Mobile Players Put New Emphasis on Emerging Countries

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  March 04, 2011

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of NGN.

Several years ago I attended a trade show at which AT&T’s (News - Alert) Ed Whitacre talked about bringing wireless phones to remote parts of the world to improve the quality of life by, for example, enabling fishermen to call in their catch to buyers. I remember thinking that it was an odd thing to discuss given I hadn’t heard much talk about this from U.S. tech executives in the past ­­– and given the high barriers to reach these kinds of users and the low potential returns. But something interesting happened at last month’s Mobile World Congress (News - Alert): Telecom executives began talking about these remote/developing country applications once again.

Why? I’m guessing it’s because mobile service providers and handset outfits have pretty much saturated the market at this point, and so they are looking far and wide in their quest for growth. It can also be a good place for a company that is under competitive pressure from new devices like the iPhone (News - Alert) and the iPad in the U.S. and other developed countries to place its bets.

In a keynote at last month’s Mobile World Congress, Nokia Corp.’s President and CEO Stephen Elop said that 80 percent of the world’s population is within cellular range, but only 20 percent are connected to the Internet.

“We can change that,” he said.

Elop went on to say that Nokia (News - Alert) wants to “bring the next billion online” and “connect the unconnected.”

He talked about Nokia’s most affordable handsets, and he mentioned that Nokia aims to expand its Nokia Money and Nokia Lifetools, among other applications, to the low end of the market. In discussing the Nokia Money banking application, he noted that 1 billion people have a phone, but not a bank account.

And, in a roundtable discussion hosted by Alcatel-Lucent at last month’s show in Barcelona, Mary McDowell, executive vice president of Nokia, talked about an SMS service Nokia supports that delivers prenatal tips to mothers-to-be in developing countries. Another service gives rural farmers crop information so they can more effectively gauge the value of their harvests, she added.

Movius also talked about how some of its solutions address the needs of users in developing countries.

John Boden (News - Alert), CTO and senior vice president of corporate development at Movius, discussed with NGN Magazine the company’s Virtual Communicator, which he described as a solution that supplies “phones for people without phones.”

This solution is basically a messaging platform (or “drop box,” as Boden calls it) that allows people to leave messages for one another to be retrieved at a later time. Users of the platform-supported services are provided with bracelets including access codes they can use to get their messages later, when they have access to a phone.

Another Movius solution for developing areas is called Sideline. Basically, this solution turns a single mobile phone into a multiple line product for entrepreneurs. Not only does it allow a single phone to answer calls from more than one phone number, it identifies the line each call came in on, and if messages are left, which line’s mailbox they came in to. Boden says this is good solution for businesses such as cab companies or ice cream shops, as just two examples, in areas like Latin America. In fact, services based on this solution will launch initially in Latin America.

Responding to a question as to why a mobile company would want to target such difficult-to-reach areas and low-margin users, Boden said that it is to position these companies for the future.

“Our carriers are viewing this as a way to create brand preference,” Boden says, much as Apple did years ago when it gave away Macintosh computers to schools.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi