Monday, July 05, 2010

Dabba phones: A new model for the developing world?

Interesting piece on the PBS Newshour tonight about a South African entrepreneur named Rael Lissoos bringing a low-cost phone and Internet access model to the poor in his country, mainly by buying telecom traffic in bulk and reselling it at a much lower rate than the South African carriers like Vodacom. The video below is missing a few important elements, such as precise costs for Dabba phone cards and phone services, but it seems to be a much more attractive option than the prices charged to local residents under the existing carrier regime -- $8 for a 20-minute cell-to-cell call? That's even worse than AT&T's prepaid phone rate in the U.S., which would be about $5 for a 20-minute call (I know, because I own a GoPhone, which uses prepaid rates of 25 cents per minute).

In any case, you can see what's going on in the video below. If that model can be profitably extended to other parts of Africa at rates which ordinary people can afford, the potential impact on commerce, health, government services, family bonds and other aspects of society will be incredible. I heard from a classmate at Sloan who helped bring similar cellphone service to remote areas of Pakistan earlier in his career that some of the people in these regions -- mostly illiterate and without electricity or any modern means of communicating outside of their villages -- were overjoyed at the introduction of basic cellphone service. We take mobile phones for granted, but for people who live way off the grid in desperately poor conditions, it was a transformative technology that made life measurably better.

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