The Mobile Frontier - The Future of the Sustainable Network

By Sarah Sorensen
September 28, 2009

Everyone's doing it - we tweet, text and surf on the go. We are constantly reaching out to the people, information and services we need to conduct our lives and businesses. We are connected 24-7, from wherever we are - anything less is unthinkable, even unacceptable. And what has all this access done?

Besides creating new social etiquette debates (need to know when to turn off that phone!), it has created unprecedented opportunity for the world. It truly is pervasive - spanning out across geographies and socio-economic boundaries to enable sustainable participation, growth and potential prosperity on a previously unimaginable scale.

There are currently more than 1.6 billion Internet users around the globe - that's almost a quarter of the population. Then consider the 4 billion mobile devices out there; they represent a ready made mobile network that can (with the roll out of broadband and cheaper, more powerful Internet-enabled devices) connect even more and more people to the power of the network. In fact, the majority of the developed world will first access the Internet from their phone - it is becoming the defacto source of news (with SMS feeds) and information, not to mention the point of entry to the world's markets.

Sarah is the author of The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet.

The Sustainable Network demonstrates how we can tackle challenges, ranging from energy conservation to economic and social innovation, using the global network -- of which the public Internet is just one piece. This book demystifies the power of the network, and issues a strong call to action.

The mobile network can deliver valuable information - such as market prices, competitive offerings, or even weather and disease statistics that can help inform business decisions. It can also make financial services available to parts of the population that were traditionally shut out - removing physical barriers (the distance it may take to travel to a bank branch) and financial ones (in the form of the fee structures of traditional financial institutions).

Check out GSMA Mobile Money Transfer project and the Economist for some good analysis on how mobile phones are promoting economic growth.

But the proof is all around us. It comes in the form of a bevy of statistics - the OECD has been tracking GDP against broadband penetration for quite a while now; the Economist noted, "the income of Kenyan households using M-PESA (a mobile money service) have increased by 5-30% since they started mobile banking;" and the World Bank revealed that "an extra ten phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts GDP growth by .8 percentage points." It also comes in the form of antedotal stories - the book "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," tells the story of a Malawi boy who built a windmill out of bike tires and scrap metal to bring electricity to his village. It's a story of innovation, determination and hope, but it is also a story of the sustainability of the mobile network because what did they do with that electricity - they used it to power their mobile phones.

In countries that are energy poor, meaning they don't have a reliable energy grid or enough supply to serve their people, a mobile network is often the only hope for connecting to the 21st century. Cell towers can be powered by wind or solar - in fact InStat estimates that by 2014 there will be 230,000 cell towers powered by solar or wind, and hopefully in the future the phones themselves will be solar powered (we have done it for calculators, why not phones). And with that connection, there is a lifeline to people, information and markets that can truly level the playing field.

This explains why when "base-of-the-pyramid" families in China generate more income, information and communications technology spending increases 8-fold, while spending on food and housing rises only slightly. Think about it - how long has ICT been a staple?

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