In September 2013, Apple unveiled the anxiously awaited iPhone 5S. To many people’s surprise, however, the phone was coupled with a second cheaper and more durable model, the iPhone 5C. As technophiles questioned the utility of the device, some immediately recognized Apple’s foray into the international market; more specifically, the creation of an inexpensive, contract-free smartphone with a market in developing countries.
According to the World Bank, more people currently have access to mobile phones than to water, electricity, or bank accounts. Already the third world has more cell phones than the developed world and by 2015 it is estimated that the amount of phone contracts will surpass the global population.
Due to increased globalization, the growth of cell phone usage marks increasing intercommunication rates that unmatched in all of history. Landlines took over a century to reach market saturation but mobile phones have done so in a fraction of the time- the number of users increasing from 1 billion in 2000 to 6 billion in just thirteen years.
Academics used to describe the telephonic phenomenon by plotting the density of telephones against wealth by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. As expected, the prevalence of landlines proved to be directly correlated to a country’s purchasing power and socioeconomic status. The advent of mobile phones, however, completely transformed what used to be an exponential curve as even the slowest developing countries now yield staggeringly high cell phone usage rates (for example: Kenya at 93%, Panama at 90%, or Philippines at 89%).
The enormous growth of mobile phone markets indicates that the benefit from these devices is fairly high. Despite this, many critics argue that the total cost of maintaining a cellular device is too large for the perceived value. They assert that money is better spent investing in goods that are truly necessary for a family’s survival such as immunizations or education. These analysts criticize the third world for still lacking access to power lines and water networks but building the expensive infrastructure of mobile technology.
However, as with most technological advances, the capabilities of equipment are expanding and the costs are shrinking. The ease of infrastructure makes mobile phones superior to landlines and mass production has made mobile phones more inexpensive than any other mainstream technology. Companies such as Vodafone, Huawei, and Telefonica offer phones in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America respectively for less than $15 apiece, making them more universally affordable. Analysts speculate that such affordability is the main reason why cell phones have gained popularity.
Moreover, the World Bank claims that this fundamental ability to communicate “empowers individuals and enriches their livelihoods”. People can keep up with their families, socialize, and entertain themselves. Basic communication services also make opportunities such as running a business or leaving home to pursue an education much more feasible. Now, phones aren’t even just calling devices but tools with the capability for computing and doubling as basic utilities with flashlights, calculators, and cameras. Smartphones, which accounted for over 45% of worldwide phone sales in 2012, host the Internet as well as provide access to millions of applications, opening people up to even further methods of communication.
The globalization of mobile phones has had dramatic impacts on many aspects of life in the developing world. Health is one of the most critical and rewarding areas of improvement. According to a study in the Malaria Journal, over half of the locals in rural villages used their mobile devices for medical purposes. Expanded communication has increased access to hospitalization and treatment facilities all over the world and reduced the dangerous reliance of the poor on local, rudimentary medical practices. Internet-enabled phones have also been used extensively as advertising to educate people about preventatives and treatments for certain diseases, such as HIV or malaria, in areas where medical personnel don’t often travel and even remind patients to take their prescriptions. These types of smartphones also often have geolocation so that healthcare workers can locate the sick via GPS without express knowl2edge of rural geography. The World Health Organization defined mobile health or “mHealth” as something that nearly “90% of the world’s population could benefit from” if they could create a standardized way to access health records, set appointment reminders, and contact local health centers more often.
Cell phones have yielded immense educational opportunities as well. Programs such as eTransform, a World Bank initiative, make it easier for students and teachers to communicate to implement interactive literacy exercises and short lessons. The applications within many smartphones give rural people increased access to news and media outlets so that they may be better educated on current events. The BBC World Trust even hosts programs such as BBC Janala in Bangladesh where users can dial a number to hear hundreds of English lessons at less than one cent per minute.
Perhaps the most significant societal implications of mobile phone access occur in the political sphere. Often in the third world, media travels slowly and rural villages have little to no knowledge of happenings within their government. Mobile phones can now provide people with constant news access and updates, and many national governments are expanding their communication capacities by making technological transitions in their services. Countries such as India and the Philippines have create “mGovernment” programs that allow people to do a variety of things, including using text messages to increase efficiency for mail and service delivery, obtaining public transportation information, completing mobile tax filing, and finding health information. Bahrain has made it possible for people to pay their bills through their phones and in Turkey, citizens can answer public polls about legislation through text message. Mobile devices are increasing both political communication and civic engagement in the third world.
All of these benefits are expanded into economic growth for individuals,
communities, and the global economy. For example, while most developing nations lack complex deposit networks and leave citizens without access to banks, new cell phone based programs have fostered international micro-financing services that allow credit swapping using just a cellular device and national ID number. Users can transfer money to others, deposit and withdraw funds, and pay for services using codes sent to them through short messaging services. M-Pesa, a money transfer service most prominent in Africa and South Asia, has transferred over a billion USD in just over five years.
In addition to the economic benefits this “mobile revolution” has provided, the expansion of communication has facilitated social revolutions by mobilizing communities and spurring social change. Many analysts owe the dynamic nature of the Arab Spring to cellular devices- not only did societies like Egypt organize and arrange demonstrations but cell phones allowed every protester to become a journalist, collecting and mass distributing first hand reports. Rick Sanchez, CNN correspondent, claimed in his article for the Huffington Post that that smartphone was “the best piece of news equipment ever invented. It’s a computer, word processor, still and video camera, recording, editing system, phone and satellite uplink all in one.”
While it is imperative that foreign aid finances the necessities for survival in the third world, the investment into advancing mobile technology is a rewarding one. In fact, proponents argue that more money should be used to develop better cellular devices and infrastructure to expand the available capabilities and further globalize the world.
Back in May of last year, I had the opportunity to attend an international research competition, I-SWEEEP, where I met young researchers my age from over one hundred countries. I have been able to keep in touch with many of these students through Facebook and email, but the vast majority of my communication with my international friends- specifically those from Nigeria, South Korea, Egypt, Brazil, and Malaysia- has been through Apple’s iPhone iMessage system.
Many people in the first world use their smartphones for entertainment and socialization, often forgetting the millions of opportunities in their palm. Companies like Apple are quickly recognizing the benefits and capitalizing on open markets. This technological boom shows no sign of slowing down as globalization breaks barriers and creates prospects many could have never dreamed of.