Mobile the way to deliver internet to rural communities
14 November 2005
The most cost-effective and efficient way to deliver Internet access to rural areas is to exploit the massive investment in cellular networks already made by the global mobile phone industry, according to the GSM Association ( GSMA ), the global trade association representing mobile network operators across 210 countries.
Speaking at the ITUs Global Regulators Symposium in Tunis this week, Tom Phillips, Chief Regulatory Officer of the GSMA, said, Mobile phones are in the hands of more than one quarter of the worlds population today. We are building on this momentum to bring convenient and cost-effective Internet access to users on a global scale. Governments should work closely with the industry to extend the reach of these services to as many people as possible.
After 15 years of investment by mobile phone operators, almost 80 per cent of the worlds population live in areas covered by cellular networks, says Phillips. Analysts estimate that the global operator community is spending about US$50 billion each year further enhancing this global footprint.
There are many places where it simply doesnt make economic sense to duplicate this coverage with networks based on alternative wireless technologies, he adds. For that reason, regulators shouldnt mandate the use of a specific technology. Instead they should allow individual operators to decide how to provide Internet access to rural communities.
Phillips was speaking during a debate at the Symposium on the best way to provide Internet access to rural areas of the world.
He highlighted how the existing cellular infrastructure can be used to provide a wide range of information and communications technologies, from simple voice calls to email to Internet access.
More than 2 billion people are using mobile phones around the world, creating huge economies of scale for the mobile industry and making it increasingly viable to provide coverage in the more sparsely populated areas of the planet.
As second generation ( GSM ) networks evolve into third generation ( W-CDMA and HSPA ) networks, operators will be able to add new services and applications that deliver a media-rich wireless broadband experience to users on top of the existing voice, text-messaging and Internet access services. The roll out of W-CDMA mobile networks is gathering momentum there are now 86 networks worldwide offering multimedia services to users.
This widespread uptake of W-CDMA clearly demonstrates that building on the existing end-to-end mobile ecosystem is often more viable than rolling out and implementing unproven alternative broadband access technologies from scratch.
The value of an end-end mobile system cannot be overestimated from a user perspective. To deploy fragmented wireless access technologies to the same level of ubiquitous coverage and mass-market take up would require a huge investment on a par with that made by the global mobile industry over the past 15 years, Phillips says.
While mobile phones are typically the most cost-effective way to offer Internet access in the developing world, they are still too expensive for many of the worlds poor. The mobile industry is working hard to reduce the cost of handsets and extend coverage into rural areas, but it cannot tackle the digital divide on its own.
"Governments need to ensure that the appropriate radio spectrum is available, mobile phone usage isnt impeded by high taxes, and wireless networks are subject to appropriate levels of regulation that promote instead of discourage investment", Phillips said. "If teledensity is your goal, mobile is the best way to get there"
Countries with fair and transparent regulatory regimes are seeing a boom in investment by mobile operators and a corresponding boom in mobile phone usage. Last year, the mobile industry invested more in Pakistan, for example, than all other direct foreign investment combined. Mobile penetration in Pakistan has leapt to seven per cent from two two years ago.