Mobile telephony is easily the most inclusive and decentralized of all information and communication technologies (ICT). Its philosophy of one person, one phone is a great equalizer. If optimally utilized, this technology can fill the void between citizens and government services.
A survey by Digital Empowerment Foundation on how people use cellphones and what are their expectations from this device threw up some interesting results. The survey covered 500 people in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh; Champaran, Bihar; Tehri, Uttarakhand; Hajo, Assam; and Alwar, Rajasthan.
Some 87% users said they prefer local language mobile content. Affordability of mobile devices was an issue for 72% respondents, while 65% said they look for features such as FM radio, ringtones, battery life and camera in their devices.
While 14% respondents said they use cellphone-based Internet to look for examination results, games and downloads, the use of value-added services was limited mainly to entertainment. Some 89% respondents said they use SMS for sports, caller tunes and railway enquiry. For 87% respondents, third-generation telephony, mobile television and video calling are not so important.
But here is the most significant find: 82% respondents said they are willing to pay for government information and general citizen services.
Optimal utilization of mobile phones can mean meeting the day-to-day needs of two-thirds of India’s population. But while the private sector has been the key driver of content and services until now, the government has shied away from delivering need-based services.
The government’s hesitation is understandable. Policy programmes need not match the speed and rate of technology innovations. A cautious approach will fare better. The government should look at initiating a few pilot programmes across key departments.
Cluster-based programmes can help take stock of factors that lead to success and failure, allowing the government to plan better. Practice by private players and industry-civil-society-academic set ups can facilitate government efforts and clear doubts.
Two crucial issues need to be considered. One, how do we leverage the great proliferation of cellphones to suit development and governance needs? Delay in understanding and action on this front will only mean wasting the opportunities presented by this ICT miracle. Mobile phones need to be treated more than mere entertainment and communication devices, their audio-visual strengths can bring enhanced benefits in delivering services.
Two, how do we balance caution of approach with the need to be proactive? The bigger challenge is putting in place an institutional mechanism that can determine the shape, management and regulation of mobile-based services. There are a number of intra- and inter-departmental gaps, as well as intra- and inter-state gaps in policy and programme coordination.
Once we sort these issues out, India can lead South Asia, one of the world’s most populous regions, in the rational and optimal use of mobile telephony.
Osama Manzar is director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator, mBillionth Award. He is also a member of the working group for Internet governance at the ministry of IT.