Where Walkie-talkies Dare

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What happens when a rural farmer needs to arrange transport to get his produce to market? Or a health care worker wants to check the availability of a drug in a nearby clinic? How about a trader who wants to find out the price of a commodity in a nearby store, or a person who needs to get in touch with a nearby family member in an emergency? Right now, in almost all cases, these people would either jump on a bike, run, send someone else to do it, not bother, or reach for their mobile phone.

When we think about rural telecommunication we almost always – by default – think of the mobile phone. And why shouldn't we? It feels like mobiles are everywhere, and they're highly regarded, not just among rural communities but also the international development community that sees them as the one tool with the best chance of closing the digital divide. So the focus on mobile technology continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, almost to the point where little other wireless technology is considered. If there isn't mobile coverage in an area, then little appears possible. WiMax is still a dream, so let's move on ...

When we think about appropriate technology much has to do with context, in particular that of the users. While mobile technology has the ability to connect remote villages to the outside world, does everything they do need national – or global – connectivity? I've been puzzling over this one for quite some time. In almost all of the examples above, the communication need is a local one, from one side of the village to another, from the outskirts of a village to a farm, or from one market to the next. You don't need a mobile to do that.

Take this example. Imagine, say, 75 percent of a rural community's communication needs were local, in other words among itself, and most of that community lived in, say, a 10- or 15-square-kilometer area. You could argue that a for-profit mobile network, likely powered by a diesel-driven tower, is an inappropriate and over-the-top technology solution. Other technologies already exist that could do the job, technologies that don't operate on a pay-per-use basis and don't need costly infrastructure to work.

Does such a technology exist? Well, yes. It's called the walkie-talkie.

Mobile phones and two-way radios have a lot more in common than you might think. In fact, mobiles are just glorified radios. It was the advent of the cellular system – which broke up larger geographical areas into smaller and more manageable 'cells' – which paved the way for the mobile technology adoption boom. All a mobile phone needs to function is to communicate with the nearest tower, which in turn connects with other cells and the wider network. Depending on the landscape and user density, a typical cell tower can cover an area of approximately 20 square kilometers, meaning a low power transmitter in the phone is enough to connect you to anyone anywhere in the world. Good news all round.

Walkie-talkies, however, don't need towers. They communicate between each other directly. Although this can drastically reduce their range, some of the better models are able to operate in an area not that much smaller than a single mobile cell. On top of that, you can pick up a used walkie-talkie for around the same price as a mobile phone, and once you own one there are no call costs. For a small village with no mobile network, and little chance of getting one any time soon, walkie-talkies might provide a perfectly usable communications network while villagers wait for the real thing to arrive. Maybe, in some cases, they would end up never needing the real thing?

Of course there are problems with this model. Depending on which devices you use, it can be difficult or almost impossible to direct a "call" to a specific single individual. Privacy is a huge challenge, too, and walkie-talkies generally have a battery life of a day or less. But with a little imagination I think this could work. Right now, a trader's cooperative in a rural village could easily equip itself with walkie-talkies and exchange information on commodity prices, produce availability and storm forecasts. Health care workers covering the village and nearby area could use them to communicate and technically coordinate a health care delivery network. And why not have Village Phone Operators (VPOs) with walkie-talkies rather than mobile phones, who can sell the use of their devices for a small fee, with a near 100 percent profit margin? Maybe this is a new model Grameen Phone could do something with?

Despite the meteoric rise of the mobile, large swathes of some of the more remote communities in the developing world remain disconnected – not just from us, but also from each other. While mobile technology may be the ultimate solution, many stand little chance of getting on the radar of the "mobile for development" community until a tower appears somewhere in their village. Exciting things definitely happen when towers appear, but waiting for years for one to come is unnecessary.

Appropriate technology is sometimes called intermediate technology. In this case, while communities wait for the arrival of the likes of Zain, MTN and Vodacom, the walkie-talkie could turn out to be the intermediate solution they've been waiting for.

(Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, and has spent the past 15 years working on projects in Africa. Recently, his research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, a field communication system designed to empower grassroots nonprofit organizations. Ken graduated from Sussex University with honors in social anthropology with development studies and is working on a number of mobile projects funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Ken was awarded a Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship in 2006 and named a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008. Further details of Ken's wider work are available on his Web site at www.kiwanja.net.)

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