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Aren’t Medicine and Water More Important Than Telecommunications?

By Guest Writer on December 22, 2014


ICT4D is a small, but growing community working on the massive challenge of bringing Internet connectivity to the world. As such, effectively conveying the meaning and opportunity of our work to people other than the few that already understand it, be it government officials, investors, grantmakers, or even telecommunications operators, becomes a massively important task.

My name is Alex Blum and I am the Founder and CEO of Rugged Communications, a company that designs and deploys ICT4D solutions. In my experience, I’ve repeatedly come across the same few questions. We need to answer them articulately if we hope to attract others to our mission. Here are five questions I encounter most frequently and ways I’ve learned to respond:

Question: “Why Does Telecommunications Matter?”

Telecommunications is about connectivity. We aren’t just plopping equipment down in the middle of nowhere and crossing our fingers. Connectivity is a lifeline to healthcare, education, economic opportunity, political freedom, and creative expression. People without connectivity are isolated and face massive impediments to progress. Study after study, from The World Bank, World Health Organization, McKinsey & Company, and others have shown that connectivity dramatically changes lives. I imagine this is why the UN has declared Internet access a human right!

Question: “Aren’t Water, Latrines, and Medicine More Important?”

Undoubtedly, sanitary living conditions, sustenance, and basic health services are human needs and rights. However, to ensure that communities have access to those needs connectivity, in the long term, is the best solution. With the ability to start businesses, call a doctor, and download a book, a world of opportunity opens up for communities around the world.

Question: “Can People in Emerging Markets Afford Cell Phones?”

Cell phones offer people access to mobile, educational resources, and political participation. Throughout the world, people have shown that they will find a way to get their hands on a phone and the communications capacity it offers. For example, in Africa, mobile connection penetration rates have increased by about 4,000% since 2000. With Moore’s Law, noting that computer capacity increases exponentially in capability and decreases, the ever-decreasing cost of devices makes acquiring a device more feasible each day.

Question: “Why Don’t Large Telecommunications Operators Already Provide Service There?”

By and large, telecommunications operators have developed a business model and accompanying technology to address urban populations with high average revenues per user in densely populated areas. As a result, they haven’t been able to profitably service many rural areas with this same model. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible though. New, low-cost equipment has emerged that offers the possibility to develop new approaches to business that can address new markets. It’s essential that entrepreneurs demonstrate the reality of this new paradigm in order to extend the opportunity of connectivity to all people.

Question: “What New Technology Do You Have That Will Solve This Problem?”

The technology to connect the entire planet, at a decently low-cost, already exists. Companies like Ubiquiti radio make it possible to send wireless Internet signal over 100km with high capacity and next-generation GSM radios by companies like Range Networks, Fairwaves, and Endaga cost a tiny fraction of what standard hardware sells. New hardware and software continues to make connecting the planet easier and easier. Before new technology gets introduced, agreements with government officials, local people, and operators must be in place, training programs must be developed, and logistics must be coordinated. Connectivity is about people, not just technology.

Effectively communicating what we actually do is what makes it possible to do it. It is easy to get lost in grand visions and plans and new technologies, but leading others in the same direction presents the only possibility of these ideas ever manifesting in the real world. I believe we are at a critical juncture in the ICT4D ecosphere, with people finally beginning to see the relevance of connectivity for development. Those of us who can help steer this momentum towards productivity will usher in a new era of ICT4D opportunity.

Alex Blum is the Founder and CEO of Rugged Communications, a designer of holistic ICT4D solutions and consultancy. He holds an MS in Global Technology and Development. He writes about ICT4D, entrepreneurship, emerging technology, and telemedicine.

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2 Comments to “Aren’t Medicine and Water More Important Than Telecommunications?”

  1. Paolo Brunello says:

    Great post Alex!
    and kudos to Inveneo to have it published, since you can be considered a competitor, right? 😉

    Sure there’s more than enough to do for you both, but still!

    keep it up!

  2. Dan Sisken says:

    I would like to make a plea for a more introspection about the role of ICTs in development. In particular, I was struck by the answer about water, latrines, and medicine. It is a huge leap to assume that access to connectivity will automatically provide all of these other necessities of human development. In some cases, I can agree that increased connectivity can be a significant help, but if there are no doctors nearby to call, low literacy (so forget about the benefits of downloading a book), minimal income-generating assets, and no access to clean water; smart phones and internet connectivity are not likely to be engines of change.

    Similarly, I was struck by the article about “smart matatus.” Of course, it is theoretically possible that smart car technology could enhance safety. But who is going to monitor the blow test for sobriety and driver behavior? What guarantee is there that the governance of these systems will not just be another way for authorities to extract bribes? Why wouldn’t drivers disable bothersome systems as they do taxi meters in many countries? Who is going to pay for virtual reality displays? And who is going to maintain these systems and at what cost? Why not just fix the potholes and actually solve the related transportation issues?

    We do a disservice to the real potential of ICTs in development–and our own credibility–when we make grand assumptions that come pretty close to equating the adoption of ICTs with development itself. Can we lower the hype, stop throwing ideas at the wall, hoping that some of them will stick, and be serious about the difficult, complex, problems of human development? Can we admit that ICTs are tools, not answers, and that they are likely to be effective in some cases and not worth the investment in others?