South Asia is one of the fastest growing mobile phone markets in the world. India alone already has some 250 million mobile phone subscribers and there are eight million more every month. Subscribers do not all live in urban centres: Access to mobile phones has improved the lives of millions of rural poor.
India has 250 million mobile phone subscribers
There is a myth that most of the people in the world, the poor people, have never made a phone call, that they have never even seen a telephone.
This is but a myth says Helani Galpaya from LIRNE Asia, a Sri Lanka-based research institute for information and communication technology in the Asia Pacific region: “We have done extensive research. We have looked at the poorest of the poor people in India and the other countries. 92 percent of these people had used a mobile phone.”
The mobile phone boom has changed the lives of the world’s rural people: it has converted poor villagers into small entrepreneurs.
One of the most famous success stories is the Village Phone Programme in Bangladesh.
Implemented ten years ago by Grameenphone, a sister organization of the Nobel Prize-winning Grameen Bank, the programme offers rural women micro-credits for mobile phones. By selling phone minutes to their fellow villagers, they create their own income and can work their way out of poverty.
Mobile phones connect village people, providing them with jobs and improve their standard of living, says Syed Yamin Bakht, Grameenphone’s public relations director: “If they are small traders, it helps them to do their trade; if they are farmers, it helps them to be more informed about market prices and if they are businessmen, it helps them to increase productivity in the business areas.”
“So a mobile phone acts like a catalyst and helps people improve their own productivity. In that way, as more and more mobile phones proliferate, it will have a very positive impact on the country's economy overall.”
Phone subscriptions boost economy
A London Business School study, which examines the connection between mobile phone proliferation and national economy, confirmed this, concluding that if mobile phone subscriptions in a developing country grew by 10 per cent, the country’s GDP would increase by 0.6 percent.
Last year, Grameenphone turned over more than 600 million US dollars. But the company has also invested a huge amount -- over the past ten years it has spent more than 1.3 billion dollars on the implementation of a network and market expansion.
Bakht says that the state of Bangladesh benefits directly: “We are the largest corporate tax payer in the country. We are the largest foreign investor in the country. Directly we have employed 5000 university graduates. Through our business partners, our retailers, our suppliers, vendors, and all, we have created employment for another two to three hundred thousand people.
Reducing the digital divide
In recent years, the price of mobile phone handsets and minutes has gone down considerably in South Asia, making them more affordable and reducing the digital divide between the rich and the poor.
Bakht says they enable the poor to link up with modern information technology: “The trend of the future is that more people in our countries will access the Internet and information through mobile phones. Because people need a mobile phone more than they need a computer. And many people won't be able to afford both, so they will choose a mobile phone.”
Experts are calling on South Asian governments to continue liberalizing their mobile communication markets and make them accessible for all.