bottom-billion citizens are subscribers
(up from approximately 2% at the start
of the century)
6 but, as with the Internet,
the effective penetration—those who
could access a cellphone from neighbors, relatives, or local call sellers if necessary—is higher; likely more than half
illustration by stuart braDforD
Subscriber growth rates are also
high—50% per year compared to less
than 20% in Europe—and sometimes
highest for the most-afflicted countries.
Three examples of the worst of insecurity and instability in the bottom billion—
Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of
the Congo, and Somalia—have high
investments and an average 100% annual growth rate.
7 Those rates are likely
to sustain: in sub-Saharan Africa, for
example, by 2012, it is estimated 90% of
the population will be within cellphone
coverage, up from 60% today.
We are still a long way from North
American rates of IT usage but it is well
past time to move from talking about
vague future possibilities and begin
talking about actual current priorities.
The first priority should be engagement. I wonder how many Communi-
cations readers are working on an informatics project in a bottom-billion
country. It is likely not a large number,
because we tend to work where the
money is rather than where the problems are.
In terms of IT, the three key priorities are mobiles, mobiles, and mobiles.
As indicated earlier in this column,
cellphones are now reaching far down
into the bottom billion. At present, development solutions will need to be
based around voice and text. But other
possibilities are rapidly opening up.
One set of these possible solutions
involves the integration of mobiles
with other IT. This scenario could involve radio and television, converting
these high-penetration but broadcast-only media into much more interactive
forms, as currently being achieved in
the growing number of “community
radio” projects. Or we can think of integrating phones with telecenters and
kiosks. Pilot projects already under way
suggest this can multiply the impact of
Web access many times.
How will the Web and Internet reach
the bottom billion? The GSM Associa-
tion estimates that 80% of Internet delivery will occur through mobile devices.
However, mobiles are not the only way
forward. WiMAX-plus-netbook systems
can offer high-quality, low-cost Internet
access. Even more intriguing is the potential use of “white space”: the unused
parts of the analog television broadcast
spectrum. For the bottom billion, it will
be many years before digital switchover
and release of analog spectrum space,
but new technology could be developed
to identify and use existing white space
1 This reallocation of
spectrum space could offer wide-reach-ing broadband Internet service at a fraction of the cost of other solutions.
In all these areas, though, we need
more, better, and less expensive technological innovations that focus on the
particular conditions and resource constraints of bottom-billion customers.
Beyond hardware and software, what
application priorities do the bottom billion demand?
Analysis of the problems of the
Fourth World may help provide an answer. The key problem is that of exclusion: the average bottom-billion citizen
APriL 2009 | voL. 52 | no. 4 | communicAtionS of the Acm