Mobile phones for Africans to reduce poverty
July 8th, 2005

Jaap van Till has posted a plea to the G8 to reduce poverty by providing mobile phones for all Africans:

Poverty for millions of Africans can be effectively reduced by introducing low cost mobile phones in highly populated city area’s and by introducing mesh networks of solar powered “Tellet” voice communcation devices for farmers and villagers in rural areas.

Yes, the use of mobile phones has been shown to stimulate economic growth significantly [1], the poor people in developing countries recognize the value of telecommunication. And they are willing to pay for such services, especially SMS’es used for transactions and long distance agreements within their communities. The effect of telecom on wealth and quality of life has been shown to be especially strong in rural areas.

On June 29 Arun Sarin, president of Vodafone published an appeal [2] “Mobile Penetration will boost Africa” (in NL – NRC “Bestrijd de armoede: geef Afrika mobieltjes”) to the G8 leaders to pave the way for private investments in African countries for the rollout of cellphone networks. This appeal is based on the effects on small businesess and citizens seen in Africa with present networks and on the statistics of (1). Such rollout is part of the activity of mobile phone and chip manufacturers to bring down the price of the devices to less than 40 dollars. The objective is to sell after the present billion handsets (in rich countries and large cities) the next billion into (the smaller city areas) of the less developed world. This is great and will have a very positive effect on the lives of those who will use that next billion (3) where they can get wireless coverage.

The problem is that this great plan leaves the rest of the world, outside the cities, in farms and rural areas, now about 4 billion, without tele-connections. This is because despite low cost devices the investments, maintenance and operation of the wireless network infrastructure (base stations, backhaul links and switches) is too high, especially in thinly populated rural areas and the poor farmers and villagers will not be able to pay the phone bills to recuperate the investments in the network. Also there is no infrastructure for electrical power present for the net as well as the handset batteries. So they will get NO telecom in the next decades, so millions have to travel for days to communicate, often without results. And they will probably move to the cities to get work.

There is a solution for these problems. Recent technical inventions have succesfully implemented handheld devices which can act as store-and-forward relays of IP data packets themselves (so called multi-hop routing). So a number of those devices will form a meshed radio network by itself (ad-hoc), without the need for costly infrastructure.

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