African Mobile Revolution – communication innovators or monopolized regulators

July - 13 - 2012

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Mobile technology has come to the African continent to stay – or to be revolutionized if you ask many a foresighted business innovator and international investor about the future of information and communications technology. And with a current estimate that 87% of the world population holds a mobile subscription  – a big audience is certainly waiting to experience how this revolution could influence their wireless connectedness.


The dictionary provides us with the following explanation of a revolution:

“A dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it”

Since the introduction of wireless technology on the African continent it has produced numerous examples of inventive appropriation of telecommunications in favor of a wide public audience. The immense popularity of mobile payment systems like M-Pesa, social networking application like MXit, and open network models like the The Village Telco all point towards a South Africa at the forefront of a telecommunication revolution.
However the dictionary also offers the following definition of revolution:

“A forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system”

So how close is Africa to a mobile revolution in these terms and what would be the force behind it?
Currently in South Africa as is true to most of the rest of the world – access to wireless networks rely almost exclusively on a relatively few privatized “service providers”.
And whether it is airtime, data bundles or monthly service subscriptions we are talking about – the South Africans are without doubt also paying the price for their increasing dependency on these commodities.
Many share the believe that the current race of connecting undersea cables to the African continent could potentially change the game from being about bandwidth-monopoly of a few service providers towards offering improved affordability for innovative solutions examplifying new kinds of public and social value.
According to Shuttleworth Fellow and self proclaimed “connectivity crusader” Steve Song:
“Affordability is the key to enabling the benefits if ICTs in Africa and competition is the key to making access more affordable.”
In tackling the current challenges of the telecoms industry Steve points towards inviting more creative examples of wireless solutions.
“When telecoms becomes cheap enough for people to experiment, they become more creative and innovative and create new enterprises no one’s ever thought of.”

Starting from the above definitions of a revolution allows us to push the following questions:
How might we engage an innovative overthrow of the current government- or social order of telecommunication in favor of a new system?


Could the South African telecommunication revolution bring about examples of leapfrogging a wireless communication model that is about privatization and monopoly towards a new social order where the communication sector belongs increasingly more to the communicators than the regulators?


Well probably not – or at least not to it’s full extend – but hopefully enough to inspire the rest of us by bringing about more than a few revolutionary examples of Frugal Digital ingenuity.
Because at the end of the day where is the frugality in the widespread digitalization of 87% of the worlds population if we are all just in the deep pockets of a few telecommunication “service provider” mastodons spinning disproportionate private profit?

Image: Forecasted layout of African undersea cables by 2014 by Steve Song.

Martin Tai Lyhne Jensen

Martin describes himself as a humanist by nature, creative generalist by education and Interaction Designer by profession. Martin is interested in hands-on people centered exploration of technology, social action, and the critical application of design to prototype unbelievable ideas into powerful reality. As part of the Frugal Digital Research Group Martin is seeking to demystify and democratize technology - and pilot it towards the inspired imagination and skillful hands of individuals and communities who are ready to create the change they believe in. Martin has recently returned to Copenhagen from Cape Town (ZA) after collaborating with local grassroot innovators, around new use of mobile technologies, to increase the organizational capacity of young activist communities.

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