Hello, hello... spotlight on how the poor use their phones

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By FN for APCNews

DHAKA, BANGLADESH, 11 July 2006

What kinds of phone connections do the poor use? How much do they spend on telecom services? Are they willing to spend more? How do they choose their phone connection? What do they use phones for? And, what difficulties do they face while doing so?

Many questions here... but the hints of possible answers come up in a South Asian study that looks at telecom users in India and Sri Lanka who have monthly incomes of less than USD$ 100.

Conducted by LIRNEasia - www.lirneasia.net - or the Learning Initiatives on Reforms for Network Economies, the survey is being called a "path-breaking" one.

Some 3199 persons were included in the total sample, and it covered telecom users in seven diverse districts of India and four in Sri Lanka.

This study's findings were released and made available at the APC regional consultation on ICT policy in South Asia, in April 2006.

Some interesting findings

* More than half of the respondents do not even own the phone that they use.

* 31% of fixed owners and 7% of mobile owners allow other people - other than family - to use their phones.

* 'Keeping in touch' with friends and family locally was the biggest use of telephones.

* Sixty four per cent of mobile users spend at least USD$ 4 per month on mobile communications.

* One-third of mobile users in Jaffna, the town in northern Sri Lanka, spend over 12 per cent of their monthly income on telecommunications.

* Women spend equally as long on the phone as men, and use the phone for the same purposes.

* Twenty two per cent of Sri Lankan respondents with monthly incomes below USD$ 50 owned a mobile, though only three per cent owned a fixed phone.

* More than two-thirds of those studied do not take advantage of 'off-peak' rates.

* Less than ten per cent of mobile users that switch off phones do so to avoid incoming calls.

* Ten per cent of mobile users are using 'free' handsets, 33 per cent of Indian mobile users bought second-hand handsets.

* Fixed, mobile and public access are perceived to be more affordable by rural users as against urban users.

* Mobile is perceived to be more affordable amongst Indian respondents.

* Pre-paid mobile is used by 83 per cent of mobile owners in the sample.

Number one phone use: For staying in touch

"This is a pretty big study, as you can see from the number of names involved," says Ayesha Zainudeen, the UK-educated, Sri Lanka-based LIRNEasia researcher, and one of a team of eleven names credited for doing the study.

"It was a pilot. We hope to replicate it this year in six countries. Diverse locations were chosen to get a snapshot of the current situation - post-conflict Jaffna, Colombo, Badulle, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Dehradun, Kasargod in Southern India, Cuttack in the East, metro Mumbai, Kasargod, and Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu, in India," said Ms Zainudeen.

"We wanted to take a look at how the financially-constrained communicate. Everyone in these (financially-constrained) categories seem to use phones," she added.

"Out of all the people we approached, the number of people who had not used a phone at all in the last three months was less than 1% in Sri Lanka, and 12% in India," Zainudeen noted.

"It's pretty clear that everyone seems to be using phones. They are relying mostly on public access phones. Some 33% of Indians bought handsets second-hand. India being a younger mobile market than Sri Lanka," she added.

Phone use among this segment of the market was also very much focussed on convenience factors. Cost factors were not the primary reason for selecting a particular type of phone.

People were using phones for what the survey broadly classified as "relationship maintenance purposes".

This seemed to fly in the face of widely accepted views and anecdotes about people using phones for business transactions, checking prices. "That use was very low. Even in Jaffna where we know people use phones a lot to call up relatives who live overseas," she said.

"This is not to say the financially constrained are frivolous in their use. Maybe one phone call can't be pinned down to one particular purpose," Zainudeen added.

Representative study?

Speaking to APCNews, she said the study was conducted in April and May of 2005. "It's not exactly representative of India and Sri Lanka as countries, but the survey did cover very diverse areas," she added.

"Our idea behind the study was to capture the strategies the poor develop for using telephones. There's a lot of stories you hear, like the one about people using missed-calls to lower their phone bills. But we found that people were not very strategic in their use. They were making calls in peak hours," she added.

Zainudeen reasoned this was probably because of two factors - many users of telecom services do not own their phone, so they do not have the luxury of deciding when to make a call. This is also true of those receiving a phone.

"They have very little room to manipulate (and be strategic) about how they use the phone in India. We found a large number of people - 50% of our sample - still using the mobile phone as a fashion statement, probably because it's a younger mobile market," she added. This used to be the case too in Sri Lanka in the early nineteen nineties.

Sub-studies currently boiling

LIRNEasia said "several sub-studies" are currently being developed from the "vast dataset".

Some of these would look at gender patterns in the use of telecom, a case study of telecommunication use in the post-conflict society of Jaffna, emerging (SMS) and dying (telegram) services, price sensitivity, pre-paid mobiles, and 'strategies' in the use of telecom services.

LIRNEasia also released summaries of studies related to the Asian backbone. It looks at the "terms and conditions of access where they exist, and the consequences of their absence or exclusionary access regimes in South Asia".

Another study looks at Indonesia's Wi-Fi access innovation. Indonesia interestingly has more large-scale Wi-Fi deployed than most other 'developing' countries.

This study argues that where supply of network infrastructure - backbone and leased lines - is inadequate and high priced, Wi-Fi serves as the 'missing link' at substantially lower costs. And where the price of international bandwidth is prohibitively high, satellites are used (illegally) for international links.

Other LIRNEasia studies look at the low-cost subsidy auctions and the experience of expanding telecom in rural Nepal, an investigation of the replicability of a micro-finance approach to extending telecom access to marginal customers, India's universal service instruments, and even a benchmarking of the websites of the Asia-Pacific national regulatory authorities.

LIRNEasia sees itself as an organisation working "to improve the lives of the people of Asia by facilitating their use of information and communication technologies; by catalyzing the reform of the laws, policies and regulations to enable those uses; by building Asia-based human capacity through research, training, consulting and advocacy."

It argues: "Enormous amounts of money are invested annually in ICTs. The potential of information and communication technologies, or ICTs for economic and social progress is substantial. ICTs aren't necessarily the answer to higher incomes and development in itself; but together with other factors, they provide a means to improve people's capabilities and knowledge so that they may better their lives."

LIRNEasia's programmes over 2004-2005 have primarily been funded by IDRC [International Development Research Centre] of Canada, and also by infoDev, a World Bank unit that has partnered with LIRNE.NET since 2001 in the World Dialogue on Regulation for Network Economies.

LIRNEasia is a non-profit organisation incorporated under Sri Lankan law but intending to operate throughout Asia. It was officially launched on 17 September 2004 during the World Dialogue on Regulation's Expert Forum in Sri Lanka.

Email contacts: Ayesha Zainudeen, researcher, LIRNEasia

Zainudeen at lirne.net

Author: --- (FN for APCNews)
Contact: fn@apc.org
Source: APCNews
Date: 07/11/2006
Location: DHAKA, Bangladesh
Category: Development Resources

(END/2006)

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