If we build cool and cheap devices would rural communities use them? Would US$100 laptop make a difference in their lives? Can we increase the usage of computers in rural societies from nearly zero to over 50% in the coming 10 years? These are some of the questions being pondered by the world leaders and technologists.
There have been many buzz words and slogans in the past. Including the other much hyped US$30 mobile phone. But little does anyone realize that such slogans and targets are nothing but marketing gimmicks. These are to attract large donors to fund schemes of no consequence. It is quite clear that the mobile phone revolution has swept the world without the need for US$30 hand-sets. Kenya, Pakistan, India and many other countries are seeing unbelieveable growth rates without the introduction of any cheap mobile phone sets.
Hailing from Pakistan, I have eye witnessed the revolution taking the country by storm. It is amazing to see that Pakistan is adding over 2 million new subscribers each month (source Pak Telecom Authority www.pta.gov.pk). The tele-density in Pakistan stood at 0.28% in 2000. In less than six years, it stands at over 17% with over 30 million mobile users (as of June 06). The number is likely to double by mid next year to over 50 million users in the country. That is a phenomenal growth rate i.e. almost 100% annually. And the most remarkable thing for Pakistan, the 6th most populous country in the world, is that one in three in the country would carry a cell phone by June 2007. That is an extremely large number of users by any definition of mobile usage for any developing country. Yes, last year, Pakistan was the second fastest growing mobile market after China. This year, the trend is likely to hold again. This is similar in other developing economies as well.
All this revolution without the need for US$30 mobile set. How come? The answer is simple. Used and refurbished mobiles. They can be found on the streets for as little as US$5 to US$20. They work great and are from branded manufacturers. Therefore, the need to build cheap mobiles is moot. People tend to always go for used items. They still buy branded sets like Nokia and others at a fraction of the cost of the brand new model. And even if we make the new sets cheaper, they would only go and buy the used versions at even cheaper prices for their personal use.
Therefore, the idea and concept of US$100 laptops, US$30 mobile phones and connecting half the world to the Internet within a decade are nothing but academic and are detached from reality.