segunda-feira, fevereiro 23, 2009

Evolution of Mobile Telephony in Latin America and its Impact on Rural Areas

Assuring equal opportunity in technological access

1- Initiatives from the demand side, focused on decreasing the costs of the agents so that lower income segments can access minimum service.

The prices of mobile terminals and the cost of services continue to be barriers in the adoption of mobile telephony in rural zones, particularly in lower income communities. Although prices of mobile terminals have decreased greatly in the last years, operators continue asking for a reduction of tariffs on terminal imports. These would collaborate in reducing the initial costs of entry to the service. On the other hand, a possible solution is the financing of mobile telephones by local credit entities, or even government programs for distribution of telephone cards by the basic organizations present in communities: for example to school principals, presidents of cooperatives, and healthcare centers, among others. Those policies must be considered based on local needs, taking into account objectives related to education, health and productive development.

One possible policy is to offer owners of medium and small businesses (PYMES) certain incentives to provide their employees working in the fields with a mobile device, which would increase business productivity. This in turn would derive in a “spillover effect” in the families of those workers, translating into positive social impact. We can cite the case of India, where the Grameen Phone Company, in collaboration with the Grameen Bank, granted small loans (micro loans) to access mobile telephones to women that subsequently provide the service to the inhabitants of the community where they live.

In the different cases, it is important to have the opinion of the affected communities and inhabitants so that the solutions implemented are in accordance with their communication needs.

2- Implementing official measurement of mobile penetration divided into rural and urban subscribers, to be able to evaluate development of this segment over time.

Current official statistics do not allow for a breakdown between rural and urban mobile telephony subscribers. This calculation in itself is incomplete, since many times the limits between rural and urban areas are extremely diffused. For example, one person can live in an urban area and carry out their economic activities in rural zones, and vice versa. Having measurements of this type would be the first step to the construction of goals to decrease the breach, and would help to understand exactly what the critical areas or actions are.

Although mobile coverage maps help to understand current coverage in a general manner, there are no concrete processes to review this coverage and this leads to serious problems when defining policies.

These measurements have already been performed in developed countries, such as in Spain and the United Kingdom (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2001).

3- Participation of civil society, international entities, local design and formulation authorities, as well as development of rural connectivity programs to assure that the needs of the agents are being covered.

The literature and experiences in matters of connectivity plans are varied. From the success of “community based networks” (UNDP, 2005), up to analysis of the limitations of many rural connectivity programs, as is the case of CTC in Argentina, there is a manifest need to have an extended degree of participation from local organizations and of other types in program development. Once again, the case of Grameen Phone is an example of the synergy between the private sector and the community (it is necessary to keep in mind that the success of the Graneen Bank is based on high population density in rural zones, access to micro loans and low interconnection rates37). Generating notification networks starting with a telephone in respect to access to information through SMS, such as prices, harvests, time, are actions that have worked in other countries such as Senegal, and have not yet been evidenced in a massive manner in the region’s rural areas.

Likewise, it is important to understand the policy on access to telecommunications as a part of more global social programs. As described, there are many programs destined to increasing rural productivity, and the same directors of the programs understand the weight of the mobile telephone in their success.

The possibility of interrelating connectivity programs with social and productive programs would
increase the degree of impact. It should be noted that civil society has not been absent in the diffusion and providing of digital connectivity in different rural zones of the countries in question. In fact, many initiatives try to attack the problem of the digital breach from a perspective of access to new technologies, particularly the use of computers and the Internet.

In Argentina the Nodo Tau, Era Digital or Centro Redes foundations, for example, actively participate and prepare programs seeking to decrease the digital breach. In Brazil we also find the Estação do Futuro Project, Viva Rio, CDI (Digital Inclusion Committee) and the Gemas da Terra network, among other NGOs. The latter was created in 2001 and currently manages a national network of rural community telecenters.

Mobilization of civil society is a factor that can improve the conditions for access to telephone services. Still incipient, there are organizations that seek to improve the communication situation in rural areas. In Brazil, there is a movement known as Abrater (Brazilian Association of Rural Telecommunications), whose mission is to “support the Brazilian effort for implementation of telecommunications systems in rural areas and locations removed from the large urban centers, for the promotion and development of voice and data services”. The association involves users, telecommunications systems engineering companies, and technicians involved in the installation, maintenance and operation of telecommunications systems destined to rural areas and regions of low population density.

This situation is replicated in other countries; however, there have been no particular local or national projects that directly involve the use of mobile telephony services. The increased closeness that Community Telecenters projects (CTC in Argentina, Telecenters in Colombia, CCD in Mexico, Infocenters in Peru, or Points of Access in Venezuela) generated among the national authorities in charge of ensuring the communications management in each country and the local governments, did not serve to include mobile telephony in the debate regarding the future of these projects.

4-Educating the population in respect to new technologies and the benefits they carry

Telecommunications, and especially mobile telephony, have to be seen as a priority in every nation’sagenda, since it is the ideal means to strengthen social integration. It has the characteristics to play an important role in social products, due to its ease to reach isolated zones and to its relatively low cost of operation, mobile services with mobile technology are ideal to complement other technologies to close the existing telecommunications breach.

The existence of a rural mobile telephony market is a growing reality. As the positive effects continue spilling over among users, as the degree of knowledge of its benefits increases simply due to its use in daily activities, the benefits will be even greater. In a not very far away future, it is probable that the inhabitants of rural zones can have access to high value added services from their mobile phone; it is even probable that the so much sought after decrease in the digital breach will finally occur through this device as opposed to the PC. Therefore, we must keep in mind the learning conditions needed to be able to take advantage of these applications.

Finally, mobile telephony has done much in the region. Today it is without a doubt, the preferred means of communication of most people in Latin America.

As could be expected, the inhabitants of rural areas have reacted positively to the service; an effort on the part of national governments could provide even more tangible benefits.

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