Our Story of Mobile Telecommunications

By Purbita Bhakta

It often seems as if the trajectory of CKS’ work has closely followed the trajectory of the mobile telecommunications industry, so this week we want to focus a little more on the industry beginning with a quick review of related work we have done so far. Since its inception in 2002, CKS has undertaken several projects in the telecommunication industry, for an array of clients encompassing both manufacturers such as Nokia and Sony, network providers such as Vodafone and Telenor, as well as consulting practices such as LIRNEasia and the Institute for the Future. All the projects have had a user centered approach, some dealing with the development of new concepts for accessories and mobile based services, some focusing on the impact of telecommunications on bottom of the pyramid populations, and some focusing on enhancing user experience of existing mobile products and services.

One of the earliest projects that CKS worked on for Nokia, in 2004, focused on the viability of Short Audio Message (SAM) and Push to Talk Over Cellular (POC) among non-elite or lower middle class users. In order to do this, the project examined existing but limited uses of advanced features and services on mobile phones among the user group. In this group mobile telephony was perceived as an extension of the self, space and time enabling wide reaching communication. Social features such as networking, efficiency and safety were key motivators for ownership of a mobile and many of these features could be determined as benefit ladders enabling stronger branding for Nokia. Although POC fared better than SAM, especially for enterprise level applications, both SAM and POC were seen as best applicable multi-modally, alongside images, sound and locational metadata.

Continuously looking at enhancing mobility, Nokia commissioned CKS to redesign one of the chief accessories of a mobile phone – the battery charger. Our research for the Nokia Charger Project (2005) described the conventional and alternative sources of energy in rural, peri-urban and urban areas while learning more about the factors that determine a satisfied charging experience with reduced time and effort. The factors examined were as diverse as access to electricity, distribution of sockets across households and reliable battery performance. As assimilated by feedback, a solar powered battery was clearly most preferred by subjects followed by charger-in phone idea. Since then, Nokia, Samsung as well as LG have launched solar powered handsets, each failing for a combination of several reasons, some technological, and some user driven. A year ago when we were conducting research on mobile usage in remote areas of Bihar, we found examples of mobile adopters walking up to 2 kilometers to find a charging point, an indication that the problems with charging haven’t been solved, but that they don’t offer a severe barrier to the adoption of mobile phones.

With a 7.5% economic growth in 2004-5, amidst increasing urbanization and consequent social changes, the telecommunications industry came to recognize its own untapped potential and thus the need for extensive marketing was felt across urban and rural settlements. Mapping Consumer Trends of Indian Users (2005) was commissioned by Nokia again, with this perspective. Through the project, we identified the space of mobile usage amidst changing trends. As a way of suggesting marketing techniques for mobile handsets, we looked at changes in gender dynamics, nuclearization of extended kins, increase in youth population, mobile phone usage including more than voice services such as entertainment, information and cultural fusion services. This project was perhaps the first in a series that look at the future of mobile expansion and impact, and as the urban subscriber base was fast reaching saturation, the focus on rural settlements, slated to provide the next 2 billion consumers increased drastically. Through expert advice from government agencies and civil society specialists, it was identified that mobile industry has lacked the time and resources to completely understand the larger impact it is already having on the society, and that it needs a different approach to cater to the needs of rural markets. The Mobile Development Report (2006), initiated by CKS in 2006, aimed to determine the developmental use of mobile phones and how that could transform communication and social practices along with livelihoods. Through research conducted in rural and peri-urban areas of the country, and a look into profit and loss sheets of adopters of mobile phones, CKS created case studies, which lead to the identification of seven sectors of impact, namely finance services, micro-commerce, transportation services, education, health care services, governance and infotainment.

In addition to identifying broad sector of impact, it was also necessary to develop targeted products and services for particular consumer basis in India. ‘Communication Practices in Indian SME’s’ (2007)looked into the communication practices in the prevalent three million SME’s in India. Sample studies were carried out and six different types of enterprises were identified. Case studies for each of the enterprise categories were created, capturing their business profile and rationale, work process, supply chains, accounting practices and similar activities. Through this it was observed that many SME’s have tried and failed to incorporate PC’s and mobile technology into their business processes. Any strategy to enable mobility in SME’s must address to both personal choice and business mandate.

Micro-entrepreneurs as a consumer category continue to present strong potential for mobile based services. As we write this post, we have a field teams in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Patna, India, researching micro-entrepreneurs in the BoP segment, and their interactions with service providers in telecommunications, electricity and government business registrations. The project is part of a long standing relationship between CKS and LIRNEasia, a regional ICT policy think tank based out of Colombo, working in Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. CKS first began its work with LIRNEasia in 2009, for the Teleuse@BoP3 study aiming to identify solutions to commonly faced challenges owing to lack of information, remoteness, and infrastructure and also the volume of information sought by each consumer segment. Teleuse@BOP 4, initiated after a couple of years, in 2012, concentrated on livelihood related usage of BOP population with a special focus on those employed in agriculture. Both studies validated the growing mobile penetration as well as its impact on productivity among BoP populations. The current project, Improving Service Delivery for Urban Micro-Entrepreneurs through E-Inclusion, is hoping to learn from the impacts of mobile telecommunications, especially with respect to its service delivery, and translate those learnings into service delivery elements for electricity and government business registration.

The importance of service delivery in a range of sectors, and the tremendous scope that mobile telecommunications can play in it was also the focus of a recent report,The Future of Mobile Services in Rural Emerging Economies (2012),commissioned by Vodafone. It was envisaged that sectors such as finance, health, agriculture, utilities, education and governance will greatly benefit from telecommunications, especially in remote areas of India and Ghana. The report outlines mobile enabled service concepts that address a range ofcross-sectoral as well as sector specific challenges, including record keeping, tracking, employment, advertising, information and training. Perhaps the most important change in the potential for impact identified in the Mobile Development Report, and the Future of Mobile Services in Rural Emerging Economies, is with the introduction of mobile data services, often seen as the biggest game changer today.

In looking back at this sample of work we have undertaken in the telecommunications industry, we recognize that earlier projects of CKS focused largely on basic usability, accessories and features that would perfect the product and make it accessible to all the segments of the society.Today we no longer look at mobile devices as a tool limited to communication, but one for information and transaction that have the potential to not only accelerate social development and service delivery, but also provide new business opportunities for the industry, once challenges of monetization are overcome, a journey that CKS is excited to take along with industry.

More telecommunications work by CKS can be found below.

Rural Marketing Practices for Telecom Services
Socio-Economic impact of Affordable Handsets
Mobile Enabled Learning
Mobile Health Card

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