FairMobile | An African Telecom Research Agenda
Over at Many Possibilities, Steve Song just introduced the idea of a Fair Mobile Index: a measurement, akin to the Economist's Big Mac Index, of what mobile pricing regimes mean both for the average African user and mobile innovators who benefit from a generative market.
I'm incredibly excited to follow, and hopefully to contribute to, the FairMobile research agenda. The editor of my Venture Beat article on Africa's SMS Crisis cut a critical passage that alludes to the frustrations I felt amongst innovators while I was working in Uganda:
Evidence from the pan-African research network, ResearchICTAfrica, points to a remarkably high percentage of income being spent by the poor on mobile services. For low income earners across 17 countries studied, the average African is paying more than 50% of their disposable income on mobile services.
At the same time, mobile operators are posting impressive profits. Kenyan operator Safaricom generated over 900 million USD in revenue last year of which a staggering 40% was Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization ( EBITDA). Other operators are also posting impressive profits with most operators on the continent announcing year on year increases in revenue.
The startling contrast between the remarkable benefits of mobile infrastructure and the high price being paid for mobile services in Africa while mobile operators post record profits leads to the conclusion that more competitive mobile markets in Africa would lead to even greater social and economic benefit for all but especially the poor.
These [innovative mobile] services, however, represent a trickle of innovation where there should be a downpour. The source of this sluggishness is the “non-generative” structure of mobile phone networks. In The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It, Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain defines generativity as the ability for entrepreneurs anywhere, driven by any social or economic motivation, to quickly and cheaply create, test and deploy applications. Zittrain says that generativity is the key to the Internet’s rapid growth, and he worries that new web-based appliances, such as the iPhone, that can only be modified with the manufacturers consent, threaten this fundamental character. In other words, Zittrain fears that the Internet as a network is becoming more like the mobile phone: costly and closed.