It is intellectually lazy as well as factually inaccurate to treat emerging markets as a homogenous group. While there is no doubt that mobile telephony is rapidly progressing in a pretty impressive fashion in some parts namely Latin America and the Indian subcontinent, in others mobile telephony faces the systemic problems that hamper the full utilization of the endless possibilities ICT offers.
What are the challenges that mobile telephony specifically and ICT in general face in these parts of developing world? In rural, usually agro-centred, Africa the picture is not so rosy. These rural areas continue to be less well served; universal access to such phone service remains a challenge due to a lack of commercial distribution channels.
While mobile phones have become affordable to a lot of people, high rates of poverty make even less costly mobile phones still too expensive. One response to these challenges can come from government in meeting the entrepreneurial hole and formulate policies that encourage competition and investment in mobile telephony that is underlaid by a stable regulatory framework. That in a way captures Nigeria’s strong area if it is not disrupted by emerging upstarts.
The State as an interventionist
In this model Governments may consider in order to enhance the positive development, which will work on combination of strategies:
Eliminate or Restrict choice. Regulate in such a way as to either restrict or entirely eliminate the options available to people choice, with the aim of enhancing skills or example through compulsory ICT courses at primary and secondary schools.
Guide choices through incentives. Regulations can be offered that guide choices by fiscal and other incentives, for example offering tax-breaks for the purchase of computer and accessories used by businesses and organizations.
Enabling choice: creating an environment, which enables individuals to change their behaviour. Textvoting for example could be an implication of improved mobile telephony network coverage and a growing subscriber base. Did you listen to and watch President Obama speak in Ghana?
Provide information. Inform and educate the public, for example as part of campaigns to encourage people to use mobile phones ICT. And so on and so on.
Provision of ICT as a public good for the public good
The role of government should be to engender a cultural shift in which ICT both in terms of accessibility and implementation should be perceived as public goods. In economic terms, these public goods are characterized by two principal properties: they are nonrival and non-excludable. The nonrival property means one person’s access to ICT does not affect other people’s ability to do so and the non-excludable property means it is practically impossible to prevent everyone from doing so. ICT should be viewed as infrastructural arrangements such as roads or schools. The term ‘public good’ is also used here to denote what is a ‘public service’ i.e. a resource that responds to important needs of members of the population, and that are managed by the state in a way that ensures that the needs are addressed in a fair and effective manner. In this sense, ICT as a public service is a facility and/or resource that is valuable to all citizens, whose availability and access is unlimited but not necessarily free of charge.
In conclusion the problem is that as it stands particularly in Africa, mobile telephony, or telephony as a whole, as part of the ICT paradigm is undertaken wholly by the private sector. Unlike in the developed world where it is in competition with the state (later privatized) provider, telecoms services, it would appear, are provided on the sole basis of a commercial imperative which is centred on a core few who can afford it rather than the altruistic (and of course commercial) imperative to ensure that everyone (including the state) receives the benefits.
The state needs to establish a national ICT system with the main objective of delivering a public service that, like other provision such as education or health, the need it addresses is considered too important to be left to private suppliers alone to whom equity and fairness considerations are not paramount. We are not saying government should go into production of services but that it lead by putting a compliant policy framework which can get us there.
The prognosis is optimism and not egotism. A lot done but a lot more to do. The future is now.