The Mobile Web and the Digital Divide

Written by Victor van Reijswoud

One of the most promising directions to bridge the Digital Divide is to provide eServices on mobile phones. The paper The Mobile Web to Bridge the Digital Divide? by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) compares the three major ways of providing applications on such devices: using SMS, Voice and Web technologies. A discussion paper that offers a wealth of information for policy makers.
Mobile phones provide an important opportunity to bridge the digital divide. It is expected that by 2010 almost 4 billion people will have access to mobile phones. If there is a general agreement among specialists that mobile phone is the right device to deliver eServices to rural communities and under-privileged populations, the nature and technicalities of those eServices still need to be defined.There are three major ways of developing and deploying eServices on mobile phones:

  1. SMS applications: people are sending requests by text-messages to a specific phone number, and get the result with a new text-message they receive.
  2. Voice applications: people are calling a specific phone number on which is connected a voice platform and with either voice or keypad inputs, they can have the information they are looking for.
  3. Web applications: people have a Web browser on their phone and a data-service plan which connect them to the Internet and allow them to browse the Web.

The paper The Mobile Web to Bridge the Digital Divide? by Stéphane Boyera from World Wide Web Consortium explores the strengths and weaknesses of each way, but emphases and further develops the Mobile Web option. The author considers this the most promising way to provide universal access and reach out to the rural communities.

The comparison of the three options to deliver eServices that is presented in the paper in section 3 is interesting and provides a well balanced description of possibilities and limitations.

Although least used in the developing world, the Web application alternative provides most opportunities for bridging the digital divide. Research in this area is supported by the W3C Mobile Web Initiative. The Mobile Web offers huge advantages over the SMS and Voice alternatives. Services are easier to find, no interoperability issues, the development of services is easy, and the user interface is easy but at the same time allows a relatively complex interaction between the user and and the application through multiple cycles.

The paper also identifies factors that limit the widespread adoption of the Mobile Web in Developing Countries:

  • bandwidth (GPRS/EDGE/3G) not widely available in Developing Countries.
  • high-end phones are needed to access the services.
  • new web-browsing skills are needed that are not obvious to non-PC users.

To boost the growth of the Mobile Web, the paper provides recommendations that are important for policy makers interested in promoting this type of eServices. To start with, mobile phones need to be equipped with low-bandwidth/lightweight browsing capabilities. This is not always the case with the mobile phones that are produced for the developing markets in Africa, where the emphasis is on offering robust and low-cost handsets. In order to make the service interesting, content will have to be developed. Technically, the development of web applications for mobile platforms is well understood, but unfortunately, little skills are available in the developing countries. Training programs need to be started. Finally, the business community needs to be involved. It is of extreme importance that the business community understands the potential of the Mobile Web and is willing to invest in infrastructure and services.

The aim of the paper, according to the author, is to trigger discussions with experts in this area, in order to reach consensus on what should be the roadmap to eventually bridge the Digital Divide. This message is clear and should be read by the policy makers and telecom providers in the developing countries. We can only hope that they are willing to collaborate and create an infrastructure and regulatory framework that will boost these services.

Direct download of the paper – here

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