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Competition in Internet, Mobile Services Boosts Democracy

Mon, 2010-03-29 18:12

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) such as the Internet and mobile phones are often recognized for their role in helping connect people and communities, and spread knowledge and information. People may be unaware, however, that they're also a powerful force for international development -- provided that they are not suffocated by regulation and censorship.

The ICT Development and Initiative Dossier from June 2002 [PDF file] stated that, "since the beginning of the 1980s almost all national telecom and information technology markets worldwide have been transformed by technological innovation, product diversification (especially the introduction of mobile/cellular telephony and Internet) and market restructuring (particularly privatization, liberalization and the introduction of independent regulators)."

This holds true in some countries more than others. In some instances, the levels of liberalization and regulation in the ICT sector seem to directly correlate with the health of the country's democracy.

Civil and Economic Benefits

Market liberalization and the adjustment of regulation levels for ICT industries results in a growing shift from state-owned monopolies to a more open market which allows for competition from various dynamic and privately driven entities. Some governments and national operators are threatened by the prospect of increased competition and decreased state control, but for civil society and the economy as a whole, there's an array of benefits.

Economic analyst Vlade Milićević argues that, by adjusting the legislative and regulatory mobile telephony frameworks, increased competition leads to improved customer choice, enhanced quality, more efficient services, reduced prices, faster product innovation and growing economic development for both the market and the relevant country. These positive impacts are notable in various case studies on Central Eastern European countries, where the sector has recently been liberalized.

Similar cost benefits patterns have occurred in various ICT sectors. Between 1998 and 2002, retail prices of the fixed telecommunications industry in the EU decreased by 8.2 percent due to liberalizing the regulatory framework. Likewise, the liberalization of Internet telephony, which includes the legalization of voice over IP (VoIP) services in various countries, resulted in a dramatic decrease in phone charges. For example, in the U.S. a few years ago, calls to India were 50 cents per minute -- now they are less than 5 cents per minute from fixed lines.

Other than decreasing costs, information and telecommunication technology liberalization has other benefits. The use of VoIP enabled the advent of outsourced call centers because it offers the possibility of routing a local number offshore. In the U.S. today, 80 percent of companies have call centers located offshore. This cuts costs for the American companies and generates employment and income for the offshore country. These employment and revenue benefits are significant for countries such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, Kenya and South Africa.

Other examples of the benefits of this form of liberalization include community initiatives like Village Telco, "an easy-to-use, scalable, standards-based, wireless, local, do-it-yourself, telephone company toolkit." It uses open source software, VoIP and other technology to offer free local calls, cheap long distance, Internet access and other information services to previously disadvantaged communities in South Africa and other developing countries.

Lack of Liberalization

However, in some countries such as Zimbabwe, VoIP remains in a legal grey zone. According to a report commissioned by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, "African regulators have been reluctant to legalize VoIP, based on a largely misguided attempt to protect the revenue base of the incumbent fixed-line, and in some cases, mobile telcos." Unprogressive regulators can retard growth in the sector, stunt the country's revenue, create lost opportunities, constrict the adoption of new technologies, and leave communities isolated in information vacuums.

The World Bank recently stated that there is positive and direct correlation between growth in gross domestic product and ICT development. Despite this, two factors seem to be preventing some governments from liberalizing ICT markets: The threat of a decrease in revenues for state controlled monopolies, and the decrease in control of the content that is available to the public. ICTs -- and particularly the use of the Internet and mobile phones -- are making it difficult for undemocratic governments to control information and in this age of communication, information is power.

"Freedom of information is...the touchstone of all the freedoms," according to the 1948 UN Freedom of Information Conference. Similarly, the principles from the World Summit on Information Society of 2003 declared that: "We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers."

This sentiment was again reiterated in a recent poll by the BBC, which found that 80 percent of the 27,000 people surveyed around the world believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental human right. However, only about 25 percent of the world's population has access to the Internet, and various countries moderately to severely censor the information available.

Along with many other economic and technological benefits, a global shift to a more liberalized ICT market would honor fundamental human rights, and help create a more equitable and informed world.

Amy Saunderson-Meyer

Fighting the Taliban, one text message at a time

Fri, 2010-03-26 23:55
More on the US government's investment in new communication technologies to fight extremism in Afghanistan. By CNN/Afghanistan Crossroads.

In Afghanistan, Vikram Singh, a senior communications advisor to Richard Holbrooke, said there is a direct link between communications infrastructure and development.

As cell phones spring up in various areas that either didn't have them before or where they were destroyed by the Taliban, he said, commerce has increased and people are using mobile phone messaging to move around the country and spread information about the movement of the insurgents. Currently, between 10 million and 12 million afghans have cell phones, he said.

"Farmers are using cell phones to see what prices are in the market before making the trip into town. People are building confidence with local security forces. Cell phones really do transform areas.

The United States has also created a mobile banking project to pay Afghan police via cell phones.

Read full article.


-- Cell Carriers Bow to Taliban Threat

-- Mobile Phones combat Taliban's Afghans "Information Wastelands"

-- Radio, cell phones to help US in Afghanistan?

-- Once media-shy Taliban go hi-tech in propaganda war

-- British Intelligence bomb Taliban with SMS in psychological warfare

More on the Taliban and cell phones


World Bank, Nokia fund mobile app labs in Africa

Fri, 2010-03-26 21:39
The World Bank in partnership with mobile handset maker Nokia is set to fund the establishment of mobile applications laboratories in Africa in a move to boost innovation in the field.

“The mobile laboratories will help assist mobile applications entrepreneurs to start and scale their businesses.

Through the laboratories that will be set up, the bank and Nokia will work with existing organizations in host countries.

The laboratories will offer training and testing facilities, identification and piloting of potential applications, incubation of startups, business and financial services and linkages with operators.”

Read article

Over 1.5 Trillion Text Messages Sent in 2009

Fri, 2010-03-26 15:59

What a difference a year makes. The newly released CTIA–The Wireless Association® Semi-Annual Wireless Industry survey confirms the continuing and increasing use of text messages and MMS. Highlights of the survey include:

According to the survey, text messaging continues to be enormously popular, with more than 822 billion text messages sent and received on carriers’ networks during the last half of 2009—amounting to almost 5 billion messages per day at the end of the year.  During the 2009 calendar year, there were more than 1.5 trillion text messages reported on carriers’ networks.  Wireless subscribers are also sending more pictures and other multimedia messages with their mobile devices—more than 24.2 billion MMS messages were reported for the last half of 2009. That’s more than double the number from the previous year, when only 9.3 billion were reported for the last half of 2008.

You can read the full press release here: http://www.ctia.org/media/press/body.cfm/prid/1936

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ITU issues new standards for satellite emergency communications

Fri, 2010-03-26 00:00

New standards have been adopted by the ITU to enhance the quality of satellite communications during emergencies. All aspects, from early warning through rapid response to relief operations are covered.

New ITU radiocommunication standards for satellite services have been approved to facilitate early warning, rapid response and relief operations in the event of natural disasters.

One change, Recommendation ITU-R S1001-2, provides information on the range of radio-frequencies that can be used by fixed-satellite service (FSS) systems for emergency and disaster relief operations. A second, Recommendation ITU-R M1854, provides information on the range of radio-frequencies for Mobile-Satellite Service (MSS) in order to enable a variety of functions such as voice and data communication, field reporting, data collection, position information, and image transmission.

In the event of natural disasters, such as the recent earthquakes which spread devastation in Haiti and Chile, there is an urgent need for a reliable telecommunication link for use in relief operations. ITU joined international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Haiti, Chile and other disaster-hit areas and deployed satellite terminals and earth stations to re-establish basic communication links.

ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré noted that in the event of a natural disaster, satellite communications are the most appropriate means to quickly set up a telecommunication link with remote facilities. "Establishing communications in the aftermath of a disaster is vital to facilitate rapid and effective rescue and rehabilitation efforts," said Dr Touré. "The new ITU radiocommunication standards for satellite communication in emergencies will greatly improve our capacity to save lives. I call upon all stakeholders, including administrations, satellite operators and service providers, to support the development of robust, comprehensive, early warning and relief systems to mitigate emergencies and disasters at the national, regional and international levels."

Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS)

ITU took the opportunity of its announcement to restate the roles and benefits of various forms of satellite technology. Satellite transmissions using small aperture earth stations, eg, fixed VSATs, Vehicle-Mounted Earth Stations (VMES) and transportable earth stations, are one of the most viable solutions to provide emergency telecommunication services for relief operations. These FSS systems are extremely effective in providing emergency telecommunication services for relief operations.

As they are inherently suitable for data delivery, FSS can also be effectively utilised for early warning operations, including earthquakes and storms. In the interest of efficiency, FSS capabilities for emergencies and disaster relief operations should be pre-planned between administrations and FSS operators/service providers to ensure prompt availability of FSS services in the event of a disaster.

Mobile-Satellite Service (MSS)

Owing to their ease of deployment, wide-area coverage, and independence from the local telecommunications infrastructure (which may be lost during a disaster), mobile satellite terminals and ancillary equipment are very effective means of providing emergency telecommunication services for relief operations. In order to strengthen disaster preparedness, MSS systems should be deployed ubiquitously, especially in disaster-prone regions.

* Emergency telecommunications has been one of the key activities of ITU since its inception. The new ITU standards were developed in accordance with resolutions adopted at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in 2006, the ITU Radiocommunication Assembly and the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2007.

More info:

Michael Schwartz

Unintended Consequences and the Success of Blackberry in the Middle East

Thu, 2010-03-25 15:00

I’m attending ArabNet currently, which is a large web conference taking place in Beirut. I’m speaking tomorrow, so if you’re here too let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to cover – and come and say hello.

One of the interesting aspects of the region is the huge success of Blackberry over and above other mobiles. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one of the important anecdotal causes seems to be driven by societal mores.

Firstly, like many parts of the world, sms usage really exploded historically. So when a mobile comes with a great keyboard for inputting text, it’s interesting. More interesting though is the free messaging system it comes with, which is radically going to reduce your sms spending. And as more and more of your friends get their own Blackberry and can use BiM, the proposition gets very compelling indeed. It’s the first-fax syndrome. In the early days, a fax machine is pretty useless as you can’t send a fax as there’s no one you can send one to. Equally, there’s no one available of putting you in danger of receiving one. But as more and more companies and individuals own one, the stronger the argument for getting one becomes. Until you get to the stage where you can’t operate without one (even though today there are other options).

I think we can certainly credit RIM with a deliberate strategy up to this point – that BiM was a thought-through product and that in the longer term, it would explode as network effects clicked in. But what happens next is a great example of the law of unintended consequences.

While different countries in the Middle East have varying norms when it comes to mixing between the genders, we can generalise and say that things are stricter than we’re used to in the West. In a country like Saudi Arabia, as an example, this segregation is so strict that it’s actually enforced by a religious policeforce. Indeed, only last month a prominent cleric called for those who oppose segregation to be executed, so it’s not a trivial issue.

Initially, people wishing to circumvent these laws led to an explosion of Bluetooth messaging and sms. But the problem with these communication platforms are that the authorities can (and do) trace them back to the phone and thus, the person.

When you purchase a Blackberry however, it comes with your own PIN. But the thing is, the PIN isn’t linked to your phone in any way. Making it the perfect clandestine messaging platform and thus ideal for some illicit flirting or arranging meet-ups for those so inclined.

Another unintended consequence is the little business it’s generated for dealers in Blackberries – or their opportunistic staff. The PIN is an eight number code and it’s therefore logical that a super-memorable PIN, such as 11111111 is going to be more useful that a random one like 74293661. As Blackerry ownership has taken off, useful PINs morphed into cool PINs and thus a highly lucrative premium market has developed, generating significant profits in the grey market.

So RIM are certainly to be congratulated for their long term vision behind the BiM. But I’m sure they could never have anticipated being helped so significantly by such an unexpected following wind.

Stupid mobs in Philadelphia

Thu, 2010-03-25 11:02

“Mobs Are Born as Word Grows by Text Message” is a New York Times headline today — suggesting the cause of teenage brawls in Philadelphia streets is kids’ mobiles. The article explains in detail what has been happening, and is worth the read for smart mobby followers. My own take is that the texting is a means to stupid behavior — not the cause. For example, what sort of good would kids be up to without mobiles under circumstances like these as described in the article?:

City residents are also starting to complain about the number of unsupervised children, and child advocates are asking if there are enough activities to keep young people busy after school.

“We definitely need more jobs for kids, we need more summer jobs for kids, we need more after-school programming, and we need more parent support,” said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a children’s advocacy group in Philadelphia.

Africa Calling: can mobile phones make a miracle?

Thu, 2010-03-25 10:57
Africa Calling: Can Mobile Phones Make a Miracle? is the title of a long article by Jenny C. Aker (Assistant Professor, The Fletcher School) and Isaac M. Mbiti (Assistant Professor, SMU), published in the March/April 2010 edition of the Boston Review.

Given how many Africans are seeking out and using mobile phones, and all they can do with them, enthusiasm about communications technology as a force for economic development and broader advances in human well-being is high: the iconic image of the mobile phone user in Africa is the female trader, surrounded by her goods while making calls to potential clients in the capital city. Peruse any article on mobile phones in Africa today and you can’t help but notice the ambitious claims about impact. Mobile phones are a transformative technology that increases GDp and, quite simply, revolutionizes people’s lives. Equally common are the slogans of mobile phone companies promising better days for those who use their products: “Together We Can Do More,” “A Wonderful Life,” “Making Life Better,” and simply “Tudo bom” (“All is good”).

Do these images, slogans, and sentiments truly reflect what mobile phones can do? Can mobile phones transform the lives of the world’s poor?

Read article (pdf)

(via Ken Banks and Fondapol)

Mobile Data Traffic Surpasses Voice

Thu, 2010-03-25 08:20
According to Ericsson estimates, mobile data surpassed voice on a global basis during December of 2009. This finding is based on Ericsson measurements from live networks covering all regions of the world.

[via Cellular News]


Learning from failure: FAILfare

Thu, 2010-03-25 01:42

Katrin Verclas from Mobileactive.org writes on what I have for years strongly advocated in Sri Lanka – openly discussing failures so that we may learn from them. As the email promoting the event, called FAILfare, notes,

While we often focus on highlighting successes and gains in our industry, it’s no secret that many projects just don’t work – some aren’t scalable, some aren’t sustainable, some can’t get around bureaucratic hoops, and many fail due to completely unanticipated barriers. But a failure is no reason to be ashamed! Instead, FAILfaire looks to bring together a collection of failures so that we can learn from what hasn’t worked in the past in order to make our future projects stronger and better.

It’s not easy to talk about failure. Whenever I mention the groundbreaking technology adaptation behind the OneText initiative I helped design in Sri Lanka to support the peace process, I also noted that the peace process was a dismal failure and resulted in even more brutal war. Going into the reasons why ICTs didn’t change the dynamics of inter-party negotiations, and how partisan politics overwhelmed the best virtual interactions is a lesson in how ICTs can be leveraged for similar, fragile and vexed processes in the future.

Katrin’s FAILsafe initiative is anchored to the use of mobiles in development. But failure is an integral part of ultimate success in other ICT fields as well, including citizen journalism. I have already written about the failure of the first citizen journalism initiative I was involved in, Moju, leading to what is today the success of Groundviews. This is echoed by Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller in an interview recently published on the Nieman Journalism Lab’s blog. Her submission is worth quoting at length,

I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work — but because we don’t know how people want to engage with, you know, either fairly wonky information about legislation or critical information, if we don’t build it, we never give people the opportunity to test it. And some of the things have worked far beyond — much better than — what we expected. And some of the websites just weren’t popular, and we couldn’t quite figure out why, and we said, “Oh, they weren’t popular, let’s just take it down.” So there’s not much cost to the experimentation. But partly I think it’s because you have sort of a new and largely successful of the project because Sunlight, you know, is an institution without any legacies. It’s just — it’s really built into the DNA. But it’s something major other institutions, you know, have to work on. Now you can’t really build it into the DNA of reporting a story: Failing, getting the facts wrong, telling the story that’s wrong. But there are certainly elements in terms of engaging citizens, in getting them to tell the stories that work. So, I mean, if it doesn’t work this time, you know, you might try it again or — or not. But we’re beginning to learn.

So one of our examples was — it was successful, but it was a failure in the end. We did a series of distributed research projects in the early days. We do one investigating members of Congress’ spouses, and whether they were employed by their campaigns. And then we did another one on getting people to contribute to a database on earmark requests when they started posting them. And then we realized that if people who worked on Project A, we had no idea if they’ve been secretly working on project B, or who worked on Project C. We said, “Wow, let’s stop that.” We created one platform, Transparency Corps, so that anybody who worked on A or B or C had the opportunity to see what was D, E, and F coming down the road, to begin to build more of a community. Because if you’re interested in these kinds of distributive projects, you’ll be interested in, you know, any number of them, and you get deeper engagement in them. So it worked in the individual pieces, but we knew we were losing these people because we didn’t know quite how to reach out to them again. So I think it’s that experimentation or constantly, constantly iterating on something that worked or that didn’t work until you find things that work.

It’s not easy to talk about failure because doing so risks future support for initiatives outside a model strictly entrepreneurial or philanthropical. Donors and funders, with their log frames and results based management frameworks, rarely demonstrate patience with projects that fail, blacklisting those individuals and organisations that do against future funding. This creates a vicious cycle, where openness about failures is subsumed by manufactured success, leading to an essential dishonesty that is bad for everyone. There could of course be managerial, organisational, financial or other valid reason for donors to chastise project failure. There could also be contextual, processual challenges that only came about after the project and the introduction of ICTs into the mix. Sometimes innovation takes years to be recognised as bringing in value to a process, set of actors or particular context. On other occasions, unintended consequences of a project can outweigh the benefits initially planned for and expected. In sum, thinking robustly about the reasons for failure, and openly sharing lessons learnt can be a valuable exercise. Framed in a supportive, non-judgemental environment and facilitated well, FAILsafe’s findings and case studies can buck the trend of publishing only that which is successful.

I have always found failure instructive. It is good to see others recognise this. For as Oscar Wilde noted, experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.

Filed under: ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) Tagged: FAILfare, Failure, Mobiles

New Research on Student's and Cell Phone Use

Wed, 2010-03-24 00:48
The annual Speak Up Report (Download Speak Up Press Release 2009) has emerged with some interesting data sourrounding mobile devices. The results are excellent news for teachers and schools considering mobile devices in learning! Below are a few of the findings from the report.

Among high school students
  • 85 percent report having an iPod
  • 70 percent have a laptop or netbook
  • 30 percent have smart phones

For the first time since 2003, when asked to identify the major obstacle to prevent use of technology in school, students in grades 6–12 said “I cannot use my own cell phone, smart phone or Mp3 player in school.” Previously, the top response was “school filters and firewalls.”

11% of teachers and 16% of parents dismiss mobile devices as having no positive impact on learning. (This means that overwhelmingly parents and teachers agree that mobile devices can have a beneficial impact on learning!!!)

67% of teachers think students will be distracted and more than half are concerned that not all students will have access

In The Three Screen Report just released by Nielsen, it was found that...

"Active mobile video users grew by 57% from 2008 to 2009, from 11.2 million to 17.6 million. Much of this increase can be linked to the strong growth of smartphones in the marketplace."

The age bracket watching the most videos on mobile devices is 12-17!

Shorthand Mobile Brings TextApps to Intelligence-Challenged Phones

Tue, 2010-03-23 17:23
Not everyone has the disposable income or desire to spend $30 per month for a data plan. And that is what’s really required if you’ve been looking to jump on the app bandwagon–a smart phone and the data plan that goes with it. Shorthand Mobile is taking a different approach, using text messaging technology to [...]

(author unknown)

Mobile phone security redux: Tigertext

Sun, 2010-03-21 12:20

Days after I had blogged about FlexiSHIELD, a mobile phone security product created after the infamous incident with professional golfer Tiger Woods, comes news of Tigertext, another application touting to keep SMS communications private. As Time magazine notes,

Called, coincidentally enough, TigerText, it allows users to set a time limit for a sent text to hang around after it has been read. When that life span has been exceeded, the message will disappear, say the developers, from the recipient’s phone, the sender’s phone and any servers. The message cannot be forwarded anywhere, stored anywhere or sold to any tabloid for an undisclosed sum.

Tigertext, which is free right now but will obviously not be so in the near future when this product will most certainly catch on quite a bit, is also available on the Blackberry (as a beta right now) and soon on Android as well.

Use by human rights defenders
Aside from of course the frivolous purposes noted in much of the press coverage Tigertext has received to date, including on Time magazine, this is yet another tool to add to MobileActive.org’s growing list of mobile security applications, used by of use to, for example, human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists.

While it is clear from the Tigertext FAQ that the service does NOT use the SMS infrastructure of the service provider, it is clear as to whether the messages themselves are encrypted during transmission. Ergo, while the service circumvents monitoring and filtering of messages by the mobile service provider, it may be the case that messages are still transmitted unencrypted. Still, an app worth looking into if communications security is a requirement.

A video of Tigertext, originally featured on CNN, is below.

Filed under: ICTs and other stuff Tagged: mobile security, Mobiles

The Best Smart Phones for Global Development

Sat, 2010-03-20 14:14

The growing needs for workers heading into the field are becoming far more high-tech than in years past. This is partly because of the new technologies and infrastructure available, and partly because of the need to record a greater number of details at once. That said, I decided to do a quick comparison of some of the better handsets available, to determine if there was one smartphone that was perfect for developmental aid organizations. Eventually, these will be the phones that make apps like this possible.

As many groups need this type of information to make decisions that literally affect lives around the globe, hopefully those of you with experience using these phones or others will chime in in the comments. This research is by no means comprehensive, I’m comparing phones that I know about or have experience with having used them in the field based on four key factors – openness (of the operating system), price, battery life and features. The scoring is simple. There are a potential of three points. (1 – Poor, 2 – Good, 3 – Great). For openness, I was fairly prejudiced – Android OS phones were all 3’s because I know developing for that OS is easier than say Symbian. However if the phone itself lacked certain basic features, the score went down because the hardware itself limits what can be done with the software. For price, the higher scores are given to the devices with the lowest costs.

1. Nokia N96

The Nokia N96 is the closest device on this list to a traditional phone. Although it has a slide out keypad, that keypad only has four buttons for controlling multi-media features. This means it’s going to be a phone that people in rural settings really take to natively (if only because they already have extensive experience with the native keypad). It’s listed as retailing for $300+ but I’ve seen them on sale in Africa for as low as (the equivalent of $75) [Link to Cnet Review]

Other Specs – Band WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900, GPRS, EDGE, Unlocked, Weight (4.4oz), Height (4.1 in), Width (2.2 in), Depth (0.8 in), Camera (5 megapixels, auto-focus), Java, MMS, Battery (220 mins)

Openness – 2
Features – 3
Price – 2
Battery Life – 1

2. Nokia N97

The bigger brother of the N96. The N97 is way more advanced, sporting options like a full-on pull out keyboard which means it’s a little easier for data entry. It supports Bluetooth as do most of these phones, although that’s not a feature I reccomend using if you want to extend your battery life. Usually retails for around $500. [Link to Cnet Review]

Other Specs – WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900, Unlocked, Weight (5.3oz), Height (4.6 in), Width (2.2 in), Depth (0.6 in), Camera (5 megapixels, auto-focus), Battery (400 mins)

Openness – 2
Features – 3
Price – 1
Battery Life – 2

3. Motorola Droid

The Motorola Droid is probably the most popular phone running Android to date. It also has a slide-out keyboard which makes text messaging easier and faster. It’s also durable a really assecible design. The price ranges from $200 (Locked) to $600 (Unlocked) [Link to Cnet Review]

Other Specs – CDMA2000 1X 1900/800, Unlocked, Weight (6.0oz), Height (4.6 in), Width (2.4 in), Depth (0.6 in), Bluetooth, Camera (5 megapixels, auto-focus), Battery (385 mins), GPS Receiver

Openness – 3
Features – 3
Price – 2
Battery Life – 2

4. HTC Droid Eris

The Droid Eris is a scaled back version of the Droid that goes on average for half the cost. It lacks a physical keyboard but then again so does the more premium Nexus One. The Droid Eris runs the Google Android Operating system which makes it ideal for groups looking to develop or deploy their own software solutions. It features a 5 megapixel, auto-focus camera and retails for around $100. [Link to Cnet Review]

Other Specs – CDMA2000 1X 1900/800, GPS, Unlocked, Weight (4.2oz), Height (4.4 in), Width (2.2 in), Depth (0.5 in), Camera (5 megapixels, auto-focus), MMS, Battery (214 mins), GPS Receiver

Openness – 3
Features – 2
Price – 3
Battery Life – 1

5. Nokia 523x Series Nuron

Light weight, but lacking on features despite the fact that it’s Quadband. Also, never trust a touch screen only device in areas that may be high on humidity and low on cleaning supplies. Runs Symbian. Usually retails for far less than $100 [Link to Cnet Review]

Other Specs – GSM 850/900/1800/1900 (Quadband ) / WCDMA 1700/2100 (Dual Band), GPS, EDGE, MMS, Unlocked, Weight (0.57oz), Height (4.37 in), Width (2.03 in), Depth (0.57 in), Bluetooth, Camera, FM Radio, Battery (420 mins), GPS Receiver, but NO WiFi!!

Openness – 1
Features – 1
Price – 3
Battery Life – 2

6. Nokia N900

The mother of all compact devices!!! It’s not cheap but it’s the perfect bridge between the PDA and the Laptop (LDA?). This unit puts the PC back into the term Pocket PC with true command-line access, external video output, USB and more. It even supports Flash, PDF’s, XML and XHTML which means all that time and money spent developing XFORMS and other things for less advanced devices goes out the window! On top of that it’s also a phone. It runs Nokia’s new Maemo OS which poses a significant challenge to Google’s Android. Retails between $500 and $700 [Link to Cnet Review]

Other Specs – WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900, GPS, EDGE, MMS, Unlocked, Weight (6.4oz), Height (4.4 in), Width (2.4 in), Depth (0.7 in), Bluetooth, Camera (5 megapixels, auto-focus), FM Transmitter, Battery (540 mins), GPS Receiver, WiFi

Openness – 3
Features – 3
Price – 2
Battery Life – 3

And the Winner is…

The sexiest thing to ever sport the Nokia brand. This thing is beautiful.

But how does it help with Global Aid? Let’s explore a few scenarios: If you’re an organization that wants to run a survey or data collection pilot in a very rural area without wifi and and limited mobile coverage using some really cheap non-smart phones that are only SMS capable. Even if you use opensource software like Frontline:SMS, Open Data Kit and XForms, the time that gets put into training users, structuring data and porting that data back over to machines probably adds a significant cost to your project. Not to mention the cost of running SMS services.

Now let’s compare this to using an N900. Rather than relying on SMS (notoriously unreliable, although it has reach) you could send 20 surveyors out with 20 of these devices. Rather than relying on SMS, these devices can host websites and database servers locally (written in standard formats) that can be synced seamlessly when there’s actually a connection! Rather than developing expensive custom Java solutions, you can just use basic HTML (meaning less expensive development). I think the cost equals out. Not to mention the fact that unlike just taking a laptop, this device is ALSO a phone.

The Caveat

On this scale the Nokia N900 ranks the highest but to be honest if I had rated the ‘Price’ score any lower (which many people would), it would be on par with the Motorola Droid which is cheaper and has many of the same ‘open’ software options (although lacks most of the hardware options).

In reality the Droid, on cost alone, makes more sense. If you can make it work on the Droid, you cut your cost of using an N900 by 1/3. And at $200 a pop, you’re not cutting back by much at all to opt for the Droid device over the N900.

© 2008 - 2009 Appfrica International. Looking for more African tech? Try our podcast Appfricast which you can also find on iTunes.

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Africa’s 5G Future

Fri, 2010-03-19 15:18

Anyone living in Africa and  interested in the future of affordable access will have spent some time trying to make sense of the complex evolving web of technology, regulatory policy, cultural issues, literacy, affordability etc that make up the ecology of communication infrastructure.  Fortunately the market has sorted out a big chunk of that out for us.  The future is mobile.  Even your mother knows that the future is mobile.  And mobile phones are evolving at a pace that no one dreamt of.

But other wireless technologies are evolving at an equally rapid rate.  In the little over 10 years of its existence, WiFi has gone from 1mb/s to over 300 mb/s in performance and while performance has gone up, price has gone down.  Nowadays, you find WiFi in an astounding array of devices from mobile phones to laptops to music devices to printers and projectors.  Access to WiFi networks has also exploded.  Nowadays a corporate building, public institution, airport, or even a cafe without WiFi is becoming a bit of an anomaly. But WiFi is not a mobile technology.

So how do those important but seemingly divergent technologies fit into the evolving technological landscape on the continent?  Especially in the context of concerns that 3G operators simply will not be able to cope with the exploding demand for broadband access.  In the U.S. the data demands of iPhone users has at times overwhelmed AT&T’s network.  AT&T has experienced a 5000 percent growth in data traffic in the last three years.  They have noticeably struggled to upgrade fast enough to cope with the demand, although things appear to have improved recently.

Lately motile operators have begun to hedge their bets in North America and Europe with the introduction of technologies like Femtocells to off-load network traffic .  Femtocells are consumer devices which establish a micro mobile base station in your home and use your broadband Internet connection to backhaul your mobile voice and data to the operator’s core network.  This takes the load off the mobile network for the operators and, in theory, saves the consumer money.  It is also a good solution for homes in areas with poor 3G coverage.  Unfortunately, this technology is unlikely to spread very far in Africa because it is designed mostly for people with high-speed adsl or cable Internet connectivity.

WiFi, however, is another possibility.  WiFi is nearly ubiquitous on the recent generations of smartphones. WiFi networks can offer complementary access for mobile users.  Technically, this is already true.  You can connect to a WiFi network with your smartphone in cafes and airports although authentication can be a pain and Skype over mobile IP is a pretty variable experience, from blocked to patchy to hey I remember it worked once somewhere.

So what would it take to have a seamless mobile / WiFi experience where you didn’t actually have to pay attention to what kind of wireless network you were on?  Well, as William Gibson says, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.  In the middle of 2009, Cherry Mobile, a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) in Belgium, launched a converged mobile phone service which didn’t care whether your phone was connected via WiFi or GSM.  In fact, the phone would work without a SIM card as long as there was a WiFi network.  (Wouldn’t that just drive the RICA folk mad).  The downside is that this is a custom app that only runs on new generation Symbian phones.  Still pretty amazing though.

Will networks like Cherry make a difference in Africa?  Maybe but not as they currently exist I think as the solution is not generic enough.  Happily, the IEEE have been hard at work developing standards for making devices work over heterogeneous networks.  An excellent article by one of the smartest people thinking about the future of the Internet, Bill St. Arnaud, highlighted two emerging standards:

802.21 – The 802.21 working group is developing standards to enable handover and interoperability between heterogeneous network types including both 802 and non-802 networks.  This means that an 802.21 compliant device would be able to detect all available networks that it supports e.g. GSM + WiFi and would make the transition from one kind of network to another seamless.
802.11u – 802.11u is an emerging standard for internetwork roaming and authentication.  This would enable not previously authorised roaming on networks within a structured authentication and services framework.

If network and handset manufacturers start manufacturing devices compliant with these standards, things could get interesting.  While the obvious impact of these standards could be to reduce bandwidth demand on mobile networks, a secondary but possibly more significant impact would be to increase competition in mobile markets.  It would potentially allow for the development of bottom-up WiFi-based telephone infrastructure that could extend mobile networks or even provide alternatives.

Dispatch from Sierra Leone: mobile money and agent incentives

Wed, 2010-03-17 10:01

A mobile money agent in Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of Ben Lyon

Ben Lyon is the Founder and Executive Director of FrontlineSMS:Credit, an organization committed to bringing financial services to the entrepreneurial poor in 160 characters or less (the length of a standard text message).  Ben specializes in informal economics, microfinance and mobile payments and is especially interested in where the three subjects converge.  Learn more about FrontlineSMS:Credit at http://credit.frontlinesms.com.

Agents are the face and frontline of any mobile money system.  Often termed ‘human ATMs’, agents are present every time a user wants to put cash in, or draw cash out, of a system.  Given their critical importance, it only seems prudent to ask “What are the incentives that govern agent behavior?” A review of Splash Mobile Money Limited (Splash) and Zain Zap in Sierra Leone is instructive.

As background, Sierra Leone has a population of roughly six million, a cell phone penetration rate of 13 percent and an illiteracy rate of 65 percent. The Africell, Comium and Zain networks each claim approximately one-third of the GSM  market (the state-owned SierraTel is CDMA and Tigo was recently acquired by Africell).  Unlike Safaricom in Kenya, which has a market share in excess of eighty percent, the Sierra Leonean market is highly fragmented.  Customers own multiple subscriber identity modules (SIMs) and readily switch between network operators as prices change and special offers become available.

Both Splash and Zap are new entrants to the market.  Splash, a third party service that works across every major carrier, uses the short message service (SMS) format.  Zap runs exclusively on the Zain network and utilizes a closed SIM toolkit (STK).

Agents for either service are relatively difficult to find, especially outside of Freetown.  In Makeni, for instance, three out of four Splash agents refused to honor Splash transactions and the only Zap agent said “Zap is out of business”.  Since agents receive a commission – albeit small – on every transaction, why were both Splash and Zap agents refusing business? The best answer appears to be a chicken-and¬egg dilemma: agents only value the service insofar as it brings in customers, and customers only use the service if there are enough agents to make it more convenient than cash.

Hitesh, a Splash agent in Freetown, says that his company participates, not because of the agent commission, but because they view mobile money  as a loss leader.  Whenever a Splash user goes to Hitesh, he knows they are likely to see something they want and make a purchase.  Splash & Zap also give customers more ways to pay for products, he says.

Guaruanteed Trust Bank and Zenith Bank provide agent services for Splash and Zap respectively.  Like Hitesh, they view mobile money as a way to attract new customers and often recommend that users open a bank account.  If successful, they get both the agent commision and interest on the float.

Despite the positive social impacts of mobile money, it’s important to remember that agents – like any other business – are focused on the bottom line.  In order to enlist and retain a critical mass of agents, mobile money providers have to present a clear business case, especially during the first few months of operation while customer volume is low.

-Ben Lyon, Founder and Executive Director of FrontlineSMS:Credit

Mobile phone security

Mon, 2010-03-15 19:03

Photo by Milica Sekulic on Flickr

A company called FlexiSHIELD shows us how crass marketing profits from the plight of others. Using the infidelity of Tiger Woods as an example, FlexiSHIELD promotes its new FlexiSHIELD, a mobile security product that it touts can,

“… automatically hide any incoming or outgoing SMS, MMS, EMAIL, Phone Logs and actual Phone Calls in an invisible vault on the phone itself. When installed and activated, there is no indication of the application, and all message and call notifications are suppressed, making FlexiSHIELD totally invisible in operation.”

It is however an interesting example of how clever marketing can capitalise on public fears resulting from a high profile paparazzi case.

But FlexiSHIELD aside, there are a number of programmes and services that protect mobile content. One of the best catalogues of these tools can be found at Mobile Security Redux: Comparing the Tools from MobileActive.org. There are a number of resources on this blog post, but the most interesting and a work in progress is this matrix comparing the pros and cons of several leading mobile security products.

Filed under: ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace)

Apple’s Spat With Google Is Getting Personal

Mon, 2010-03-15 00:12
Once allies, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt are now engaged in a gritty fight over mobile computing and cellphones.

By BRAD STONE and MIGUEL HELFT173198892019572201020153769456564876583900098747468605322867

Using mobiles to teach English

Sun, 2010-03-14 20:22

Developing Telecoms has a very interesting story on how in Bangladesh, mobiles are being used by the BBC to teach English.

Mobile users in Bangladesh have accessed more than 1 million English lessons using a new service, BBC Janala (‘Window’), which is promising to transform the way people learn language through m-technology in the developing world. Launched in just November 2009 by the BBC World Service Trust, the service has proved hugely popular with the country’s growing 50 million mobile users, many of whom want to learn English to improve their access to the global economy.

The first of its kind in the world, BBC Janala has turned the mobile phone into a low-cost education device by offering hundreds of 3 minute audio lessons and SMS quizzes through people’s handsets. By simply dialling 3000, almost anyone can learn with new classes each day ranging from: ‘Essential English’ for beginners, to ‘How to tell a story’ for those more advanced.

The BBC World Service Trust is pioneering the use of mobiles in South Asia for education and empowerment, including using ring tones for safe sex awareness in India.

When will the languorous ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, which itself needs lessons in English, realise the domestic potential of these cutting-edge regional examples?

Filed under: ICTs and other stuff Tagged: english, ICTA, Mobiles, Training

SMS vs. barcodes in the <b>mobile</b> charity arena

Sat, 2010-03-13 22:02
Here's an interesting one - GoMo News published a piece yesterday on how 2d barcodes are getting into the mobile charity space. Mobile giving has become much more high-profile this year, since it was so useful in Haiti. ... And vecause it's a credit card transaction, the payment is received within a day or two. Cons: People can be very wary of giving ANYONE their credit card details. One of the advantages of doing things through SMS is that it works on the mobile bill, ...
GoMo News - http://www.gomonews.com/