Iqbal Quadir would not expect profit-seekers to look to a poor country like Bangladesh, where the average person earns about $1 a day in income. But Quadir still sees opportunity. He is founder of GrameenPhone, which has worked with local entrepreneurs to build a cellular phone network and customer base in that Southeast Asian nation.
Quadir asserts that when considered collectively, populations in developing countries represent a valuable customer base, he says. Working in conjunction with micro-lender Grameen Bank, GrameenPhone enables citizens in Bangladesh to open their own small businesses, purchasing phones and reselling the use of those phones to others in their community. Last year, the company generated $44 million in net income, Quadir says.
Quadir was among a number of executives, academics, entrepreneurs and government officials who gathered at a summer conference at the United Nations in New York City to discuss how wireless technology could aid economic development around the globe and what were the challenges for making that happen. Among the issues they discussed:
Governments must welcome investment. Patrick Gelsinger, CTO of Intel, says that Wi-Fi, based on the 802.11 standard, is the cheapest and therefore best technology for bringing broadband wireless to developing nations. However, many of those countries are slow to open up their wireless spectrums to network operators. These governments should set aside spectrum bands with no end-user licensing requirements for wireless device use, as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has done, Gelsinger says.
It’s better to build smaller networks. David Jarvis, a representative of the South African Internet service provider UniNet Communications, says his company has found that large-scale commercial services rollouts are impractical. Services need to be offered in smaller chunks that make them easier to implement in developing nations.
Keep the focus on people and their problems. Paul Meyer, cofounder of Internet Project Kosovo, an Internet service provider that caters to humanitarian relief groups in that Balkans region, says that international development agencies need to focus not on exciting technologies like Wi-Fi but on solving problems.
“Technology companies are a lot better than international development agencies at building infrastructure,” he says. “Everyone here should think less about the networks and standards, and to think more about the problems people really have in the kinds of countries you’re talking about. Technology is one little building block as part of the solution.”