News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Emerging markets to get a deserved look in at a downturn-themed Mobile World Congress

An averagely busy life does not allow for blog entries as long as novellas. I also doubt that posts as long as that would be read from start to finish by equally busy readers. Some topics, though, are worth exploring at length, and I was conscious yesterday of having downed tools before getting close to sharing more than a tiny fraction of what I've learned about the theme I was discussing - how successfully the telecoms sector is reconciling its for-profit commercial imperatives with a desire to improve the lives of poor people in developing countries. What follows today, therefore, is a little more exploration of this broad topic.

A company which got a mention here yesterday was Grameenphone, the cellco which owns the largest share of the mobile market in Bangladesh - 46.75% by December 2008, according to Informa Telecoms & Media's World Cellular Information Service. We considered the idea that the MNO's owners, Telenor and Grameen Telecom, have been at odds, with Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Laureate behind the Grameen family of companies apparently claiming that Telenor's need to build shareholder value has not always sat comfortably with the social and non-profit agenda of its Bangladeshi partners.

For many, I will be rehashing a very familiar story as I take a look at the form this agenda has taken. Some readers may know the story less well and not be fully aware of how cellcos elsewhere in the world have been inspired by Grameen Telecom/Grameenphone initiatives. The tale is one of my favourite examples of the telecoms industry changing lives for the better so I will indulge myself by repeating it, hoping that there is something new here for at least one reader of this blog.

The most famous Grameen Telecom/Grameenphone project must be Village Phone, an inititative which provides telecoms services to underprivileged people in rural Bangladesh. Prospective Village Phone subscribers must first become members of Grameen Bank and take out a small loan. This loan is then used to purchase a handset and SIM card. Once given a phone, the subscriber is encouraged to provide services to people in the adjoining area. In this way, the borrower repays the debt to the bank and earns a profit. In 2006, I welcomed a representative of Grameen Telecom to a conference I hosted in Dubai. Participants watched a moving video which showed how the Village Phone project was transforming the lives of poor Bangladeshi villages, mostly women.

This model has been replicated elsewhere in Asia and also in Africa. I think the most recent example is that of the Village Phone project launched in Indonesia by the Grameen Foundation, Qualcomm and Bakrie Telecom, a CDMA WLL operator that is seeking to establish a national presence with its Esia brand.

In July 2008, Global Mobile Daily reported on the project, whose name, 'Uber ESIA', means 'joint cooperation' in the Indonesian language, and which is aimed at delivering affordable access to remote rural areas using 3G CDMA technology. Similar to the original Bangladeshi model, the plan is to work with local Indonesian microfinance institutions to enable clients to borrow sums needed to purchase a Village Phone 'business in a box' consisting of a mobile 3G CDMA-based device and charger, marketing materials, tariff posters, business cards and training materials.

Earlier examples of the Village Phone model being exported are those of the Grameen Foundation's collaboration with MTN's Ugandan subsidiary (launched in 2003) and with MTN Rwanda (launched in 2006).

This clip (in Dutch, with English subtitles) tells the story of the Ugandan initiative:

Qualcomm's involvement in the Indonesian Village Phone project is further evidence to support a point made in yesterday's post - that telecoms operators are not the only communications services ecosystem participants which can support initiatives designed to improve the lives of poor people in emerging markets.

Another example of this is the 'Village Connection' system developed by Nokia Siemens Networks. I remember this being discussed in an email-only publication to which I was once a regular contributor, the weekly 'Telecoms Vision' newsletter associated with the Informa Telecoms & Media Com World Series. In February last year, this carried an article based on an interview with Rauno Granath, NSN's Head of New Growth Markets. Granath explained that the Village Connection solution, which is comprised of GSM access points located in villages, connected via IP links to regional access centres, was "carrying live traffic in many villages in India." The article stated that the system lends itself to new business models such as operators potentially franchising parts of their business to local village entrepreneurs.

Granath was keen, however, for NSN not to be prescriptive about business models, saying "the Village Connection solution enables new thinking in sharing the responsibilities as well as the business between the new stakeholders, but it doesn't mandate it. I would expect to see a whole variety of ways of working." The article suggested that as different business models emerge, so too could different operator approaches to charging, and went on to discuss other offerings in the NSN portfolio designed to make taking on new subscribers even more viable. An example given was that of improved radio performance and planning through which it becomes possible to allow a reduction in sites, saving money on hardware and, in isolated areas, on power. Also discussed were further ways of reducing power consumption, and thus the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for prospective new subscribers from among the poor of the developing world. These included base stations that can work without air conditioning and combined solar and wind power systems.

Another efficiency measure discussed by Granath concerned airtime distribution purely on an SMS basis rather than scratch cards. "It sounds trivial," said Granath, "but when we think about the tens or hundreds of millions of vouchers that operators need to distribute throughout their subscriber base every year, it starts to get big effects."

The article made the point that these are all admirable attempts to make supplying services to rural populations viable but asked the question of whether such potential subscriber additions are really worth the effort for operators. Granath was adamant that "there is still a lot of pure business sense for operators to reach the rural areas, particularly in markets like India where even the rural population is dense." Apart from which, it may be unavoidable if, as Granath pointed out, universal service obligations are imposed by governments.

For more on the Nokia Siemens Networks view on extending service availability in emerging markets, I would heartily recommend a look at the latest edition of the company's Expanding Horizons newsletter. With an editorial co-authored by Rauno Granath, this is a useful round up not only of NSN's activities in this field, but also related material such as an interview with Gabriel Solomon of the GSM Association, who worries that high taxes on mobile communications are threatening to suppress economic and social development in sub-Saharan Africa.

As I continue to tease former colleagues at Informa Telecoms & Media whose Facebook status updates suggest they are gearing up for a week of very hard work at the Mobile World Congress (while I head off for a family holiday in Florida), I was pleased to note that a senior figure at the company is predicting that the effects of the economic downturn notwithstanding, emerging markets will get a look in during the various conference sessions and workshops and in the countless discussions between individual participants.

Mark Newman, the business information and events firm's Chief Research Officer begins his preview of this year's Barcelona show by asking how how exhibiting vendors "can... showcase new mobile Internet devices, mobile applications and next generation mobile broadband network technology while at the same time satisfy[ing] operators' overriding single objective in 2009 - cutting costs as the mobile industry faces up to the global economic downturn."

All very austere. Almost as harsh as my wife returning from a lunch with friends today and sharing with me the news that several people present have either been made redundant or are expecting the axe to fall very soon.

My own view of the downturn, however, is to be grateful for the fact that however long or deep this recession proves to be, none of us living in the developed economies of Europe or North America will experience the levels of absolute poverty suffered by people in what we call emerging markets. I was therefore heartened by the final comment of Mark's MWC preview: "Growth potential in emerging markets has been a regular theme over the last few years and will remain so at this year's event". For me, that's exactly as it should be, especially if we take the view that telcos and vendors making a profit in developing economies is compatible with improved lives for the poor.

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