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4 Reasons Why MTN’s $235,000 Internet Bus is Reinventing a Flat ICT4D Tire

By Wayan Vota on June 20, 2014

MTNbus1

TechMoran reports that MTN Uganda has spent $235,000(!) on an “Internet bus,” a mobile telecentre where a computer lab is installed in a bus to be driven around to underserved communities.

The MTN Internet Bus is equipped with sixteen high-end computer working stations as well as access to High speed Internet Connectivity Service using MTN 3G and 4G LTE Technology with Wi-Fi coverage.

Now I can understand their thought process. Rather than building multiple telecentres, replicating costs and operating expenses, why not build one telecentre and drive it around to different communities? However, since fixed telecentres are not sustainable, why would mobile ones be?

4 Reasons Why Mobile Telecentres Fail

  1. Lack of Convenience: Where fixed telecentres can be visited any day during opening hours, mobile Internet Buses are only available when they are in town. This means communities have to plan around the bus instead of their own lives, decreasing the desire to visit after the initial hype wears off
  2. Irregular Operating Hours: I have yet to see an Internet Bus stick to a regular schedule week after week, further complicating community access scheduling. Worse, if buses only come around every other week or less, community users will tend to forget learned skills in between visits.
  3. High Operational Costs: Have you seen the roads in Uganda? There is going to be much wear and tear on the bus itself, not to mention the technology, as its driven across the country. Good luck to keeping the bus and the tech running.
  4. Different Goals: Let’s be honest. Internet buses are not about providing Internet access to rural communities. They are about providing political access to government officials. So they are successful to some, hence their continued popularity, but as ICT4D practitioners, we should not promote them as solutions to rural access.

I have never seen a mobile telecentre approach succeed. Have you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

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Wayan Vota is a digital development entrepreneur and the co-founder of ICTworks. He also co-founded ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, Technology Salon, JadedAid, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things.
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7 Comments to “4 Reasons Why MTN’s $235,000 Internet Bus is Reinventing a Flat ICT4D Tire”

  1. Gordon Cressman says:

    “Different Goals” indeed. Providing a sustainable solution to rural Internet access is probably not among the goals MTN is trying to achieve. Strengthening political support, increasing brand awareness, and increasing awareness and demand for 3G and 4G data services are likely among them. A constructive approach would be to work with MTN to develop an approach that helps to achieve these corporate objectives, reaches more potential customers, and has greater long-term benefits to rural communities. This should increase ROI for the company. Understanding their objectives, internal constraints, and decision dynamics would be essential.

  2. Tom Loughran says:

    Wayan,

    I can’t argue with your experience of mobile centers. But my first reaction is that your argument is harsher than it could be. Here are some softeners:

    1. Scheduling will certainly be a trick, but if the bus doesn’t spread too thin and uses sms notification wisely, there may be a sweet spot to be found. Also, a big part of MTN’s goal is promotion of ICT awareness. If they follow bus visits with community development efforts toward sustainable fixed ICT access, the bus may do its job.

    2. Again, sms notification and community partnership development could mitigate arrival time challenges. Even fixed locations have these challenges, since people must often travel to open ICT centers.

    3. You might be right about high cost. But to calculate it, you’ve got to identify all the benefits of the bus, including their stated goal of increasing ICT awareness. They seem to be (and should be) after much more than rural users in bus seats, though other dimensions of impact will be harder to quantify.

    4. I think your skepticism regarding motivation should be overcome, at least prima facie. As to working with government interests, this is not an illegitimate target, neither when it is a matter of dealing with the realities of government power, nor when collaborating with bona fide government aims and agents. Acknowledging and working with political realities is compatible with a genuine effort to reach rural users, and may be a sensible strategy for doing so. I’m inclined to look for and encourage the best of motives in the always mixed set driving any group (and usually any individual) activity.

    Thanks as always for a lively discussion-starter.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Tom,

      Fixed telecenters are really hard to maintain, I have the scars to prove it, and I have yet to see a mobile version work. If you have examples, I’m happy to soften my criticism, but until then, i can think of many more, and better uses of $235,000 and the related marketing effort, than a bus that I’m willing to bet will have more garage time than village use time.

      Or think of it this way – how many basic Android smartphones and corresponding data plans $235,000 could subsidize…

  3. Tom Loughran says:

    Wayan,

    As I said, I can’t argue with your experience of mobile efforts:)

    But here’s a question: if someone gave you the bus (and you had the time, etc…) could you use it well? If they send one North, my guess is that BOSCO-Uganda could put it to good use…I hope they’ll try:) Overall cost effectiveness compared to alternatives is always a fair question, but also hard to calculate on the fly. I don’t actually know the answer to your hypothetical (smartphone with plans) alternative: maybe 250 over a 3 year lifetime of the technologies? If the bus ran for 3 years and served 3 locations per month with an off week for repairs, how many monthly users could they accommodate? 5/seat/day x 16 seats x 15 days/mo = 1200 hour-long user sessions/mo? x 36 mo = 43K hours; distribute this for comparison over 250 potential smart phone owners… that’s a bit over an hour per week per user. So perhaps you are right about the relative cost per hour, on this estimation. But how many weekly hours do people need? 1 hour a week might be a big bump for some and get many people most of the value of a smart phone. Then the bus seems in line with the cost of the smart phones: 300 users could get one hour per week from the bus on those conservative assumptions. My only point is that it’s not a simple matter to tell…I’m inclined to spend more time exploring the merits of an idea like MTN’s, perhaps because it’s hard work to make the case against them:)

    • Wayan Vota says:

      If someone gave me the bus, I would sell it fast. I would keep any useful, appropriate tech to start a cybercafe where I saw market opportunity and a strong entrepreneur, and I would donate the cash to BOSCO or another deserving group to spend more effectively in their long-term digital empowerment engagements. Touching 100 people deeply is way better than 1000 people superficially.

  4. Wayan Vota says:

    Following up one year later, and surprise! The MTN Internet Bus is still in use. It is an amazing marketing prop for staff events, and it apparently goes to five selected schools in Kampala; Kiswa Primary School, Nakasero Primary School, Buganda Road Primary School, Bat Valley Primary School and Kitante Primary School.

    I still say that’s a poor use of $235,000.

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