The Promise and Challenges for Mobile Media in the Developing World

    by Katrin Verclas
    March 3, 2009
    Photo by "whiteafrican":http://flickr.com/photos/whiteafrican/2736565604/ via Flickr

    Mobile phones are everywhere. They have long surpassed the Internet in number of users, and in some parts of the world, mobile phones now rival television in reach. The mobile tech economy (at least until recently) was booming with telcoms and handset manufacturers fiercely competing in emerging markets, and software giants like Microsoft and Google entering the mobile industry in earnest. There are now somewhere between 3.5 billion and 4 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, with the fastest growth happening in developing countries.

    A new report by Internews, The Promise of Ubiquity, poses this question: Can media organizations in the developing world seize the opportunities that billions of mobile subscribers represent, and will they be able to deliver information services needed all over the world? The report’s producer, John West, has some interesting ideas, but does not have all the answers.

    It remains to be seen whether media organizations as they exist today can adopt and adapt mobiles as information and media channels."

    Mobiles in the developing world

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    John West

    West is no slacker in regard to questions about the impact of mobiles in the developing world. The former director of Internews Europe is an expert in the development and analysis of media and new media in emerging democracies and the Global South. His question — what role does mobile play in media, or more precisely, what role does media play in this mobile revolution — is not one that has an easy answer. West notes:

    The opportunity is open to all, and the boundaries between telecom, tech and media companies is being blurred, just as they were for the Internet. If media do not move into this space with useful applications and services, others will and the role of the professional media sector will be diminished.

    What makes mobiles so interesting for media organizations, particularly in the Global South?

    In a single word: reach. West arduously points out that, according to his extrapolations from World Bank data, more than 20 million people in the 50 least developed countries have a mobile phone but no television. He also notes that mobile phones are a classic “Bottom of the Pyramid” industry and he even goes so far as to call them “poor-centric” — in that they work by collecting small subscription fees, that poorer subscribers can more easily afford, from a huge customer base. This makes mobiles a good way to reach an audience often shut out of the media landscape.


    Some would disagree with West’s assessment that the mobile industry — both operators and handset manufacturers — is indeed “poor-centric” in its current approach, arguing that the industry in developing countries has stifled innovative mobile applications and information services for bottom-of-the-pyramid (and lower-yield) subscribers by a narrow focus on higher-end customers. West’s argument that telcoms are rapidly adding so-called value-added services is dubious, especially in Africa where mobile penetration rates still huddle around 35% of the population. Operators there have little incentive to add value-added services when 65% of the market still has to be reached with basic phone services.

    Also, in making his case for mobile reach, West forgets that mobiles are not the first media to deeply permeate into the developing world: radio still has a greater reach than mobile phones. In fact, FM and AM radio on mobile phones, as is ubiquitous in Southeast Asia, comprises another form of “combined” media that West ignores but which nonetheless offers interesting opportunities for media organizations.

    Mobile Opportunities

    But be that as it may, West argues strongly that media organizations in the Global South had better “step onto the platform created by the explosion of mobile phones” — or other players will. This includes operators and mobile handset manufacturers, Google, and Microsoft. He suggests a number of text and voice services that media organizations should consider when thinking of how to best serve this emerging market — including news alerts, voice-driven classifieds, and structured community input via text or voice, to name a few.

    West has a number of common-sense suggestions for media organizations in the Global South such as “knowing your market” and “knowing what you are offering.” He also eloquently describes the barriers that keep media organizations from adopting mobile media. These include critical factors such as cost, literacy, lack of local language applications, and a lack of viable business models that include the all-powerful mobile operators.

    Arguably, media organizations generally are slower in adopting new technology, and need a broad overview to make the case why it is important to pay attention to mobiles. And for that, the report is a laudable effort, full of interesting data, and good country profiles.


    However, West’s technology overview for media organizations is surprisingly lacking in innovation. He suggests mobile barcodes as a way to access information services, Asterisk voice-over-IP servers, and the mobile web and data services. But these ideas are pedestrian, given the many mobile innovations all over the world ranging from Twitter and local clones in dozens of countries to South African mobile messaging service Mxxit, to USSD messaging in Africa to free group SMS services India operated by Google.

    Problems ignored

    Although West sees the deeper permeation of mobiles into the developing world as a positive, he does not address the serious threat inherent in new technologies that could enable new forms of surveillance and censorship. In Mobile Active’s report A Mobile Voice, we paid considerable attention to the many ways in which mobile services and communications could be tracked, censored, monitored, selectively shaped and blocked.

    Also missing is a much more thoughtful discussion of what an enabling policy and regulatory environment for mobile and digital media in the Global South would look like. International affairs/democracy and development consultant Shanthi Kalathil said in a report to the Center for Media Assistance:

    …the field of media development is rapidly converging with the ‘ICT for development’ field, which unlike media development situates itself more in the traditional poverty-reduction realm of development, as opposed to democracy and governance. This poses some interesting questions….In essence this is what convergence of these fields is pushing toward: an enabling environment that encompasses telecommunication reforms.

    Lastly, West discusses only in passing the emergence of citizen media and the disintermediation and pluralism that new media has enabled — with citizens talking to one another without the gatekeepers of “traditional” media.

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    Mobile is an exploding, vibrant, fluid, incredibly fragmented, and yes, ubiquitous technology and it remains to be seen whether media organizations as they exist today can adopt and adapt mobiles as information and media channels. And I am not sure West has much of a vision or an answer in that regard.

    Katrin Verclas is a mobile industry analyst with a focus on how mobile phones are used for social impact. She is the co-founder of MobileActive.org, a global network of practitioners and technologists exploring the use of mobile phones for social change.

    Tagged: developing world global south mobile active mobile phones
    • The mobile internet is very much alive and more widely used in the global south than a lot of people realise – the stats at mjelly – http://blog.mjelly.com/2008/04/10-reasons-the.html – are nearly a year old but you can get the picture there – I believe it is about at critical mass level now.

      I would like to believe that this will mean that community mobile media and citizen journalism will become more common – but that may need a few little push.

    • hi! i came here because there i couldn’t find any place to post a reply or comment on the Mobile Active blog – or did i miss the link? Perhaps Katrin you could take this reply and post it there or (apols if I missed it) tell me how to? Thanks.

      i guess the first thing to address is the intended audience. katrin has lots of ‘should have this’s and ‘should have that’s which i guess i would say are all and well and good… but were a lower priority for this audience which is… very specifically… managers in the media of the south and the international media development industry. hands on people trying to figure practical program structures and implement in… iraq, pakistan, rwanda etc etc. as katrin points out, mobile is an incredibly rich and diverse space so a work this length could never hope to be a practical manual. I’d call it more of a practical thought manual for hard pressed manager types who want to an overview of why they should engage in the mobile space (because it’s not self-evident to them) and a few ideas they could ask their small technical and marketing teams to think about… but who are unlikely to go to blue sky next generation conferences about this… This is very specifically not a think tank report.

      let me say then that i take ‘pedestrian’ as a compliment! :-) strip it of any one-uppy connotations and i would say, yes, that’s exactly what this report was intended to be (likewise, to have someone say they don’t think you have all the answers to how mobile’s going to develop is flattering – like someone saying they’re not quite sure if you can make the rain stop or become president of the United States :-)

      seriously, though, on the question of reach and that nature of the mobile phone industry… the comparison with TV is a thought experiment to focus the minds of people who work with TV. Katrin is absolutely right radio has broader and deeper penetration in the South (although it was amusing to read I ‘forgot’ about radio since I spent three years in kabul on a project building 29 radio stations in afghanistan and many people have accused me of being a radio bore)…

      emphasising reach is I believe the single most important technique to engage the media sector, and in thinking about it I stumbled on what I believe is an underpublicised but very important fact – the growth of mobile itself is not being accurately reflected in any one group of statistics because the major international authoritative sources – the national telecoms regulators, the ITU and the World Bank, lag by two years on a country by country basis. By creating a composite between their historic figures and the more current reporting figures of the MNOs themselves (where you can prove them to be the basis of the national telecom stats, which is widely the case) you can see that mobile is growing far faster than we normally think. specifically there has been an explosion since 2005 across the global south which, in media terms, means the mobile here is already a mass reach medium. This methodology is speculative – it would need some work to firm it up, specific constructive criticism which would be very welcome.

      By these composite indices, it’s hard to maintain that Africa’s mobile penetration rates “still huddle around 35% of the population”, as Katrin says. It’s not the 35% I’d take issue with – many African countries are still way lower – but the “huddle” Nigeria would be at least 39% in 2008 from 27% in 2006, Kenya 31% in 2008 from 20% in 2006. In countries with much lower penetration rates the story is still of phenomenal growth: taking a period 2005-7, Ghana rises from 10% to 19%, DRC from 4.8% to 10.5%, Ghana from 13% to 32%, Madagascar from 3% to 11%, Senegal from 15% to 33%, Uganda from 5% to 14%.

      I’d certainly agree the mobile phone industry has not historically been poor-centric and high prices have stifled innovation. My point precisely is that that is now changing (by market imperative, we don’t have to enter into a nature-of-capitalism debate). The switch from average revenue per user (ARPU) to average margin per user (AMPU) among the operators, the search for the low cost handset among manufacturers attest to it.

      As for 2D bar codes and Asterisk servers being pedestrian, they surely are. But in the environments I and Internews work in they’re not being used so whether they’re clever enough is kind of irrelevant. Last year we managed to get media into the mob ile phone space in Iraq by getting three guys in a room in Erbil to understand the limitations of text messaging as a format, then opening an account on Clickatell and training them to use FrontlineSMS… They probably won’t win any creativity awards but they’re now being sought by clients who want to advertise in-text to their client base and their direct experience makes them feel much stronger in negotiating parallel deals with the operators there for distribution of their content… and their competitors are wondering how to do it too. A modest but satisfying achievement. Long live the kludge :-)

      Problems ignored: citizen media ignored I plead guilty on tactical grounds – getting media management to realise mobile has uses within their own organisations as they currently conceive them is the first step to getting them to engage in and with citizen media (and arguably it is the synthesis that is more interesting than either in isolation). Security? True, I simply make the point there are huge implications without teasing out the detail (Section 8.5) – I’m sure Katrin’s more detailed analysis is excellent. Policy? It’s implicit in the section on media NGOs acting as advocacy groups (Section 8.3.c) but for sure could be expanded on. Many of the target readers of this report like and do advocacy already. On the other hand it’s media advocacy and therefore well within their comfort zone. One to ponder.

      Twitter, Mxxit, free Google messaging in India? All good and interesting to know about. My approach is more institutional I would say – not what this quarter’s interesting apps are, but how can you with limited resources keep tracking that question, this quarter, and the next and the next.

      I don’t know Mobile Active’s work although I can see it’s clearly high powered. All I would suggest is that there is also room for a workaday, artisanal – ‘pedestrian’ – contribution as well.

      Many thanks for your time :-)

    • John, thanks for the long response!

      Comments on the MobileActive.org blog were not activated for anonymous users because of spam but are now with better controls, so please feel free to post your response there as well!

      Let me address some of your points in order:

      1. Appropriate technologies. Given who you say the target audience is — managers of media organizations in the global South as well as media development organizations, I think the piece works as an overview. However, as I said, managers in these very organizations ought to have an idea of existing technologies that work and are indeed easily implementable — precisely because it is not a ‘think tank’ report, as you point out.

      Google SMS Groups in India is a case in point — the service (setting aside whether it’s good or bad to have Google manage mass SMS for news organizations) has seen a huge uptake by the very news organizations that you point out as a target audience. Take a look at the groups there and count how many are news organizations large and small who use it — I lost track at well over one hundred.

      The service requires no technical expertise and clearly has found an audience as a way to deliver — at no SMS costs to the organization — news to people on behalf of organizations.

      I am not sure Asterisk, for all its worth, is implementable right now for, as you say, “small technical and marketing teams to think about.” Kubatana in Zimbabwe, one of the very few organizations which as implemented a version of Asterisk for news delivery (and health information at that, given the scrutiny the organization is under), has fairly sophisticated technical chops — not necessarily representative of smaller and less tech-savvy organizations. Asterisk has been around but it has had little update in the news space and I think it would be worth a discussion as to why that is so.

      In other words, I think you do your target audience a disservice not to actually portray doable, implementable, and actually used mobile technologies as a way to deliver content and engage audiences. And let me be clear, Frontline is such a tool that has great potential for news organizations, for sure, and I am glad you mention it in your comments. However, there are many more that deserve some attention to make this real and applied for the audience.

      As far as your point about mobile technologies ‘de-jour’ is concerned, I’d argue that any of them are right now, given the fast moving space. Anything you write about is, by definition, outdated the minute the publication is released. All the more important to be astute and forward looking in what technologies your describe as having potential for news organizations, I believe.

      2. Radio. Given that you have been accused of being a ‘radio bore,’ as you note, I am all the more surprised that you do not give radio its due, given indeed its reach. (And, for the record — I said you “ignored” radio, not “forgot.”)

      In fact, illustrating how much potential radio has, I received a message from Nokia this morning that announced the release of a low-cost phone for emerging markets that, in their words, “doubles as a portable FM radio and is ideal for emerging markets, where people rely on a radio as their main source of entertainment and news.” The phone also “has up to a day of listening time and 10 hours of talk time” and a loudspeaker for others to hear.

      My point is that Nokia, marketing an FM radio phone, the first with an internal FM antenna, in fact, believes that there clearly is a sizable market. Given that, and the prevalence already of AM radio on phones in places like India, for example, I believe talking about it in your report would have been useful – as a way to reach people where they already are right now. Radio and mobiles deserves an entire chapter, as far as I am concerned — maybe we should discuss adding it in a separate white paper. It is certainly something I am obsessing about at the moment.

      3. Data. Your data compilations and country profiles are great and you are completely right in pointing out mobiles are “across the global south which, in media terms,….already a mass reach medium.” (which, of course, makes it all the more important to actually mention technologies used in conjunction with mobiles that people already use — namely, SMS, radio, and increasingly, the mobile web in some parts of the global South (West Africa, as one example of an area where there has been phenomenal growth in 3G coverage and mobile web/data access and use).

      So, I agree with you, John, that the trends are astonishing and the growth very likely grossly under-reported, given lag times of available data.

      Lastly, let me say that this discussion can only be useful if we take it further and make it actually actionable for news organizations and citizen media groups alike. I have proposed previously compiling a database of available mobile tools for citizen media and news organizations (and a Mobile Voice started this, albeit not in the depth I would have wanted, given the scope of the project) and evaluate them based on availability, location, language, technical expertise required, pros/cons of reach, platform, etc. so that organizations can actually make choices on what tools to consider based on read data, information, and use cases.

      I would invite you or anyone else interested in this space to help us think through how to go beyond talk to making available real tools and know-how so that organizations and citizens the world over can begin to take much greater advantage of the potential of mobile for information and engagement.

      All the best,


    • Mobile phones gets better as time goes by. The applications and features keeps on improving and that is the challenge for the mobile phone manufacturer – to provide something new to the public.

    • Mobile phones gets better as time goes by. The applications and features keeps on improving and that is the challenge for the mobile phone manufacturer – to provide something new to the public.

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