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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 February 2006, 09:40 GMT
Mobiles aid drive for development
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Motorola C113A, Motorola
The Motorola C113A has been built for developing nations
Mobiles phones that acts as a personal helper, media player and portable vault for events you capture in images or video tend to grab the headlines at events like the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona.

But at the same time, some at the annual mobile industry showcase are extolling the virtues of simplicity and the help such phones can give to the developing world.

"The mobile phone is the only viable technology that can bridge the digital divide," said Tom Phillips, chief government and regulatory affairs officer for the GSM Association, the industry body that oversees much of the mobile industry.

"It's the only solution that does not depend on billions and billions in aid money that would not be effectively invested even if it were available."

Cover charge

Mr Phillips said that there was huge potential for making use of mobiles to bridge the digital divide because much of the work to reach people in developing nations had already been done.

"About three-quarters of the world's population live in areas already covered by mobile networks," said Mr Phillips.

Despite this, little more than one-third of the globe's six billion people use a mobile.

Nicholas Negroponte and the $100 laptop, AP
Many like MIT's Nicholas Negroponte believe hi-tech can aid development
Mr Phillips said the GSM Association was trying to reach many of those people who live beneath the shadow of the networks but do not have a phone by making affordable handsets specifically for developing markets.

US phone firm Motorola won the competition to create a handset for so-called emerging markets and its winning designs, the C113 and C113A, were unveiled in early 2006.

The handset costs only $30 and at the 3GSM World Congress, the GSM Association announced that it had orders for more than 12 million of them.

One scheme in South Africa uses the cheap handsets that allows a handset to become a mobile payphone. Under the Sharedphone scheme, entrepreneurs can let others make calls and send text messages using the handset.

Good business

Mr Phillips defended plans to get handsets into developing nations from accusations that these programs were just a cheap way for operators to double their customer base. Others have said that there are many other things citizens in developing nations need before a mobile phone.

To begin with, he said, mobile phones could be agents of social change by breaking down barriers that stop businesses and local economies flourishing.

Tom Phillips: GSM Association
The role of telecoms is every single bit as important as electricity and basic infrastructure in enabling development of an economy
Tom Phillips, GSM Association
In many developing nations, said Mr Phillips, farmers and fishermen no longer have to rely on the word of a middleman to find out where they can get the best price for crops or catch.

Instead they can call the markets direct and find out for themselves and get a better price for their goods.

"Mobiles are no longer a luxury," he said, "they are essential business tools."

Also, he said, most of the money spent on networks does not come from aid agencies but much of the tax paid by phone operators goes to governments and can help fund development. Corporate tax is one of the top three contributors to government funds in developing nations, said Mr Phillips.

The speed with which mobile networks can be set up can act as a foundation for other changes, said Mr Phillips. In many developing nations consumers can get hold of a mobile far more easily than they can a fixed line phone.

In Africa more than eight times as many mobile connections have been created in the last few years as fixed line links, said Mr Phillips.

The cost of connecting someone up to a mobile network was far lower than wiring them into the fixed line network, said Mr Phillips. A study showed that a fixed line connection cost about ten times as much as a mobile link.

"The role of telecoms is every single bit as important as electricity and basic infrastructure in enabling development of an economy," said Mr Phillips.

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