John West
Publication Date
September 1, 2008


From Internews Europe, this document describes mobile phone technology from the perspective of its potential for media development. It seeks to address the question: what role will media play in the future use of cell phones? From the Executive Summary: "If media don’t address the mobile as a viable information platform others will, and within the space of a few years media players... will have lost a large measure of their marketshare, 'mind share', and standing in society at large."

The result of the rapid uptake of cellular use is an estimated 3.8 billion mobile phones in the world (2008). As stated here, 15 million people in Africa now individually own mobile phones but do not have access to a TV at home."...Most of the growth is now in the developing world, well down the social scale and stretching into the informal economy. And the rate of expansion is speeding up. It took 15 years for the first quarter of the world to get mobile phones, by 2003, and about four years for the second quarter. The next billion mobile phone owners, predicted by 2011, will be over 90% in the global South." As proof of its ubiquity, the report describes the African trend of painting one's cell phone number over one's door.

As stated here: "The mobile industry has become perhaps the best paradigm of a Bottom of the Pyramid business, with multi-billion dollar corporations targeting the poor as central, rather than peripheral, to their future. Operators like Vodafone, who could once command $100 a month per subscriber, now aggressively target markets like India, where the average is more like $5 and dropping. Phone manufacturers like Nokia and Ericsson send designers to India and China and compete to produce handsets to retail at under $25. All over the developing world the argument for liberalisation of telecoms has been largely won, as governments have bought the ‘mobile for development’ argument over the vested interest of incumbent operators and the short-term prospect of high tax revenues from a limited base. Global tech titans like Google and Microsoft are looking at the mobile as the next platform for software and information services of all kinds, and are eager to grab a piece of it...Pockets of technology leapfrog are already appearing. A higher percentage of Kenyans use Mcommerce than Americans or Finns. Pakistan boasts the world’s first nationwide Wimax deployment. More Jamaicans access the web from mobiles than from desktop computers. The three quarters of the world who have yet to access the Internet or experience digital multimedia will mostly do both through mobiles."

With the aim of helping the media industry in developing countries to understand both the potential and the challenges of mobile media, the document poses the question: what kind of information services can be carried on the mobile now, and in the next five years? Though the cell phone´s potential is described as a "keyhole media" compared to print or television formats, the potential is described as potentially profitable and as including development of new tools to manage phone-based services. Primarily through interviews, the document points to the following areas of potential:

  • Free-to-use short message service (SMS) software - described by the FrontlineSMS developer.
  • Bulk SMS gateways to deliver messaging to networks.
  • M-Commerce, both M-Banking and the ability to transact via services like M-Presa.
  • M-Health - for example, Voxiva launched an interactive SMS quiz in Mexico which assesses cardiovascular risk (demonstrating the movement of complex information through short question and answer format), and is expanding from health into building agriculture and general sales mobile applications for clients.
  • Mobile news alerts like Sri Lankan-based Jasmine News Service, whose 100,000 subscribers receive alerts for about US$.30 monthly.
  • Voice-driven services, particularly using Asterisk, described here as the emerging standard in open source telephony software that can bring a wide range of voice-driven information services within reach of media houses in the South.
  • Media uses - including SMS summaries of editorial
    conferences and micro-payments to freelance reporters in far-away locations.

The document cites an increasing association of community radio and mobile technology, recently used in elections in Mali to connect poll watchers to the public, with election results announced through both SMS and community radio as fraud prevention. Shared infrastructure is another possible interface between the two. Advertising of mobile services via community radio has the potential to both generate income for the radio stations and reach the audience sought for mobile subscriptions.

The text alert via SMS is described as the glue between media because mobile SMS can turn attention toward more detailed reporting on other media. However, to help handle illiteracy and the multilingual nature of mobile use, the document suggests that a strong iconography be developed, particularly for phone functions. It also suggests that de-emphasising economic development functions of mobile technology and, instead, developing applications which bring about joy and social interaction might enliven the market now being sought at "bottom of the pyramid".

For media considering entering the mobile market, it suggests that mobile internet access will continue to increase, and that text (rather than voice) messaging is growing. It suggests that a media organisation choose a market, and that specialising works better than pasting news from other media into a mobile subscription channel. Market research on mobile use is seen as critical to mobile media success. It might include such issues as how many customers can read a Latin script (as opposed to a local alphabet). It recommends looking for business models and starting one´s own mobile news outlet, rather than feeding news to others. It recommends that the data "snippets" sent need to be attractive to service users, and can include income-generating data, such as classified ads, for example.

The document discusses the potential role of media organisations in the integration of mobiles into media offerings in the developing world. Roles for development organisations in a field of market-driven mobile adoption include exploring free access research and other strategies for filling the gaps, which may help influence mobile use and access in the developing world. Providing training at or below cost and incubation of text and voice applications may be useful in the search for local-level media uptake of the technology. Research areas for media development include subscriber numbers, pricing policies, signal coverage, volumes and usage of SMS texts, the emergence of value added services, measurement of the shared handset paradigm, and the meaurement of texting patterns broken down by language scrip. A "price basket" index of local prices has been useful in some regions. Monitoring South-friendly technologies for advances in robustness, ease of use, and price is suggested as a development role, as is offering expertise for needs assessment. Further, text server programmes combined with international bulk SMS gateways and open source telephony could be hosted at sector levels to reduce prices. Advocacy in negotiations with mobile network operators and with technology companies, as well as liaising with sources for social marketing and M-Health use of mobiles, are other potential roles.

Other areas for advocacy or intervention include the following: "As technology giants try to stimulate mobile technology, 'sub-grants to media creatives' to work with technologists on the design and prototyping of appropriate applications could produce great yields in terms of usability by big constituencies of the new mobile subscribers in the South in a way that might not be addressed by market forces because those constituencies do not represent enough buying power to justify the effort." Mobile use in emergencies is already recognised. The media role might be strengthened to provide news using SMS for real-time reporting of materials that could be rebroadcast to appropriate localities, as long as location information is built into databases at the server base station level. Finally, the document suggests that mobile technology-based news might be able to penetrate societies closed by strong censorship, and might, as was the case in Myanmar and Zimbabwe, enable transfer of news and conditions out of closed societies to a wider audience.


Press release from Internews Network to The Communication Initiative on January 30 2009.