March 3rd, 2013

Depressed by the deathwish politics of the USA and Europe? Enjoy an album of music found on cellphones of users in the Sahel (Mali, Chad, and similar beauty spots):

(Credit. Buy the album for $5; they say $3 will go to the artists.)

This post is a celebration of the conquest of Africa by the mobile phone.

Somali mobile phone entrepreneurs roll out a new chat service:
Wikipedia lists six mobile phone companies in Somalia, whose nominal government controls Mogadishu and little more. A political map of the current fiefdoms.
Some Somali users (source 1,  source 2):
Somali gunman


The eastern provinces of the Congo – the Democratic Republic of – are usually reported on as the worst places in the world. Something like five million people died in the 1995-2003 war. Things are somewhat better now, but a recent flareup of violence led to 200,000 people in North Kivu fleeing their homes from the Rwandan-backed M23 rebel militia. Its leader is Bosco ‘Terminator’ Ntaganda, who lives in Goma a handy 200 yard run from the Rwandan border. The International Criminal Court has two arrest warrants out against him for, says the BBC,

recruiting child soldiers, rape, murder, persecution based on ethnic grounds and the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Here’s the surprise. At least three international mobile phone operators offer services in North and South Kivu: Vodacom (part of Vodafone) in 30 localities, Orange in 32 localities, Airtel (map).

A likely cellphone user

A likely cellphone user

This business is hazardous. To ensure the safety of your highly ransomable technical staff and vulnerable equipment, you need to strike deals, face to face, with heavily armed psychopaths and sociopaths like Mr. Ntaganda. It´s a bit like trading in France in the 14th century; but people did. The phone companies do have strong hands against the warlords. The service they offer is extremely valuable to these key customers, for command-and-control of their troops, marketing the loot and stashing away the proceeds, and above all early information of threats. Mr. Ntaganda has many other enemies than the ICC, less particular about due process. They benefit from phone service too, but on balance it´s more useful to him.

These are extreme cases. In orderly Ivory Coast, penetration was 68% in 2010, with near-universal coverage. This is representative. Overall, there are now around 700 million mobile phone subscriptions in Africa for its 1 billion people (up from 5% to 70% in a decade) and sharing and loaning increase the number of those who have some sort of access.

screenshot-africa-mobile-growth-world-bankSource World Bank

What happens next? Smartphones, browsers, social media, maps. The fixed-line networks in Africa are usually disaster areas (Somalia is an exception, you can get a line installed in towns in 3 days) and they are getting squeezed out by the dominant mobile operators, so fixed-line broadband is only advancing slowly. The Internet in Africa is mobile.

Will ordinary Africans be able to afford it? Back-of-the envelope calculations suggest they might. 3G and better mobile Internet service costs a lot more than plain vanilla voice service in advanced countries, but it’s not clear than this fairly reflects higher costs. A 150-character SMS message uses hardly any bandwidth: about 2 kb. A T1 fixed phone line uses 64 kbps per virtual circuit, or 1.4 MB for a 3-minute conversation; VOIP is more economical, but not by much. Downloading half-a-dozen 500KB web pages pushes up usage by one order of magnitude, but not two. So with competition and continued technical progress thanks to Dr. Moore’s law, the African Internet may well become affordable beyond the urban middle class.  A basic new handset goes for $10; a no-frills Chinese smartphone, with the same processor as the original iPhone, for $120.

It’s hard to imagine the huge impact this is having on African society. Rich countries have had widespread telephones for a century, on top of efficient postal services. In Africa, a mobile phone means a farmer’s wife can for the first time make an appointment in the town, check a market price for her produce, pay bills and receive payments securely, and talk to her son in the capital. We have already seen the economic impact: contrary to public perception, growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa have been over 5% for a decade. There are other factors of course in the turnround, including the despised policies of the Washington consensus, but phones are certainly a big part of it.

We have still to see the impact of the Internet on politics and society. The farmer’s son can join a protest movement, her daughter can find out about contraception, and meet a boyfriend from a rival tribe. We ain’t seen nothing yet.

12 Responses to “Dr. Moore, I presume?”

  1. CharlesWT says:

    Who knew that communication systems could function without government regulations? Or even government.

    • It is remarkable, but not an advertisement for a general libertarian proposition that markets can function without government. (There is some government anyway in Somalia, just balkanised.) Phone service has several characteristics that together make it pretty much unique. It can be made completely cash-in-advance, using prepaid SIM cards; if there’s a supply contract, it can be terminated instantaneously and without risk by the operator by technical means; the network externalities are so strong that the value to the marginal user is very much more than the marginal cost to the operator; it’s very hard to locate a network representative for efficacious threats of disembowelment, much as we consumers would often like to. I don’t suppose you can easily take out a 10-year mortgage or life insurance policy in Mogadishu or Goma.

    • Maynard Handley says:

      Oh don’t be stupid.
      To take one obvious example, the cell system isn’t going to work if I decide to crank up the power on all my transmitters, and use the same frequencies as your transmitters a few miles over. So we need a co-ordination mechanism. AND that can’t just be that we sit down and chat, for the obvious reason that what happens if, after the chat, I decide “screw you, I need to expand my service area and I don’t want to spend the money building new towers”? At that point there needs to be someone with the ability to come in, insist on agreement, and make deals stick.

      If you want to claim that the local warlord performing this service is NOT “government”, and is a preferable alternative to the horror of having elected officials decide these matters, go right ahead, but don’t be surprised that your views are not shared.

      • SamChevre says:

        Huh? That’s radios, not cell phones. Cell phones are designed to share bandwidth.

      • James Wimberley says:

        I hope it’s not me being charged as stupid.
        Is there any evidence that Mr. Ntaganda is providing these sorts of technical coordination services? If I were the boss of Airtel Congo, I think I’d prefer to sort out the frequency allocation with Orange and Vodacom in a hotel bar in Kinshasa. Would you have appealed to Fulk Nerra in 1000 AD for marriage counselling?

  2. Warren Terra says:

    A 150-character SMS message uses hardly any bandwidth: about 2 kb.

    Actually, there was a fascinating article in The New York Times a few years back that (unless I greatly misunderstood or misremember) explained how text messages use no measured bandwidth: each text message data is folded into one of the fixed-size buffers between the data packets used to transmit voice (the fixed size of these buffers is apparently where the 140 character limit comes from); these buffers are broadcast bandwidth that’s otherwise going to waste, and so long as there are vastly more voice packets than text messages (and so long as the system isn’t revamped to put those buffers to other use, or to eliminate them), the text messages are using bandwidth that’s literally free to the service provider.

    • NCG says:

      Okay, I don’t understand any of that, but is that why texting is better during emergencies?

      • Warren Terra says:

        RE not understanding it, think of it like a film strip: you’ve got all of these finely detailed, colorful, information-rich images – and a bit of space between every two images in sequence. The size of that bit of space is fixed, and you can’t crowd the images closer together, or they won’t project properly. So, you’ve got a bit of extra film stock that has to be there – why not put something in it, so long as it’s going spare? In this case, the colorful, information-rich images are the data packets carrying the audio, and a couple hundred characters of text message and routing information fit into each spacer between the “images”.

        RE why texting is better during emergencies, I imagine it’s just a bandwidth thing: I don’t know what duration the voice packets equate to, but even if they’re a full second apiece, the resources an incredibly brief 30-second phone call would simultaneously support 30 text messages. So the system can handle tens of times more people trying to text than trying to talk.

  3. DCA says:

    Warren is correct. Another way to look at it is that text messages are pure revenue to the telecoms, since the cost is “already present”. This is why the service was introduced in the first place–to make money from something otherwise idle.

  4. Robert Waldmann says:

    Also banking. A cell phone company can allow customers to prepay *and* to take out the balance at an office. This means that the huge number of people with cell phones can get savings accounts. This can be very useful for precommitment to saving and for hiding the money from the whining kids and drinking hubby. In India people pay storage fees on money (negative interest).

    • James Wimberley says:

      I mentioned banking in the post, but understated its importance. Vodaphone, which stumbled into the business in Kenya by accident – or more precisely the initiative of a bright NGO – is rolling out the service in India in a big way. It’s been delayed by the insistence of Indian regulators on a banking licence. Operators have no such problems in Somalia or Afghanistan.

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