Making Information Accessible and Affordable for All

by Veli-Pekka Niitamo

Great challenges must be over come if the emerging ‘mobile information society’ is to be affordable and accessible worldwide. Otherwise, the digital divide will persist-and widen-between countries that have access to the new technologies and those that do not. But financial, institutional, political, and human factors are the main barriers for developing countries-not the technology itself.

Mobile Telephony

Traditional IT companies dominated the digital economies of the 1990s. They focused on the PC-in both hardware and software. But the Internet challenged this business paradigm by providing information and software at low cost. And now the telecommunications industry is bringing more change. Mobile telephony will soon challenge PCs as the preferred terminal for Internet access. Mobile terminals are both cheaper than PCs, and they will increasingly offer data, image, and video transmission in addition to voice transmission. 

No single company, technology, or even business sector will dominate the mobile information society. Innovative companies regardless of size or location can become successful-including those located in developing countries. 

China’s Success​
Old and new technologies meet in China ©Nokia
Old and new technologies meet in China ©Nokia

China has a long history of fostering technical innovation. From being a primarily rural-based economy, China has transformed itself into one of the leading markets for mobile information. And its record in fostering talent for technical innovation is unmatched in the developing world. Markets were opened to high technology investment in the early 1990s, a strong national technology policy was introduced, and price controls were eased. A large domestic market for wireless telephony is the result.

By the mid-1990s, foreign companies were engaged in fierce competition in the Chinese market. During the late 1990s, China expanded local manufacturing to create employment and skills, and encouraged more knowledge transfer from foreign investors. Building research and development capacity in leading-edge mobile telephony became a top priority in the late 1990s. Domestic companies started competing with foreign companies-first at home, and then worldwide.

The economy’s strong growth-which is increasingly led by consumer demand, especially among the expanding middle class-has helped the national technology policy. China has over 50 million mobile phone users and the mobile phone is becoming the preferred mode of voice transmission. China will soon become the world’s biggest market for mobile terminals. Some estimates predict 250 million mobile phone users by 2005 of which 50 per cent will have Internet access. And China is one of the first countries to develop third-generation broadband wireless technology with access to the Internet backbone. It is also accessing rural areas with radio links and bypassing expensive infrastructure investments for fixed-line telephony. Mobile coverage will soon extend to the least developed areas.

©NUA Internet Surveys
©NUA Internet Surveys

India and Venezuela

There are also positive developments in India, a country long known for its good quality engineering and technical education. Government initiatives to attract high technology investment are starting to bear fruit, and multinationals are investing in India-based research and development facilities. This has led to a reversal of India’s longstanding brain drain. Expatriate Indian engineers are returning home to become entrepreneurs or to work with foreign investors in India. India’s own technology companies have succeeded in global markets and new economy start-ups are getting global attention and funding.

Venezuela has also had some success. A lively market in mobile telephony has been created and penetration rates and business have been growing. Venezuela began liberalization in 1992, resulting in fierce competition among five mobile operators. Competition has made mobile companies efficient and flexible compared with fixedline telephony. There are now more mobile lines than fixed-lines, prices are cheaper in mobile telephony, and consumers have benefited from this competition.

The Human Factor​

veli-pekka-niitamo-making-information-accessible-affordable-for-all-box2.JPGSimilar changes are underway in several other Asian and Latin American countries. But these Bridging the Digital Divide The mobile information society must be made affordable and accessible for all Mobile telephony will soon challenge PCs as the preferred terminal for Internet access Innovative companies regardless of size or location can become successful China is matching developed countries in the use of leadingedge technologies India's own technology companies are succeeding in global markets Internet Users 1999, % Population Latin America 3% East Europe 3% Asia Africa 2% 1% OECD (excluding United States USA) 24% 67% recent developments have yet to make much impact in many parts of Africa. Still, the new technologies open up better-and often cheaper-possibilities. Thus, in areas where fixed-line telephony is nonexistent, a viable option is to use radio link technology and 400-470 MHz digital radio technologies. 

China has shown that with the right technology choices and investment in education and training, developing countries can match developed nations in their use of leading-edge technologies. But, overcoming the digital divide, and making global information affordable and accessible for all, is not just a matter of technology-the biggest challenges are human, especially in education. 

Veli-Pekka Niitamo is Director of Global Resourcing, Nokia. This text is based on his presentation to the UNU panel discussion on ‘IT, Economic Growth and Development’ (UN ECOSOC 2000 preparatory process) in New York on 5 May 2000. Nokia’s Web site is at: