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Beyond Subscriptions: Actual Ownership, Use and Non-Use of Mobiles in Developing Countries

22 March 2009 15 comments

 

As widely reported, the number of mobile phone subscribers in the world passed the four billion mark at some point around the end of 2008, in a global population of around 6.7bn of whom about 80% (5.4bn) live in developing countries.

 

At first sight, that might suggest that 60% (4 / 6.7) of the world’s population has a mobile phone.  Given (ITU stats) that the subscriber rate in industrialised countries is roughly 100 per 100 inhabitants, that might also suggest that 50% ((4 – 1.3) / 5.4) of those living in developing countries had a mobile phone at the start of 2009.

 

We arrive at similar figures if we extrapolate the ITU 2007 stats using the CAGR% for 2002-2007 (minus population growth for the per 100 inhabitants data), to get a 2008 figure:

– Africa: 409m mobile subscribers; 41 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants

– Americas minus US/Canada: 483m subscribers; 84 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants

– Asia minus Japan/S. Korea/Israel/Singapore: 1736m subscribers; 45 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants

– All developing countries: 2.63bn subscribers; 49 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants

 

BUT . . . These figures have a number of problems.  I summarise below what little I have found: if you know more, please comment.

 

Actual Ownership

 

First, mobile subscription figures are overestimates of in-country mobile ownership for at least four reasons (see James & Versteeg 2007, and Kalba 2008):

– Some individuals have multiple subscriptions

– Visitors (both foreigners (tourists, business visitors) and nationals who currently reside abroad) buy a subscription/card for their phone during a short-term visit

– Some people living in neighbouring countries may subscribe when they live close to the border within service range

– Subscriptions are counted for some period of days/months after the last use; some of these subscriptions may be on cards/phones that are now discarded

 

How big is this effect?  Of course it varies, but a gratingly rough estimate is that in-country ownership is 75% of the subscription figure.  Ewan Sutherland reports an EU-wide figure of 103 subscriptions per 100 population in 2006, but on-the-ground surveys indicating 79 per 100 own a mobile phone.  Gillwald et al report 44 subscriptions per 100 population in South Africa in 2004, but on-the-ground surveys indicated 33 per 100 mobile phone ownership.  de Silva et al (2008) surveyed in India in 2006 and found 9 mobiles owned per 100 respondents, compared to ITU data for the same period of 15 subscriptions per 100: a converter of 60%; in Sri Lanka, the converter was 85%.  Wireless Intelligence produced a report indicating real penetration as a percentage of reported penetration for 2006 was: Romania (80%); Turkey (79%); South Africa (76%).

 

Within the EU, the ratios vary from about 50% (wealthy Luxembourg where multiple subscriptions are very common) to roughly 100% in France.  In accession state Bulgaria, the figure was about 55%, perhaps due to it having so many foreign second home owners, nationals working overseas, and transit visitors.  So the 75% estimate covers quite a wide variation that will depend on specific national conditions.  We also need a lot more data from developing countries themselves (where there may be a fifth reason for overestimation according to James & Versteeg: those who own SIM cards but not phones).

 

Actual Use

 

Second, mobile subscription figures are underestimates of in-country mobile phone access and use for at least two reasons:

– Private mobile phones are shared with family, friends, neighbours, etc.

– Public mobile phones are accessible to large numbers of people.

 

How big is this effect?  James & Versteeg cite an estimate of two users on average per privately-owned mobile phone on the basis of Vodafone Tanzania data; and 70 users on average per public mobile on the basis of Grameen Phone Bangladesh data.  But they also note that levels of sharing seem to vary a lot between countries.

 

If we take the 75% figure and the “two users” figure, this would mean that usage rates of private mobile phones in developing countries are 1.5 times the cited subscription rates.  So, for example, that would estimate in 2008 there were around 615m private mobile phone users in Africa: about two-thirds of the population.  That’s also (citing GSM Association data) about the proportion of the population that was covered by a mobile signal.

 

Of course, that excludes those who use public mobiles and other public phones.  Looking at de Silva et al’s Asia data, we might estimate that in the poorer developing countries, for every mobile phone owner, there are about three others who don’t own any phone, but find a way to access and use one.  However, the figures vary wildly and the ratios decrease rapidly as mobile phone ownership rises.  It may be better to lump all phone use together and ask our final question . . .

 

Levels of Non-Use

 

Thirdly, how many people still do not use a phone?  In the 1990s, we circulated the much-quoted “fact” that half the world’s population had never made a phone call.  How do things look now?  Let us reduce the 350m in Africa who live outside cell phone coverage with Gillwald et al’s data that around 25% of rural populations in Africa had used public payphones in the past three months.  We get roughly 250m non-phoners.  About 40% of these will be under 15; we’ll exclude those, to reach 150m adult non-phoners.

 

In Asia, de Silva et al’s survey work from late 2006 suggested only 4.5% of adult lower-income group members in the countries they studied had not made a phone call in the previous 3 months.  That suggests 120m non-phoners.  And we might guess roughly the same proportion for Latin America, giving about 20m non-phoners there.

 

So, a very rough and ready estimate suggests about 300m adult non-phoners in developing countries.  This number becomes larger if we start adding in children: around 10% of the developing world’s population (some 500m) is under 5; something like a further 1.5bn are aged 5-14.  Many of them will have made phone calls, but many will not.

 

And Finally

 

Finally, some additional confusions:

 

– The 75% conversion from subscriptions to ownership might get messed up by age demographics.  Gillwald et al did draw from all age ranges to get their survey figures.  It’s not clear if the EU and Bulgaria figures cited by Sutherland do the same, and the de Silva et al data does not seem to have done so.  We can at least estimate that about 25% of Africa’s population and perhaps 20% of Asia’s and Latin America’s population might be seen as too young (10 or under) to own a mobile phone.  That would mean, ironically, that the mobile subscription per capita figures and the actual ownership per capita of adult populations could be about the same.

 

– The basis for the figures is not totally clear, but in a number of surveys (some sub-Saharan African countries covered by Gillwald et al; some Asian countries covered by de Silva et al), the reported mobile ownership per capita figures were the same, or even higher, than the ITU-reported mobile subscriber per capita figure for that country.  This may reflect the exact population from whom the survey data was gathered (e.g. more urban than the general population), but it may well also reflect just how ropey are the statistics on mobiles in developing countries, where ballpark figures and trends are all we can really talk about.

 

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Are Mobile Phone Companies the New Treasuries of Africa?

15 January 2009 3 comments

Is implementation of fiscal policy in developing countries being increasingly handled by mobile phone operators?

 

That’s what hit me from two presentations at the recent 1st m4d conference; in particular from Adam Denton’s keynote [2MB pdf] on behalf of the GSM Association.  (This was full of interesting evidence-based nuggets, some of which I’ve added at the bottom of this post.)

 

My thoughts on government finances arise from:-

 

– a) the general poor performance of developing country governments in implementation of fiscal (tax and spending) policy;

 

– b) Mick Moore’s argument (e.g. in the book, “Taxation and State-Building in Developing Countries”: you can find on Google books) that state-building in developing countries is significantly undermined because governments don’t rely very much – if at all – on their citizens for taxes; as a result, governments find it easy to ignore citizens when making policy.

 

Mobile telephony could be changing this, albeit in an unplanned and as yet largely unrecognised way.  How?  Because mobile phone operators are key, and rapidly growing, contributors of tax revenues to government.  They average 7% of tax receipts in Africa and, in some countries, are the single largest tax payer.

 

More importantly, and almost uniquely among tax sources (compared, say, to customs revenue or taxes on natural resource extraction), mobile phone companies derive their revenue from a large and increasing mass of the citizenry of a country (around 30% of the cost of mobile phone ownership goes to pay tax).  They are, therefore, indirectly providing the tax connection between citizens and governments in developing countries, the absence of which Mick Moore and others have long lamented.

 

Previously, if governments wanted to raise or lower the tax burden on their citizens, they had few if any levers.  Now they do.  Assuming a competitive mobile market, changes in the tax burden on phone companies will directly affect large swathes of a country’s population.  Raise taxes on mobile operators: you extract more money from millions of citizens.  Lower taxes for the reverse effect.

 

The fiscal flipside could also apply.  Katharine Vincent and Nick Freeland are working on a social protection project in Lesotho. Cash transfers to the poor are an increasingly-popular social protection tool to address poverty and wider vulnerabilities.  However, delivery mechanisms are difficult.  One possible solution?  Get government to outsource delivery of the cash/credit to mobile operators, who would effect the transfer via mobiles.  Mobile operators would thus be implementing government spending policy.

 

That may be some way in the future.  However, we do need to recognise the extent to which mobile phone companies are mediating – and could mediate – fiscal relations between governments and citizens.  This one more sign of “Development 2.0”: the way in which ICTs are reworking core development structures and processes.

 

Any other examples of phone operators as outsourced Treasuries would be welcome.

 

Other nuggets from Adam Denton:

 

– 10 years ago, Manhattan had more phone lines than all of Africa.  Today, Africa has more phone lines than the US and Canada combined.

 

– GSMA states that every US$1.00 invested in mobile telephony generates an average US$0.80 in tax revenues for developing countries.

 

– GSMA predicts that 80% of broadband delivery in Africa will occur via mobile; but that may require release of spectrum currently used by analogue TV.

 

– Population coverage in Africa of mobile networks grew from 10% in 1999 to 60% in 2007, and is predicted to grow to 90% by 2012.

 

– Mobile operators provide 34% of the revenues for universal service funds but receive only 5% of disbursements (fixed line operators get the rest).  In 2006, more than US$6bn in universal service funds was collected; only US$1.5bn was disbursed.

 

– (A personal conclusion): we know the menu for mobile and telecom and ICT policy quite well already; the interesting question today is not what should be in policy but how and why policy is made and implemented.

 

And, yes, I do realise that the GSM Association has a particular worldview.  If you wish to challenge their figures with alternative evidence, please feel free to comment.  If you’d like more of the same, then see: http://www.gsmworld.com/newsroom/index.htm

 

Categories: m4d Tags: , ,

Mobiles for Impoverishment?

27 December 2008 9 comments

If you had to choose three words to sum up the future of ICT4D, they might well be “mobiles, mobiles, mobiles”.  And the way to that future is being more clearly indicated as the promise of mobiles-for-development research comes to fruition; reflected, for example, in the recent 1st “m4d” international research conference.

 

But such research is starting to throw up some perplexing – even worrying – findings about mobiles.  At its bluntest, such research suggests mobiles are doing more economic harm than good, and sometimes making poor people poorer.  Let’s have a look:-

 

a) Kurt DeMaagd’s “Pervasive versus Productive” paper analyses country-level data on mobiles and national productivity as measured by GDP.  He finds that, short-term, there is a negative association between investment in mobiles and GDP in developing countries, possibly because “mobiles represent a diversion of resources away from other productive uses”.

 

b) Kathleen Diga’s “Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction” dissertation (Ch.5) shows at the micro-level that some rural Ugandan households are sacrificing expenditure on purchased food (e.g. sugar, milk, flour) so they can pay for mobile airtime.  This includes households that “admit to some days of hunger in order to maintain the mobile phone”.  They are also diverting savings into mobile phone purchase and saving for airtime by foregoing attendance at social functions.

 

c) Hosea Mpogole, Hidaya Usanga and Matti Tedre’s “Mobile Phones and Poverty Allevation” paper at the m4d conference researches mobile use in rural Tanzania.  “48% of respondents reported that they sometimes substitute important needs (e.g. education, buying food, and clothes) for mobile phone ownership/usage”.  Modal monthly costs of mobile phone maintenance and use were US$10-20.  Mean costs were US$22.4: an average 19% of monthly income.  And, in a digital variant on the workload of water-carrying in rural Africa, many respondents were undertaking 3-7 kilometer walks 2-3 times per week in order to recharge their mobile batteries.

 

Very interesting research.  To which one might offer four responses.

 

First, I find all three pieces of research to be credible.  However, one should always mine into research methods: what exactly is being measured; exactly what questions are being asked, and what answers might respondents think they are being asked to give; what is the sample size; what assumptions are built into calculations; is the difference between correlation and causation recognised?

 

Second, we have research evidence of mobiles increasing incomes of the poor such as the studies on Keralan fishermen or Heather Horst and Daniel Miller’s work on mobiles in Jamaica or (from a mobiles-as-tools-of-production not tools-of-consumption perspective) studies of “umbrella people” and GrameenPhone operators.  We also have evidence of mobiles saving costs for the poor e.g. work on the informal sector in Nigeria.

 

Third, there is a bigger picture that this research recognises.  DeMaagd notes that, longer-term, mobile-associated GDP downticks seem to be replaced by upticks as “learning and integration with business processes” take place.  Diga echoes this macro-level explanation at the micro-level: households see short-term sacrifices as investments that will provide longer-term security and opportunity.

 

Fourthly, we need to explain a surprising finding in Mpogole et al’s work.  Less than 15% of mobile phone owners interviewed stated that the benefits of owning a mobile phone justified the costs.  Um . . . so if you believe that guys, why on earth do you own a mobile?

 

Diga’s research offers some insight but we can get much more from Harsha de Silva, Ayesha Zainudeen and Dimuthu Ratnadiwakara’s paper (earlier version as: “Teleuse on a Shoestring“) that looked at mobile use in poor communities in five Asian countries.

 

The most negative explanation is that mobiles represent one more step in the ingestion of the poor by the consumer society.  They are sacrificing food for (potentially economically-valueless) status and an identity of modernity, youth, urbanicity, etc that they believe mobile ownership brings.

 

Mobile owners may also be associating questions about financial benefits with direct, enterprise-based income generation via mobile: something that only a few achieve as yet.  They may thus set aside from their cost-benefit calculations the so-far key financial impact: savings from substitution of journey costs.

 

And finally, most research tells us that the poor are using mobiles for social more than business purposes.  This, again, they may set aside from their cost-benefit calculations.  Yet a) the social benefits, such as knowledge that help can be at hand in an emergency, are often highly rated when asked about directly; and b) there is no easy separation in reality of the social and the economic: social networks are often utilised by the poor to maintain or generate financial flows such as remittances or help during a crisis.

 

I think my overall conclusion (apart from the obvious: more research needed) would be two-fold:

 

– Setting aside the possibility of irrationality, the significant amounts being spent by the poor on mobiles indicate that phones have a significant value to the poor.  But that value is some rather complex mix of the financial, the economic, the psychological, the social and the symbolic.

 

– For some poor consumers, the financial benefits of mobiles outweigh the costs.  For some poor consumers they do not.  But we have long known (e.g. via the livelihoods framework) that “poverty” is not just about money and, hence, that poverty interventions and tools can usefully target more than just financial benefits.

 

What we see here, then, is not an argument to try to slam on the mobile brakes.  At most, we have an argument to invest more in sharing or building innovative uses of mobiles that are more directly connected to income generation.

 

Categories: m4d Tags: , ,
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