For those who live in the developed economies, mobile telephony has surpassed its raison d’etre of exchange of information between peoples and seamlessly moved into the socio-political realm of politics and consumption. With the unrest following the Iranian presidential elections of 12 June (whaoh! June 12 again!), the leading question in media and academic circles is ‘Is Twitter driving the ongoing political crisis in Iran?’ A premature question it seems but the reality is that there is a developing consensus on the centrality of the new medium – Twitter (to a lesser extent, Facebook and YouTube) as a force in driving socio-political change and the challenge it poses to more established media as an effective means of disseminating information.
Just last week our contacts reliably informed us of the U-turn by South Africa’s mobile operators who have now accepted to implement the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act, a.k.a. RICA. In a display of corporate muscle by the industry against an ever-shrinking role of the state, mobile operators had met RICA with derision so much so that when it became law, the big players – MTN, Vodacom and Cell C – branded it an intervention too far. Even President Thabo Mbeki was unsure of the practicalities of implementation when in 2005 he, with an air of reluctance and resignation, signed RICA into law. However four years down the road, they have now fallen in line and have agreed to implement it especially as a lot of fine-tuning (some may say watering down) has been done to its original requirements. This U-turn exemplifies a realignment in the balance of power between corporations and government/legislatures where the former often has a vice-like grip over the latter thus aligning with each other against the consumer i.e. the phone users in this case. It would appear that legislators have tested this bias in the court of public opinion and realised that the law must at least be seen to triumph over business.
ICT and mobile telephony as a template – Nigeria v SA
I asked our informant to sniff for information whether or not industry analysts in SA are even using Nigeria as reference point. His response was ‘As if you know, do you know some guys are saying, “if it can work in Nigeria why not here”, and that has done a lot to soothe nerves’. That is where the story starts getting interesting.
In the first place it is not as if Nigeria has started implementing the intervention and Nigeria has so far not made a law but chances are that when it does it is likely to sail through with not much stress. Why? In Nigeria of all places? Point is: this is one area that Nigeria has done very well without knowing it.
In spite of what a few antagonists of the Nigerian Communications Commission would want the rest of us to believe, that Commission’s intervention strategy has ever been a model to watch. The Commission is known for what we call, in industry parlance, study-discuss–consult–hit model of intervention. By it we mean that the Commission’s deliberate approach to using Consultants to study an industry issue deserving of intervention and subjecting the Consultants report to executive discussion within the Commission. Then taking the issue to industry players for public discussion before using stakeholders’ reaction to fashion an intervention. Should the legislature then move (would it?) to do a law to back the intervention, it almost gets easy passage within and among the industry players, analysts and critics. Some say it is tactical. Me thinks it is professional.
The issue is that there is a difference between the South African and the Nigerian models of intervention in implementing the need to have registration of telephone subscribers for various reasons.
Why register subscribers? Issues such as security, crime prevention, network planning, industry management, name it, are but a few of the advantages, which those who clamour for the intervention have cited. Just like in the case of co-location of telecommunication infrastructure, telephone subscriber registration is one simple, easy-to-understand industry requirement, which is potentially difficult to implement except when properly managed. It has taken South Africa 4 years to get it on stream. Reason being that the officials there went headlong to write laws, which they never discussed with those who would implement it. In Nigeria, such an issue would have been studied by a consultant. The consultant’s report would have been studied and discussed by the Commission and the Commission would have brought the issue for industry discussion and debate before now issuing an implementation paper.
For God’s sake that is how it should be. Not backing down mere populist wishful thinking orders to put things on the right path.
From here to where?
I claim origin of a call for such registration of subscriber information when in 2002 the demand for mobile phones commenced rising in Nigeria. I mentioned it as a passing comment at the end of a Press Conference and I observed that only one of all the journalists who were at the Press Conference used my call as report. When I asked two of those who did not use it why what I said did not merit reporting, one said he did not understand what I said while the other said his editor did not see it as news worthy and that I was saying something different from what everybody else was saying. I had asked then how his editor defined news. Fortunately 6 years after that it dawned on us that we needed to start accounting for subscriber registration and the NCC latched in and started its approach, which has so far almost received industry acceptance, far ahead of implementation day, that it is a necessary intervention.
Although Nigerians have generally appreciated the attainments of the NCC, some folks who have personal issue with specific officials of the Commission raised their enmity to a point where nothing mattered to them in the process of blindly fighting their enemy. For his personal attributes and achievements, the executive Vice Chairman of the Commission, to be specific, has paid his dues in the industry not by sitting where he sits now but by previous contributions, which those who write history probably are documenting. Unfortunately he has been falsely equated to being the same as the Commission. And that was the work of the media. Or how do you read the decision of the Commission on a matter which only the Commission is empowered to take under the operating law being regarded as the decision of one man and that mindlessly leading to crafting faked protest letter, turning the anti-graft agency into a rottweiler, muscle flexing and emotional rabble rousing. But that is another matter different from the subject at hand.
The actual issue here is that in a world far removed from an ‘information-as-consumption’ one where telecom news is dominated mobile phone features such as video camera and hands-free Voice Control; where the focus is on developing software for Android based 3G mobile phones and services which is based around Google’s Android mobile platform software; there is a completely different story to tell. One in which telecommunication, though traveled a different path, is no less remarkable but rather transformational and empowering.
In emerging markets, the mobile phone is fast becoming a fashion accessory ( e-shekel’s industry study report on mobile telephony a few years back said that much of the Nigerian market); the consumer is not preoccupied only with sleek black and silver handsets but also with the root function of communication. In emerging markets in the days of old, power was wielded through the gun – military coups and countercoups. However the mobile phone is the ‘tool’ in today’s handheld combat. It puts the mobile phone at the centre of the efficacy of the new social media as a news-distribution tool, and its usefulness as an agent of political change. One thing is certain: in a period or country of socio-political instability where traditional journalists are either constrained or expelled, the mobile phone camera, rather than the TV camera, would play a crucial role in keeping the outside world informed.
From an economic perspective, the figures on subscription in these emerging markets are not bad either. GSMA back in 2007 reported that of the one million people who became new mobile phone subscribers everyday, about 85% live in emerging markets. Anecdotal evidence supported by UN’s Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) reveal that an enormous number of people now rely on mobile phones to run their small businesses transforming and augmenting the already existent entrepreneurial culture.
In its Information Economy Report (2006), UNCTAD observed that mobile communications were growing at a remarkable rate in developing countries, and that mobile telephony continued to be the only ICT sector where developing countries were quickly catching up or even in some ways overtaking developed countries. According to UNCTAD in Africa, there were 50 million new mobile subscribers in 2006, and in 2007 the total number of mobile subscriptions reached an estimated 200 million. This means an average of more than 20 active cell phones per 100 persons. In its 2006 report ‘Policies for ICT growth’ UNCTAD, as evidence of this proliferation, singled out for praise was the Nepalese telecomms sector which six years after it was fully opened to private service providers and competition through open licensing and by restructuring of the state-owned operator (something Nigeria is unable/incapable of courtesy of our ‘Alibaba’ and his boys), the mobile phone service launched had achieved over 99,000 post-paid and 200,000 pre-paid mobile subscribers. The network is now fully digital and offers full national and international direct dialing services.
Other liberalization pay-offs included a growth in the number of fixed phone lines from approximately 65,000 to over 470,200 between 1992 and 2006.
Mobile telephony has been socio-politically and commercially successful where other top down food and aid strategies for the underdeveloped world of the last 60 years have failed because as Iqbal Quadir, Grameen Phone founder in Bangladesh, told experts gathered for a Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) Global conference in 2005, it recognises that development is ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’. Meaning what in other words? Of course that democracy and development are now equivalents.
This success is down to the fact that mobile connectivity circumvents some important obstacles but most notably it is not tied to the provision of physical and immovable infrastructure which culturally and historically benefited those people/authorities who award and win these contracts (a la ITT) over the people themselves; mobile networks unlike fixed-line telephony can be quickly and fairly inexpensively provided; mobile telephony is flexible often based on prepaid subscriptions which do not require complicated bureaucratic systems.
The success is not simply a numbers game. There are ripple effects of mobile telephony as an evolution of ICT is evident in the changes in services-oriented business strategies shaping e-businesses in recent years. In a wide range of industries from agriculture to tourism, which are of great importance for emerging markets, competitiveness is influenced by the integration of information systems inside the enterprises and with those of stakeholders and business partners. For example also singled out for praise by UNCTAD is ChileCompra – Chile’s centralized public-sector procurement system which benefits both government agencies and private companies by making procurement competitive and transparent; by the end of 2004, 879 public agencies and municipalities and more than 100,000 providers were registered.
In Asian countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia there are Telecentres such as Pallitathya (in Bangladesh) and the Partnerships for E-prosperity for the Poor in Indonesia are providing farmers with valuable knowledge on combating crop insects and improving breeding techniques. E-Choupal in India is a commodity services programme supporting farmers through information “kiosks” that provide real-time information on commodity prices along with customized agricultural knowledge, a supply chain for farm inputs, and a direct-marketing channel for farm produce. This is a clear-cut case where technology is leveraged for development playing a role in not only supporting livelihoods i.e. raising living standards among the poor, but also developing basic ICT skills for the development of economic opportunities — such as e-business training — or provide training to support the development of business and/or occupational skills.