Mobile communication and economic and social development in Latin America

Notes from the presentation of the book Comunicación móvil y desarrollo económico y social en América Latina, by Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Hernán Galperin and Manuel Castells, M., that took place at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, Barcelona, on September 28, 2011.

Presentation: Javier Nadal, Executive Deputy Chairman of Fundación Telefónica

There are few technologies, if any, that have been so quickly adopted as Information and Communication Technologies, in general, and mobile telephony, in particular.

And it is very worth noting that this adoption has not happened in the same way around the globe. Different regions, cultures, communities have and are using mobile telephony in many and very different ways. Thus the need to do thorough research in this field, and see how mobile telephony can empower and develop communities and individuals.

Manuel Castells, sociologist, director of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and author of the book.

The three things people value the most are Health, Education and the ability to communicate. And if we consider Education as Communication, we can narrow the priorities to just Health and Communication.

That is why ICTs are such a powerful phenomenon, with pervasive and fast rates of penetration and adoption. And the more important is a phenomenon, the more the need to perform research on it, to analyse it, understand it and, if needed, affect its path.

The book is not a descriptive one, but an analytical one, taking data from Telefónica and CEPAL-ECLAC to be able to perform econometric regressions.

Main conclusions of the econometric analysis:

  • There is a proven, statistically significant, systematic, positive effect of mobile phones upon economic growth, especially in poorest countries and especially in poorest regions.
  • Inequality is neither increased nor decreased because of mobile technologies. Mainly because adoption rates are so high (circa 80% in general) that any strata of society does have access to mobile telephony.
  • There is an impact of mobile phones decreasing poverty.

This last statement is especially proven by the qualitative analyses performed in the book (see below the case studies), which show:

  • A positive impact on employment. As many people work autonomously, thanks to mobile phones they can get jobs/works done without the bounds of more rigid organizational structures.
  • People find employment more quickly thanks to disintermediation of the job market.
  • Increase in security — and the feeling of security — of people: distant communication reduces exposure to different kinds of violence and hazards.
  • There is an increase in the autonomy of people, but at the same time increasing the connectivity amongst people and increasing the feeling of community, of a common identity. But not any autonomy, but “secure autonomy”.

If we take the context of schools, it is clear that the educational system is lagging behind the evolution of technology, and educators and policy-makers should definitely rethink their teaching strategies and leverage the power of mobile techonology and mobile (i.e. ubiquitous) access to knowledge [I personally disagree with Castells that laptops at school should be replaced with mobiles: I believe the problem is not the device, but the educational model].


Ismael Peña-López: despite the high rates of adoption and, thus, the lack of impact in quantitative terms on inequality, what happens in qualitative terms? Are we witnessing evidence for the knowledge gap hypothesis? Castells: absolutely. What we see is that technology adoption is not affecting inequality, but social inequality does affect unequal technology adoption (e.g. poors not accessing broadband). Nevertheless, the inequality of mobile adoption, or the inequality in communications, is not as important as socio-economic inequalities, and that is a very important fact.

Q: how is it that people spend relatively so much in communications instead of “food”? Castells: the main reason is because it is worth it: mobile phones have an impact on employability, for instance, and very important too, on socialization, which, at its turn, has an impact on employability and inclusion in general. That’s why: communications are of crucial importance nowadays and do have an impact on each and every aspect of our lives.

Q: is there a different impact depending on e.g. gender? Castells: there is, but not because of the gender factor, but because the gender factor already made a difference in the “real” world. For instance, in the Peruvian Andes markets are set up by women. Thus, the impact of mobiles on those women was higher than on men, but not because of their gender, but because of their important role on the local economies.

Book Review

The book performs a thorough and deep analysis on how mobile technologies have had an impact on Latin America, both at the economic and social levels. After two initial chapters depicting the framework and context, the book goes on estimating the quantitative impact of mobile telephony on economic growth and poverty alleviation, then moving onto mobile usage in rural areas, social businesses for e-inclusion, technology appropriation and usage among youth.

The table of contents is as follows:

  1. Introduction: Mobile communication and development in Latin America in the XXIst century; Roxana Barrantes Cáceres, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Sebastián Ureta.
  2. Socio-economic context and ICT diffusion in Latin America; Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Andrea Molinari, Javier Vázquez Grenno.
  3. Estimation of the contribution of mobile telephony to growth and poverty alleviation; Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Javier Vázquez Grenno
  4. Mobile telephony in rural areas: case study in Puno, Peru; Roxana Barrantes Cáceres, Aileen Agüero, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol.
  5. Mobile telephony and inclusive businesses: Proyecto SUMA in Argentina; Hernán Galperin, Andrea Molinari.
  6. Appropriation and usage: case study in Brasil; François Bar, Francis Pisani, Carlos Seabra.
  7. Mobile youth culture in an urban environmetn: case study in Santiago de Chile; Sebastián Ureta, Alejandro Artopoulos, Wilson Muñoz, Pamela Jorquera.
  8. Synthesis of results and conclusions; Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Hernán Galperin.

More information

ICT4HD. Round Table. What is the role of private companies on Research in ICT4D?

Notes from the I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development, at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, and held in Fuenlabrada, Spain, on May 13th and 14th, 2010. More notes on this event: ict4hd10.

Round Table. What is the role of private companies on Research in ICT4D?

Vanessa Frías-Martínez, Telefónica I+D

If you cannot see the slides please visit <a href=""></a>

Jorge Lang, Intel Iberia

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Miriam Catalán de Domingo, Thales Alenia Space

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Santiago Porto, External Consultant in Business and Development at AECID and Director of IMSD Master

Javier Guillén Álvarez, Albentia Systems

[I could not attend this session... but at least I got the slides ;) ]

I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development (2010)

ICT4HD. Eric Brewer: Contributions of Technical Research on ICT4D

Notes from the I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development, at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, and held in Fuenlabrada, Spain, on May 13th and 14th, 2010. More notes on this event: ict4hd10.

Eric Brewer: Contributions of Technical Research on ICT4D

Traditional development has a very top-down approach, with international agencies funding projects, often with sting and debt attached, difficult to manage (e.g. corruption) and usually with little role for high technology. This just does not fit ICT4D projects’ necessities and way of proceeding.

Cellphones’ evolution was very different: driven by bottom-up demand, because of the ease of use (voice), a dire need for communications (work, remittances…).

Remittances to Africa are circa US$40B and imply much more money than the one involved in aid. This should give an idea about the power of microloans. The Grameen Bank is owned entirely by the poor and has loaned more than US$3.9B. It is mainly used for very short run (up to 6 months) loans, aimed for instance at buying a goat that will pay back the loan with its milk, or paying for seeds that will pay back the loan once harvested. Loans are chained one to the next one and create an important funding and cash flow.

Grameen Telecom allows people to buy phones and rent them to their neighbours. The project covers 50,000-68,000 villages and 60M. The most important thing is that it scales and that the owner (the ‘phone lady’) is indeed interested in the maintenance of the equipment and the sustainability of the system.

Another example: I.T.Mountain.BPO for medical transcription: voice in, text out for medical issues.

The real digital divide is between urban and rural areas: for instance, the mobile phone is an urban phenomenon, as many rural areas have no cellular coverage.

We need to bring connectivity to rural areas, and here is where WiFi comes to the rescue.

Rural connectivity

It has already been demonstrated that the problem is not distance, but line of sight: you can send a signal as far as you can (literally) see. We need to find natural towers (e.g. mountains, hills) to be able to see further.

Aravind Eye Hospital Network: doctors stay at the hospital, patients stay at their homes. 4-5Mb/s per link, video-conferencing — high quality and video are important because the interview really matter —, e-mail, training. Achieved 6,000 consultations/month, over 160,000 patients so far, centers are cash-flow positive, over 30,000 patients have recovered sight, growing to 50 centres covering 2.5M people and possibility to replicate in other cities.

Smart phones

Computers that, nevertheless, are small, portable, have self-contained power, easy to use, culturally accepted…

SmartPhone diagnostic device that, connected to the audio jack (and phones are good at converting analogue signals into digital ones), can provide measurements on heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, blood oxygen, ECG, fetal heart rate or even blood pressure. The result is a much much cheaper and easy to use diagnostic device. The phone can either convert the raw data into readings of forward them through the GSM network.

CellScope: Cellphone Microscope = (phone) camera + big lens. Its use can be to diagnose malaria after a blood sample is put under the cellscope.

m-Learning: teach English via smartphones and by using educational games. Games have to be based on traditional local games to provide the learner with a familiar and thus understandable context.

If you cannot see the slides please visit <a href=""></a>


Fernando Balducci: we definitely have to avoid the confusion between tele-diagnosis and self-diagnosis, which is a hazard we might run into when such tools become more and more present in end-users’ hands.

Javier Simó: concurrence or cooperation? A: concurrence, but informed concurrence. Every place is different, so solutions cannot be replicated in a strictly straightforward way. And for being informed, a certain degree of cooperation is required.

Q: what about call centres? A: a call center requires connectivity, low power, simple infrastructures. So call centres can be a good way to start to create employment in rural areas. But we should be beyond that (including going beyond software development centres).

David Chávez: smartphone or cloud computing? A: it is very likely that computing power of the phone will increase at a faster path than mobile broadband will. Thus why latest developments have gone into the direction of making the phone perform more work than instead sending to and fro data to “computing centres” to perform these tasks.

Vanessa Frías: how is assessment performed in smartphones? A: within the traditional education system, this kind of assessment is very difficult, as it often implies interaction, synchronous meetings, etc. This is why vocational programmes generally work better than for-credit educational programmes. Indeed, there are other security- and privacy-related issues that are still difficult to handle in m-learning.

I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development (2010)

ICT4HD. Ramon Roca: Success Case of Participative Communications Networks

Notes from the I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development, at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, and held in Fuenlabrada, Spain, on May 13th and 14th, 2010. More notes on this event: ict4hd10.

Ramon Roca: Success Case of Participative Communications Networks

A different model based on:

  • Social inclusion and geographic equilibrium;
  • Return of investment not based on commercial margins;
  • Benefit from network structures. is a network of networks according to the “XOLN” (Xarxa Oberta Lliure i Neutra: Open, Free and Neutral Network) commons participated by individuals or institutions; where participations add up, interconnecting and creating an IP traffic public network.
It is important to stress the fact that the network is a commons: anyone has a predominant position in the network despite the fact that some people can contribute with more resources to it: thus, the community avoids that some users implicitly had more power than others. A foundation manages the network, which is open, free, neutral and collectively “owned”.

Actual coverage/reach of +9,600 operative nodes; +14,000 Km of network; up to 10-15% households in some areas.

Browse the slides to see how it works [11] and the software applications included [12]:

If you cannot see the slides please visit <a href=""></a>

Some outcomes of the public network: though the penetration in e.g. Osona (a rural area in Catalonia, where is more present) is lower than the European and Spanish averages, the number of people that accessed the Internet from home is much higher than the European and Spanish averages, at much of these results can be directly attributed to the penetration of wireless networks through membership. This seriously challenges the e-empowerment model based in subsidising private companies instead of local communities.

I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development (2010)

Inclusion in the Network Society: the role of telecentres

The Xarxa Òmnia is the largest network of telecentres in Catalonia and one of the largest in whole Spain. The network was set up in 1999 and, since its conception, it has always had a strong community-focused aim which made of their telecentres — or Punt Òmnia [Òmnia Point] — more than just public Internet access points, but more tools of (e-)inclusion and community building.

Now that Xarxa Òmnia has turned 10 years old, the yearly rendez-vous of the whole network, the Jornada Òmnia, will focus on how should the network evolve in the coming years, taking into special account the changes that have been happening in the last 10 years in matters of the Information and the Network Society, and what are the challenges that policy makers and telecentre administrators will have to face to successfully fight the digital divide and the risks of (e-)exclusion.

I have been invited to introduce both these aspects. And my point has been already been made in the way that I write (e-)inclusion and (e-)exclusion: in my opinion, e-inclusion or e-exclusion will increasingly be a matter of inclusion/exclusion rather than being centre on the “e-”. Obvious as this might sound (i.e. inclusion being a matter of inclusion), the devil is in the details:

  • Real impact of ICTs will come — I believe — by them enabling, enhancing and empowering the analogue part of our lives: e-inclusion should be about ICTs finding ways to help people be part of a community, not about pouring people in the Internet (the “e-” focus of e-inclusion), notwithstanding a recurrent strategy in many Information Society policies;
  • People not online are, increasingly, people actively refusing to be online. While it is still true that many people don’t go online because of impossibility to access the Internet (hardware, connectivity, affordability, skills, etc.), we also find people that being able to access it, just don’t want to or even walk out of it. Lack of awareness, belief that ICTs bring nothing good to their lives, technophobia, etc. are keeping them disconnected and in risk not of e-exclusion but exclusion at all.

Thus, here’s my presentation:

Go to original site to see the slides:

The main points and rationale of my presentation are:

  • The Digital Revolution puts at stake the economy of scarcity (at least at the information and knowledge levels), brings down transaction costs and introduces a new actor into the equation: machines that substitute brain work (as other machines substituted muscle work in the Industrial Revolution)
  • The effect of these three aspects, puts at stake institutions? Do schools, firms, governments, the media or civic organizations still have a role in mediating between citizens? Or will citizens bypass them? What if they do? What if citizens themselves are bypassed by their peers?
  • If hierarchies and institutions give way to — or are deeply transformed by — networks, inclusion will be a matter of staying connected and being able to re-program oneself to be kept within the network.
  • New (digital) competences will be crucial for that, from technological literacy to e-awareness.
  • Thus, we might be needing to reframe our policies and foster pull strategies instead of pull strategies; we might also reconsider the role of our (e-)inclusion tools (telecentres amongst them), that might need shifting from the “e-” to the “inclusion”, strongly focussing on community building, enhanced by technologies.

This presentation is a wonderful occasion for me to gather up things I’ve been working on and thinking about in the last two years. In some way, it collects the reflections I already made in the following speeches (in chronological order):

I want to thank Cesk Gasulla, Noemí Espinosa, Marta Jové, Sònia Castro, Dolors Pedrós and the rest of the organizing committee for the invitation and the valuable chance to organize my reflections and think aloud in public. Moltes gràcies!

Public Internet Access Points: impact vs. sustainability

Let’s imagine there are only two kinds of Public Internet Access Points, that is, a place, different to your house or your work where you can connect to the Internet:

  • A library, a civic centre, or an ad hoc place equipped with computers and connection to the Internet; access and usage is free because its supported by public funding or private not-for-profit funding. Its goal is philanthropic and aimed towards making an impact on people’s livelihoods: empower them to fully achieve their citizen rights, help them to climb up the welfare ladder, etc. Let’s call them telecentre.
  • The other kind is similar to the previous one but it is not free. And it is not because its aim is to return the investment the owner made — an entrepreneur — in the form of revenues that will hopefully become profits, that is, costs will be lower than revenues. Let’s call them cybercafé.

Things are quite more complex and reality constantly shows that there are not pure models. But let’s keep things simple, very simple, for the sake of the explanation.

If things were that binary, telecentres would be having an impact on people’s lives while cybercafés wouldn’t; on the other hand, cybercafés would be economically sustainable (self-sustainable) while telecentres would not.

Internet penetration: a double edged sword

Internet penetration is growing everyday, for several reasons: willingness to adopt because of increasingly perceived utility, lower costs, public policies to foster Internet access at home and work, etc. This increased penetration can have two direct consequences:

  • As more people are connected, the remaining unconnected people will either be too poor/difficult to connect (on a cost/benefit basis) or just absolutely refusing to connect due to personal believes (refuseniks). Thus, it is likely that both governments and nonprofits will shift away from e-inclusion projects to other areas of development that have ranked higher in priority.
  • On the other hand, less people will go to cybercafes, as the demand will necessarily be lower. Indeed, the more infrastructure focused are public policies to foster the Information Society (e.g. putting laptops on kids’ hands) the stronger will be this moving away from cybercafes.
Graphic: Evolution of Public Internet Access Points

So, what will the future of telecentres and cybercafés be like? More than answers, questions is what really arise:

  • Will telecentres fade away and end up disappearing? If they were economically not sustainable (in the sense that they depended on third parties’ funding), will they shift towards cybercafes-like models? Or will some of them just remain to try and cover the needs of the ones left behind? How is it that some voices foresee the end of telecentres while bookshops and cheap softcover pocket editions did not succeed in getting rid of costly public libraries?
  • Will cybercafes shift to more telecentre impact-like focus and less access-based business plans? Will they compensate their shrinking access market by expanding towards a capacitation-based market? Will they be providing more content and, especially, services? Will they create communities of people around cybercafes as it is already happening in cybercafes whose customers are e.g. mainly immigrants and gather together around the cybercafe?
  • Will both telecentres and cybercafes evolve into enhanced centres (e-centres), where communities will gather and benefit from several community resources, computers and Internet access among others? Or will they just disappear?

Fortunately or unfortunately, things are neither that simple nor static and are way more complex and dynamic in reality. But these are, nevertheless, questions that both decision-takers and tax-payers should be taking into account so to be prepared for what is going to be next.

As libraries have provided more than books, but a place where to learn to read and find kindred souls, it is my guess that public Internet access points will disappear as such, and will either be embedded within existing structures (libraries themselves, or civic centres, to name a few) or the existing telecentres and cybercafes will evolve into a next stage where the learning and community factors will be much more relevant. We are indeed seeing plenty of examples of this, and it is a matter of time that priorities or the focus turns upside down: instead of going to access the Internet and finding people, one will go and find people and use the Internet as an enhanced way to socialize. At its turn, this should be accompanied by the end of this false dichotomy on whether you’re a citizen or a netizen, as if the Internet had a life and a citizenry on its own. But time will tell.


Mike Gurstein has an interesting piece just in this same topic: Next Generation Telecentres (NGTs).

NOTE: I owe some of this reflections from conversations with people I met at IDRC on my visit at their headquarters in Ottawa: Florencio Ceballos, Frank Tulus, Tricia Wind, Meddie Mayanja, Silvia Caicedo and Simon Batchelor (the latter from Gamos).