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5th November 2007

Why location-based services are not yet being adapted in high-tech regions but have existed in low-tech regions for years?
Why children in low-tech regions access the Internet via mobile devices rather than PCs?
The new world coming to the Internet – India, China and Africa – children from these countries will experience the Internet on Cell phone devices rather than PCs.

In this day and age it is interesting to hear about companies trying to find successful deployment of location-based services in the West. Contrast that to the million of Children that accesses the Internet through the mobile phone in Low-tech areas around the world and using location based services on a daily basis. In Low-tech regions location-based services are part of everyday life. The focus on consumption and advertising from big High-Tech companies ensure that focus on why user would want to access location-based services have been lost.

Before I start the analysis I want to explain the term: low-tech region. A low-tech region is a country or number of countries where technology proliferation outside the main urban areas drops dramatically. And/or where the majority of the population does not have access to the technology of the urban elites.  For instance both China and India have very high-tech urban corridors and elites but the bulk of the inhabitants and rural areas are very low-tech in comparison. 

Location-based services have not had much stickiness in High-tech areas as of yet. For some reason it seems that when users in High-tech regions access information it is mainly through the PC and mobile devices is used mainly as a communication tools that uses email, phone calls and text messaging. Internet access for mobile users have been very slow on the uptake and so has location-based services. It is not because that the technological capacity is not there in High-tech but a combination of privacy issues, telecom wall garden approach to Internet access and generally lacking focus on delivery services and information that users actually want.

Especially the lack of focus on delivering relevant services and information to users I believe is one reason why low-tech countries have taken huge strives in adapting and appropriating location-based mobile services faster than the High-tech areas. The holy grail of location-based services has been blinded by advertising delivery, marketing branding and sales gossip. But this is really just spam disguised and as such has no real-world application for users.  

If we go back to location-based services in low-tech regions we see that the information and services delivered have real world application to the user. For instance on Mafia Island Africa Fisheries receive weather information and local market process for fish via mobile phone services. This is a perfect example of when location-based services are successful for users.
Fishermen get storm information over their mobiles.

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The concept is that users will engage with location-based services if it has real-world application and direct influence on the user. The ability to access weather information for fishermen is directly linked to the ability to survive and hence the technology is adapted and has real-world application for the user. Contrast that with the idea that you get a $2 off pizza coupon when you are two blocks away from a Pizza Hut and understand why users will see the information as not only intrusive but also as spam. The information not only has to be location-based it also has to be useful. Otherwise users are simply going to be turned off.   

Location based services in Low-tech countries: Reference Link 04

Low-tech regions have actually managed to set-up and maintain location-based services for mobiles long before high-tech regions where the concept of location-based services is still in the wet dreams of marketing departments and sales forces.
So how come location-based services are taking off in low-tech regions?  And what does this mean for children in low-tech regions who are accessing the Internet primarily through mobile devices rather than PCs?
To answer these question it is necessary to look at what dynamics prompted this development. As a simple breakdown 3 areas can be identified that would be essential for successful deployment of mobile Internet access;

1. Infrastructure
2. Mobile network cost and maintenance
3. User adaptation

Infrastructure
Infrastructure is one of the major aggregators in this development. The infrastructure needed for mobile phones is much cheaper and much easier to deploy than landlines and PCs. In low-tech countries with large geographical areas mobile phone use has proliferated due to several historical developments:

1. No large-scale fixed line network available
2. Internet Access cannot be delivered over the telephone network because of lacking capacity outside major urban areas
3. User hardware cost; the cost of mobile handsets are cheap compared to the cost of installing and maintaining landlines and associated hardware
4. Cost of mobile phones vs. PCs
 
Mobile network cost and maintenance
Mobile phones needs masts to send and receive the signal and rather than having to deploy and maintain actual lines through rainforest, deserts and mountains the mast facilities mobile communication over large areas with less capital investment. Also mast covers much larger areas per unit than a fixed line into a village. With maintenance and repair the mast are much easier to access than fixed lines. Fixed lines can either be buried or poled. To find a fault on a 1000 km line buried or poled can be much harder than to isolate a faulty mast.

The ability to set-up a mobile network is much easier for regions where no existing fixed line network exist. The cost per km of coverage for a mobile network is much less in cost and maintenance and this is a key factor in areas such as Africa and Asia.
User adaptation

Not to forget, cheap infrastructure and technology does not always translate into successful adaptation or appropriation of a specific technology. The dynamics for user adaptation should be investigated in relation to the availability of mobile networks and services in low-tech regions. This will help us understand why more children in these regions access the Internet on their mobiles and also why location based services are much successful.

Technology alone cannot drive technological development; culture is the most powerful driver for adaptation and appropriation. It is therefore appropriate to think about culture dynamics that can have influenced the rise in mobile networks in low-tech regions. So thinking about it we have to ask how technology transfer could happen so organically in order to supply the knowledge to use mobile phones and services in low-tech regions.

Even though 8 containers of mobile phones were send to a small village in Africa that has network coverage if there is not knowledge transfer the user will not be able to use the device. Trial and error would take too long and also why would a small village in Africa use mobile phone in the first place? What would make these users gain an interest in using mobile devices?

Communication to family and friends locally can be occluded since in a small village why learn to use a mobile phone when you can walk over to your friend’s in 2 minutes. But lets take into account one of the largest demographic shift in populations that has happened from the 1970s and onwards; migration. Especially migration from Low-tech regions to high-tech regions in this we can also include the migration from rural areas to urban areas within low-tech regions.

Migration as a catalyst for development of mobile networks in low-tech areas;

1. Explains rapid technology transfer between high-tech immigrant communities and their home community. People send home mobile phones as presents in addition to the discarded mobiles from high-tech regions being reused in low-tech regions. This is a very successful technology transfer.
2. Explains rapid mobile knowledge transfers in the sense that the need to be able to call loved ones and communicate with family and offspring is a driving dynamic in learning and adapting to new technology that arrives as part of the transfer.
3. Explains the ability to appropriate mobile technology to access Internet by children in Low-tech areas.

The cultural driver for mobile phones has been the exodus of workers from low-tech regions to the West. This has multiplied the need for communication between family and friends in the new homeland and the old. Even though migrants in the high-tech areas have access to PCs, Internet and bandwidth the users on the other end have not got access to any of those.

For users in low-tech regions mobile devices rely on battery. This makes them ideal for areas with little or no electricity since pedal generators can charge them when they run out. Contrast this to PCs and their need for constant electricity, maintenance and parts. Of course laptops run on battery as well but again the actual purchase price and the complexities of repair and maintenance of a laptop are much higher than mobile technology.  In this way users from low-tech areas arrived in high-tech areas and adapted mobile technology to be able to communicate with their place of origins.
Since the cost of erecting cell masts is much less than putting in landlines most places in the world will have some mobile phone coverage.

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For the GSM map we can see that mobile coverage follows population density and also that the ability of mobile technology to connect people from Africa and Asia to the West is very good and economical in comparison to fixed lines. The number of people with access to mobile phones in Africa for instance is larger than people with fixed line access. In 2003 South Africa had 14 million mobile phone subscribers compared to 5 million fixed line subscribers. The growth lies in mobile phones rather than fixed lines in most countries again because of lower capital investment and maintenance cost for mobile phone equipment in comparison to fixed lines.
 
 
“The extraordinary growth of cellular networks in Africa is explained by the painfully slow roll-out of fixed networks which, in many parts of the continent, seldom extend beyond the major urban centers. The war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo has just 15,000 fixed-line phones for a population of more than 60 million. Fixed-line networks are often poorly maintained and service levels patchy. Just two years ago, placing a call from Johannesburg to the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam was an exercise in futility. Once cellular networks entered the picture, callers were able to by-pass Tanzania's erratic fixed-line network and connect within seconds.”
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For migrants staying in contact with home mobile phone technology is much more readily available to both ends of the communication trail. In addition in high-tech areas people will change their mobile device every 18 months on average regardless of the devices is working. This produces piles of usable mobile phones that can easily be used in Low-tech areas.

The wide spread use of mobile phones in countries with low-tech outside main urban areas produces the adaptation of the Internet through mobile devices rather than the PC. To summaries the argument the reason that children in China, India and Africa gets first hand experience of the Internet through mobile devices can be traced to a set of developments;

1. The high cost of fixed line telephone networks for low-tech areas and regions
2. The mobile technology transfer from immigration communities in high-tech areas to low-tech areas
3. The mobile knowledge transfer from immigration communities in high-tech areas to low-tech areas
4. The low cost of setting up mobile networks especially in sparsely populated areas and areas with adverse geography such as rainforests, deserts and mountains

Possibly there are more developments that could fit into this theory such as local adaptation of mobile technology vs. PCs and fixed lines. But in essence the 3 major drivers above should be seen as part of the core dynamics. With a high cultural adaptation of mobile technology the appropriation of the same mobile technology to engage with the Internet is an unexpected consequence. Children in low-tech regions will access the Internet primarily through mobile devices rather than PCs. 

 

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