelite handset is now being given a new lease of life through programs like Voxiva, a health management system that allows remote medical staff and authorised personnel to submit disease monitoring reports over an ordinary phone line.

Community health professionals log onto the project's Alerta messaging system using a PIN and access card with codes for different diseases, then enter information about outbreaks or disaster incidents directly via the keypad. Like E-Post, the innovative combination of old and new technologies is proving highly beneficial, according to Voxiva Project Director Paul Meyer. "One of the real problems in bridging the Digital Divide is that people tend to focus on connectivity and forget applications," he says. "We wanted to develop a more inclusive approach that used ICTs - old and new - to address important information flow problems."

Set-up with the backing of the New York-based Markle Foundation, Voxiva has been running in Peru for around 18 months, and seems certain to be extended to other developing countries in the near future. In addition to phone-based input, the system supports voicemail attachments and Web-based input, as well as online analysis and visualisation of health information. "By deploying a low-cost phone-based technology that extends Internet-like functions and information to poor and rural communities in the developing world, we believe Voxiva represents a great model for the successful use of ICTs for development goals," says Meyer.

Text © 2003 Sarah Parkes. Parkes is a Contributing Editor for the ITU Telecom World 2003 Daily Newspaper

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