Mobile Future

Harnessing the Mobile Revolution

If Tom Kalil has his way, mobile technology and services will be at the heart of American global development policy.

So says his visionary and timely new report, "Harnessing the Mobile Revolution," published recently by NDN, the innovative Washington D.C. policy group.

The next Administration, says Kalil, a science and technology policy advisor at Cal Berkeley, has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage advances and investments in the mobile sector to catalyze critical development goals such as providing safe drinking water, new vaccines, therapies, point-of-care diagnostics, clean energy, and improved crops that are more productive, nutritious, and drought-resistant. And not a moment too soon, he warns, as to date, the U.S. government has largely overlooked the power of mobile services to help improve the human condition. It is time, argues Kalil, for the blinders to come off.

Says Kalil: "Even in the absence of enlightened U.S. government leadership, mobile services will become more ubiquitous, affordable and versatile. But the missed opportunity will be to leverage this large and growing private sector investment (in mobile technology and services) for public purposes, such as ensuring fair elections, helping a community health worker save the life of a mother or young child, and giving a farmer or small business owner access to the credit they need to build a path out of poverty."

Kalil argues that policy-makers in Washington have a historic but limited window of opportunity to work in partnership with the private sector to ensure that mobile technologies increasingly can be agents of productive social, economic and political development. The use of mobile technologies has exploded, particularly in the developing world, where there are now more subscribers than in the developed world. Some forecast that there will be over 5 billion mobile subscribers in the next two years – a fact that has encouraged the development economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University to conclude that "the cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development."

Here are some of the statistics the report cites:

  • A rise of 10 mobile phones per 100 people is associated with a growth in GDP of 0.6 percent;
  • Every 1 percent increase in mobile penetration boosts foreign direct investment as a share of GDP by 0.5 percent;
  • Telecommunications investment in African countries such as Kenya and Senegal accounts for more than 10 percent of private sector investment in fixed capital;
  • The mobile industry has created 3.6 million jobs in India, not only through mobile operators, but through retail sales of airtime, handsets and SIM cards;
  • Chinese workers who travel for their work (e.g. taxi-cab drivers, plumbers, salespeople) have been able to reduce traveling by 6 percent – a productivity payoff worth $33 billion in 2005.

So what is to be done?

First and foremost, Kalil recommends that the U.S. government should establish new public/private partnerships to ensure that advances in mobile technologies and services – especially in the areas of public health, education, civil engagement, human rights, and financial services – can be more systematically accessed by communities which need them most. Creative examples of these partnerships in mobile technology have been implemented in countries like Zambia and Kenya. It is time for American engagement and leadership as well.

Second, official donors – the U.S. included – must direct more investment to increase the number of developing country entrepreneurs, programmers, researchers, government agencies, and non-profit organizations that are capable of designing and implementing mobile applications that address local needs. Kalil also argues that the private sector itself can do more to support the use of its technologies and applications as vehicles for positive development.

Last, Kalil argues that governments must move quickly to lower or eliminate the punitive taxes that have unwisely and disproportionately targeted the mobile industry so the industry can flourish, entrepreneurs can innovate, productive new jobs can be created, and consumers can gain access to better and less expensive services. Mobile and wireless technology is not a luxury and should not be taxed as such.

Indeed, as Kalil’s important paper presciently establishes, mobile innovation is now more than a necessity; it increasingly is a vital vehicle for improving the lives, health, and well-being of the least powerful around the world.