I have a confession to make. I’m a snob. At least, I am where technology is concerned. Okay, maybe I’m not the type to cross the street when I see someone with last year’s doohickey du jour. But I do notice when your smart phone looks (or acts) like a brick. I can tell at a glance whether your machine is a cutting edge screamer or the technological equivalent of East Germany’s Brabant automobile, legendary for its poor quality.
I like good engineering, good design and efficient performance. In short, I like things that do their job well, whatever that job may be. I like it so much that I hate to settle for less than the best. Not the biggest, necessarily, nor the most expensive. Just the best.
This focus on tools made me lose sight of a couple of important things: First, while doing things perfectly is a commendable ideal, it happens exactly 0% of the time in the real world. Second, Vanuatu is more, er, ‘real world’ than many other places on Earth.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a leftie when it comes to computing. I like to see as much power in the hands of the people as possible. While it’s nice – and often necessary – to rely on services provided by others, I’ve always believed that DIY is the most empowering way to go. So, when the news began to percolate out that Vanuatu would have truly national mobile phone services, I was interested mostly in how that might help the spread of computers into the islands.
What I didn’t consider is that the mobile might actually become the computer.
The road to Damascus has been a long-ish one for me. Looking back, I have to chuckle that it didn’t become obvious to me sooner that using mobile telephones as a data entry and display terminal was a viable approach to extending many useful services to the islands.
Email, news, commodity prices and market reports, shipping schedules, financial transactions, even census data and business license applications and health data… all of these can be managed by using a mobile phone to access a central data service. As long as only small amounts of data are sent at a time, everything works just fine.
For the time being, at least, mobile phones are among the very few devices that can run in places with little or no power generation. The amount of power generation required to run most computers adds enough to their cost that they will remain out of reach of the majority of the population. So far, the One Laptop Per Child Project’s XO laptop is the only device that might be capable of running in the islands without significant infrastructure upgrades. But even then, it requires at least nominal access to the Internet to work to its full potential.
The lowest-cost alternative for Internet access today is VSAT, a small satellite dish technology. But local operators charge around a million vatu a pop for these, and that’s not including ongoing Internet charges. For VSAT to be feasible, a good deal of cooperation would be required, because the cost would have to be shared by a number of parties. Based on current pricing models, the amount of bandwidth available to any given individual would be meagre indeed.
Mobile telephony has often been described as a leap-frogging technology, in that it allows developing areas to jump past the prior technological stages that developed nations have transitioned through. There’s no need to install expensive copper wiring and a power grid. Just throw up a few towers, run your equipment using solar and/or wind power, and as they say, Bob’s your uncle.
India, Uganda and many other developing countries have made large investments in leveraging this approach to ensure that even the most underprivileged in their societies have access to basic information services. I’ve not been alone in noting that mobile phone credit actually serves as currency for small transactions in many parts of the world. It’s safer, it’s harder to steal or to lose, and it doesn’t lose its value.
Building mobile-based software applications is not terribly difficult. In principle, it’s like constructing a text-only website. Someone sends you a text message; you process the data and send a message back with the results. This kind of transactional computation is probably easier to design and implement than just about any other. The phone number and a pass-code are enough to verify the identity of parties on both ends of the transaction, so security is actually easier to enforce than on the web.
In order to make this all work, we need to be sure that there will be a degree of consistency and cooperation between all parties involved. Market forces should be sufficient to encourage much of the early development. As long as businesses are given room to work in, they will likely come up with more mobile-based services than we might have thought possible.
Possible pitfalls include services being available only through a particular carrier, or only for a particular kind of device. Much less likely – but still a possibility – is the issue of access to the information systems themselves. The right to repackage and re-sell services will need to be carefully protected, in order that smaller operators can develop their own niche markets, thus enlarging the common pot.
Mobile telephony-based information services help us to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But we need more than this to get off the ground. Mobile phones can do a lot, but they can’t do everything. Online learning, for example, pretty much requires computers and the Internet. Leveraging this basic level of communications into something better will still require that we figure out how to run robust, energy-efficient computers in rural settings.
Right now, we have a few people of vision leading the charge towards a national communications roll-out. But it must be admitted that a formal, truly national ICT strategy exists only in a fragmentary way. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities has published a telecommunications policy. The e-government initiative is still moving forward, and the Ministry of Education has established an ICT committee as part of their new Sector-Wide Approach.
Business, however, has neither been consulted to any great degree, nor has it shown much desire to work collectively. The Vanuatu IT Users Society works hard at fostering discussion in these areas, but it does so with little if any material assistance from outside.
This must change. We don’t need a worker’s paradise-style central committee to manage everyone’s lives, but we do at least need a little more formal cooperation, and in a few key locations, a mandate to require that Vanuatu’s ICT priorities are being addressed.