Archive for the ‘Telecommunications ’ Category

Ingenuity Born of Necessity in Kenya

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Nairobi Skyline

“This is the future of African technology, and if you blink, you’ll miss it.”  ~Erik Hersman

On the ‘Silicon Savanna’

Last month in Nairobi, Kenya, a conference called Pivot25 connected 25 promising mobile app developers from East Africa with investors and venture capitalists. Events like this one, based on the Y Combinator model, give aspiring developers a rare chance to pitch their ideas for possible seed capital.

What’s intriguing about Pivot25 is the attention that it drew from outside the region. TIME Magazine ran a piece about the conference from the standpoint of Nairobi’s contribution to global technology. CNN’s Global Public Square covered the event, too. Why so much attention?

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Lessons From Emerging Markets

Sunday, December 19th, 2010


Turning the page

Another interesting year is rapidly winding down. This year, I had the chance to work with many gifted business and tech leaders, but it was particularly satisfying collaborating with innovators in developing regions — the Sub-Sahara, the Middle East and South Asia.

It’s time for Western multinational companies — especially those in the customer-facing sectors — to enter developing markets where consumer-led growth is robust but capital and resources are in short supply.

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Africa’s Latest Asian Wave

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

India’s top mobile carrier, Bharti Airtel, is bringing its ultra low-cost services to the sub-Sahara. Can it adapt its managed services model to penetrate  Africa’s under-served, low-income markets? What are the implications?

Out of the East

Asia’s growing influence in Africa is receiving worldwide attention. China’s investment in Africa will top $100 billion dollars this year making it the continent’s biggest trading partner. There are 800 Chinese companies with over 4 million Chinese people living and working there. China’s impact on Africa, as author Richard Dowden observed, is the biggest economic shift of the twenty-first century.

Now, the story of Asia’s push into Africa is being revised to highlight players from India. In June, Bharti Airtel, India’s largest mobile carrier – the 5th largest telecom in the world – bought Kuwait-based Zain’s operations in 16 African countries for $10.7 billion in cash.

Bharti has been eager to grab a piece of Africa’s growing mobile market for some time. In 2009, it tried to buy MTN, Africa’s largest carrier, but the deal failed due to regulatory roadblocks. Undeterred, Bharti pivoted quickly setting its sights on Zain.  By June, Bharti bagged its African trophy, though some analysts thought it paid too much for Zain’s assets.

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In Praise of Impalas

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

The swift and agile

A recent Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation study revived the term “gazelle companies” to describe the young, rapidly-growing U.S.firms that are producing the majority of new jobs in the U.S.  The report recommends that policy-makers nurture Gazelles to stimulate job growth at a time when unemployment is high.

I’m interested in another class of companies—agile, well-run firms in emerging regions like the sub-Sahara. Like their Western counterparts, they’re creating a disproportionate number of jobs. But these young African companies are playing a more crucial role than gazelles do in driving market growth.

To belabor the metaphor, I call them Impalas, after the lean, swift gazelles indigenous to Africa. Impalas provide technology-enabled and outsourcing services to a growing number of multinational (MNC) service providers – mobiles, airlines and banks – in Johannesburg, Accra, and Nairobi, etc.  They share many of the characteristics of gazelles, but there are some notable differences.

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Dispatch from West Africa

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

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Downtown Cape Coast, Ghana

Pulsating business scene

I spent the last couple weeks on assignment in Accra, Ghana. On this trip, I’ve seen more growth than any time since my company started working there in ’07. This is a period of unprecedented business activity and promising new projects within and beyond the mobile sector.  Meanwhile, new competitors from around the world are streaming in. This corner of Africa’s business scene is pulsating.

Astute businesses here are taking steps to preserve their client base and deepen relationships with their customers. We’re privileged to work with a new generation of African business leaders with the courage and determination to transform their offerings to meet the needs of an emerging class of consumers.

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A Distant, Quiet Mobile Revolution

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

sunset over cape point, south africa

Evening at Cape Point on the tip of South Africa

While the business world is preoccupied with the global economic recovery, a mobile revolution is quietly reshaping the marketplace in the developing world. In Africa, mobile phones are providing access to communications for millions of people who’ve never had fixed communications let alone cell phones. I’ve written before about the impact that such ‘leapfrogging’ is having on African business.  Now, we’re beginning to see exciting and substantial commercial projects taking shape, particularly in the service sector.

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Out of Africa, Help for Haiti

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

News from Port-au-Prince

It’s been a week since the Port-au-Prince earthquake and images streaming in are helping us to grasp the region’s boundless misery and desperation. Hundreds of thousands have perished, and despite our best efforts, more will die and suffer for myriad reasons including the inability to deliver relief where it’s needed.

Despite the gut-wrenching news, it’s heartening to learn that determined, inventive people are finding ways to alleviate the suffering and, in some cases, save lives.

One of the more interesting stories is about an open-source project called Ushahidi which takes its name from the Swahili word for “testimony”.  The software, developed during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, enables text messages to be mapped by time and location.  Anyone with an internet connection, regardless of the device they use to access it, can send a text message, an image or an email. Ushahidi can also store data offline for later synchronization.

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Mobile Growth Benefits Emerging Regions

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

emerging-regions

Today, there are more than 3.3 billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide, which means that there are at least three billion people who don’t own cell phones, the bulk… found in Africa and Asia.                                                                                                                                                                                                  –-Sara Corbett, author “Can the Cell Phone Help End Global Poverty?” (NYT)

I’ve been optimistic about the continued growth of mobile services in emerging regions, even through this downturn. If that happens, it’s good news for those who appreciate what connectivity is doing for new subscribers in the developing world. The nascent mobile sector is an enabling engine for other industries in the developing world notably health care, agriculture, banking, and goverment services.

We see continued growth in emerging markets where there are few fixed line communications, low mobile penetration rates, and the arrival of new, highly motivated operators. Look for continued double digit growth (CAGR). Revenue growth (ARPU) will likely lag subscriber growth as companies add more lower-income users. Despite a crowding market, prospects for for growth by incumbent and new operators remains strong so long as they manage their growth with an eye to the future.

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Celebrating Our African Adventure

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

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Ex Africa semper aliquid novi — Out of Africa always something new. ~Pliny the Elder

This week marks my company’s 3rd anniversary of working in Africa within our emerging markets service practice. Helping companies in the region to understand and serve the needs of their customers has been enriching on a personal level.  I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the growth of the sub-Sahara’s nascent service industry and I marvel at its favorable impact on a growing number of people in the region.

The ascendant mobile industry illustrates the point.  On a continent where few people have landlines due to the high cost of installing cabling, cell phones are bridging the communications gap. In many sub-Saharan markets, like Ghana where we work, mobile growth rates have been approaching 50% annually. While less than 20% have mobile phones now, hundreds of millions of Africans are expected to get handsets in the next few years. Keep in mind that this is a continent of almost a billion people. That’s a lot of potential new subscribers.

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“3b” Broadband on the Horizon

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

The satellite company, O3b Networks, has attracted investors at Google, HSBC Principle Investments and Liberty Global for its project to deliver cheaper, high-speed wireless Internet access to underserved regions of the world. The term, ‘O3b’, refers to the “other 3 billion,” or the large segment of the world’s population that can’t access the Internet because there is no fiber cable in their regions. 

03b, a Jersey Island (UK)-based company, announced that it is building 16 satellites that will enable lower-cost Internet accessibility over 3G and WiMax networks. These satellites will provide “trunking” or backhaul  coverage zone between +/- 40 degrees of latitude which blankets much of the world’s underserved regions including Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

Fiber cable and the labor for digging fiber trenches in underdeveloped countries is costly by any measure. Mobile operators face prohibitive costs in building transmission capacity between their networks and towers. Using satellites had been long been considered problematic due to their latency or the time it takes for a signal to travel between earth and satellites.

Today’s geosatellites orbit the earth at an altitude of 22,500 and their latency can exceed 600 milliseconds. By contrast, O3b plans to use MEO satellites which orbit the earth at 5,000 miles and can reduce latency to only 120 milliseconds—not that much more than a fiber network. 

O3b which expects to activate service by late 2010 intends to provide speeds of up to 10G bps (bits per second) to regions. The companies collectively invested about $65 million with the total cost estimated at $650 million.

This is good news for “3b” consumers, and probably a smart investment for Google which recognizes that the majority of the world isn’t currently using its services do to lack of access.  With their $10M investment, Google is getting in on the ground floor, so to speak.  Consider this another milestone in moving forward their Android initiative. 

Want more info?  Download this PRI (Public Radio) Podcast, Google to invest in internet start-up (4:30)

   

Ghana in the “R=G World”

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Having just returned from Ghana, I was keenly interested Roger Cohen’s NYT piece today. He says,

In my lifetime, conditions have grown immeasurably better, freer and more prosperous for a majority of humanity, yet hand-wringing about the miserable remains the reflex mode for most coverage of planet earth.

Nowhere more so than in Africa, from which I’d just returned when the e-mail landed. During a short stay in Ghana, which will hold free elections in December, Vodafone had bought a majority stake in Ghana Telecom for $900 million (entering a fiercely competitive mobile-phone market) and I’d heard much about 6 percent annual growth, spreading broadband and new high-end cacao ventures.

Accra, the capital, is buzzing. Russian hedge funds are investing. New construction abounds. Technology enables people in the capital to text money transfers via mobile phone to poor relatives in the bush.

I think most of Cohen’s points are well taken. He doesn’t mention the discovery of oil off Ghana’s coast and the country’s fiber projects or the investments being made by multinationals in the country’s business infrastructure.  The business climate in the region is improving, albeit in successive approximations.  The country’s services sector — chiefly teleco and financial services — are contributing to Ghana’s high annual growth rate.  Inflation is a growing concern, but so far it’s been manageable.  The process leading up to this December’s election should be interesting.  So far so good.

It’s also true that Africa’s success stories aren’t newsworthy to many news consumers.  We mostly hear about war, corruption, disease and rampant poverty.  On this point, I recommend Charlayne Hunter Gault’s New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance,” — it’s  chiefly about South Africa, but pertinent to the problem of media coverage across the continent.

If Ghana’s political environment remains stable and forward-looking, the country will be in a position to contribute even more of its stalwart intellectual capital to a “globalized” resource (R=G) community in the coming years.  So, even if the global media is fixated on the region’s challenges, the numbers will support a different story.  So look for Ghana and other gazelle nations of the sub-Sahara to lead the way.

More on Serving the BoP

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

wafricacrop

Here’s an interesting piece in Time (July 31, 2008), The Creative Capitalism Roundtable, featuring a conversation with Bill Gates, CK Prahalad and others sharing their views on creative capitalism and the Bottom of the Pyramid.  Their conversation led to a discussion of the telecom industry at the BoP:

 Stengel [Managing Editor – Time]: C.K., I know that Bill was influenced by, by your work, and one of the questions I have, and I guess it’s a question both about creative capitalism and how you see it, is that, when it comes to cell phones for Kenyan farmers for example, isn’t this just good old fashion capitalism in the sense that it’s a recognition of a market that people hadn’t figured out how to profit from, and now, and now they are.

Prahalad: I think it is, but there’s a twist to it, and I think it’s an important twist. If you look at traditionally how we have looked at all this product and services especially high-tech products like cell phones, we would never have gone to the poor. But, I think that growth opportunity is there, as the cell phones have demonstrated. Also, it is changing the asymmetry of information, be it the farmer, who can now get prices, weather conditions, or someone who can make small transactions with SMS messaging, suddenly the asymmetry of information which is the essence of poverty — that is why people are poor, they don’t have access to information — that is changing very, very dramatically. What is happening in the cell phone industry, three billion people are connected for the first time in human history, I think it will be four billion soon. That I think gives me tremendous confidence that we can really take Bill’s idea and see it through to its logical conclusion, which, for me, is how to democratize commerce.

Food for thought…

No Magic Bullet for Emerging Markets

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

My trip to W. Africa is winding down. What an interesting time to be in the region–multinationals are quickly entering the red hot telecom field–the last growth frontier in the industry.  These new players are looking to hit the ground running. One thing is certain: consumers here will be exposed to a broad array of new services and enticements. Consumer demands will grow–radically–and power will shift to the consumer as it has in more other hypercompetitive markets.

How should businesses respond? We see exciting opportunities for companies to leapfrog the traditional approaches that firms in developed markets have struggled with in the past.  Firms that make the most of their business intelligence and continually seek out new ways to gain new insights about their performance and their customers should have the upper hand.

There’s no magic bullet. Ultimately, it boils down to getting the fundamentals right. Simplicity and agility are critical.  But companies that tighten up their business processes and align their people around a clear, customer-focused strategy can gain a serious competitive advantage.

Aspen ’08 Ideas

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

Last week’s ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL once again brought together some very impressive participants and the presenters’ videos have been posted.  For those not familiar with the annual festival, here’s a blurb from the organizers:

Imagine some of the most inspired and provocative writers, artists, scientists, business people, teachers and leaders – drawn from myriad fields, from across the country and from around the world – all gathered in a single place, ready to teach, speak, lead, question and answer – all interacting with an audience of thoughtful people, who have stepped back from their day-to-day routines to delve deeply into a world of ideas, thought and discussion.

I haven’t had a chance to sample many of the video clips yet. But one of the more enjoyable so far has been Walt Mossberg’s entertaining talk on The Future of the Internet and the Rise of the Cell Phone.  Among other things, he suggests the interesting, broader implications of the device “formerly known as the cell phone,” (aka smart phone).

Want more?  Visit Mossberg’s and partner, Kara Swisher’s informative site, AllThingsD

    

Africa’s Innovation Hothouse

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Africa is leading the world in annual growth among mobile users. In markets where we’re working, penetration is still under 35% while annual growth has been over 50%.  In a continent of 800+ million potential mobile users there are only about 80 million users today, making it one of the hottest global markets in any industry.  This breakneck growth is leading to some interesting developments…

To add some perspective, there is only about one landline per 33 people in Africa and that’s unlikely to change much given the high cost of installing fixed lines in the continent’s vast, remote regions. However, mobile networks are relatively easy to install and maintain.  Thus, mobile phones have become the primary communication channel throughout the sub-Sahara.

The large transnational telecoms, hungry for growth and finding saturation elsewhere, are quickly swooping in to the region hoping to grow their user bases.  Mobile operators are investing millions of dollars in  extending their coverage across the continent.  And as competition grows, they’re pouring millions more in to expand and fortify their networks.

This injection of capital is creating jobs and raising living standards in the region, and this is only the beginning.  It certainly feels like we’re at an inflection point and the socio-economic impact will be enormous.

But the African market poses some vexing challenges to operators. First, they’ll need to help the continent’s large base of very low income consumers to overcome the cost barrier of using mobile services.  Bottom line: these consumers who make under $2 a day need lower cost handsets.

Operators have been working with handset makers to produce units for as little as $15 USD. Refurbished handsets, recycled from other markets, are bringing prices down further.

Low income users are mainly interested in a phone’s basic functions—voice calls and SMS text messages—and little else. For them, battery life – especially in regions with unreliable electricity – is more important than ring tone options.

But, low income users are “leapfrogging” to mobile banking which I’ve mentioned previously.  Mobile phones are now being used in developing cash economies to pay for things or transfer money across distances. The implications of the rise of m-banking and other mobile-based services among low income users is enormous.

Meanwhile, mobile operators must also compete for higher income users. They’re rolling out and bundling higher end products like managed data services, Blackberry, WiMax, 3G and more – all of this while reinforcing their infrastructures and business processes to deliver higher service quality and reliability.

It gets even more interesting.  Most of the people who are gaining access to communications and the Internet via cell phones have no other way to access the web, unlike developed country where cell phones are used mainky for voice with Internet access being an occasional activity.

Reliance on mobile devices for Internet access means that content developers in Africa, like other emerging regions, see mobile devices not as a substitute for their desktop, but as a primary data platform.   We’re already seeing some promising examples of voice-data convergence aimed at this growing market. We may witness the first wide-scale convergence applications coming from Africa and other developing markets.

I’ve worked with some talented, dedicated people in the region’s telecom sector.  The speed with which they’re adaptaing to the market’s growth has been impressive.  They’re making strides in building their management capabilities and business processes to meet rising consumer demands.

It’s an exciting time to be working in this market. I can’t think of a more interesting, fertile business environment today than Africa’s nascent telecom sector.  It’s a veritable hothouse for business innovation on so many levels.

Virgin Connect Invades Russia

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group has announced it will team up with Swiss telecom Trivon to launch Virgin Connect in Russia. Virgin Connect will deliver services over a WiMAX network that covers 32 regions throughout Russia. The venture will offer broadband, voice and other services.

Branson said, “I am delighted to announce Virgin’s first business in Russia – Virgin Connect. We have entered Russia with Virgin Connect because we believe the potential for growth in the Russian broadband market is extremely exciting. Virgin‘s fundamental business principle is: ‘Delivering an outstanding customer experience’.”  He added, “We will provide a fresh and human customer experience to Russians and believe that Trivon is the ideal partner to deliver this. Virgin Connect plans to gain a market share of 10% within 5 years in this promising market”.

Trivon, founded in ’04, has bought up several Russian communications operators. They grabbed up the 5.7-5.9GHz spectrum licence across Russia and also acquired a 5.9-6.4GHz spectrum in some regions to set the stage.

It’s a shrewd move. The venture wants to exploit a fragmented, underserved market which only has a 5% broadband penetration rate.  The Russian market still suffers from the legacy practices of their monopolistic, post-Soviet era culture.

The company didn’t provide details about its service model yet but judging by the Virgin Group’s progressive approach to consumer services in other verticals, they could reshape the services industry in a region that lags far behind the rest of the developing world.  I’m betting on Virgin’s succeeding and, in any case, this should be interesting.  Stay tuned…

Build a Better Smartphone

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Don’t miss today’s NYT piece on the showdown between the smartphone heavyweights –  R.I.M.’s Blackberry and Apple’s iPhone.  The battle is pitting competing models that evolved along two different paths, and each is scrutinizing the other as the market grows and stratefies.

Both field generals – Lazaridis vs. Jobs – are brilliant strategists, but each has a unique vision and problem solving style reflected by their respective organizations and their products.

R.I.M. has long appealed to business users who demand relentless connectivity; the company shaped the category due to its combination of functionality, stability and security.  Those features were enough to give R.I.M. a critical mass of market share which has grown incrementally.

Then came the iPhone with its silky touchscreen and utter seamlessness.  It was a category killer from Day One. I’ve never met a user who wasn’t enthralled.  The user experience is the message.

What’s next is their battle for the hearts and minds of business users in the rarified 3G space.  Both companies will likely co-opt the best features of the other.  (Look for R.I.M. to come up with a niftier interface while upgrading its functionality and security in the 3G world.)

This battle couldn’t be more fascinating. I’m betting – and this is a very safe bet – that the real winner will be the consumer.

Decoupling Emerging Markets

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

There is a lot of confusion about emerging market economies (EMEs) and the economic notion of “decoupling”.

First off, the term ‘emerging markets’ was coined in the ’80s to describe rapidly growing economies with low-to-middle per capita income. They comprise over 80% of the world’s population, representing about 20% of the world’s economies.

Countries that fall under this umbrella are incredibly diverse ranging in size from (Singapore) to massive (China and India). They’re growing at varying speeds—merely “quick” (South Africa, Mexico and Chile) to “breakneck” (China, India, and the Gulf states).  And, their fortunes are linked to those of developed economies. In fact, many economists hold that when the United States sneezes, the EMEs catch pneumonia.

Or do they? Not so much, say advocates of the “decoupling,” the notion that emerging markets are broadening and deepening to the point where they no longer depend on the mature markets for their growth.  Decoupling accounts for emerging market stocks’ overperformance these last few years.  But is decoupling really happening?

Last May, Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg, told the NYT’s Daniel Gross, “I find it hard to believe that the rest of the world is going to be immune to a consumer sector that’s primarily responsible for pulling in nearly $2 trillion of the world’s output.”  His take was, “Before we can say there’s a decoupling, we have to wait for a sneeze—all we’ve had is a runny nose.”

The U.S. economy sneezed (sub-prime mortgage crisis) and coughed (credit crisis). The U.S. economy is sounding more bronchial by the day.

Mr. Rosenberg, and his cohorts may have been vindicated. In January EME stocks were rocked. And, they failed to get much relief from the medicine–$145 billion stimulus package. Hong Kong’s main index dropped 5.5% — its biggest loss since Sept. 11, 2001—while India’s fell by 7.4%. Even Brazilian stocks — darlings of the EME — dropped 6.6%.

There is some degree of decoupling. While certain markets—mature and developing—are susceptible to certain market forces other markets simply aren’t because today there are lots more variables at play.  The global economy is growing up rapidly and relationships among markets are becoming more complicated.

This increasing complexity is due to the fact that resources no longer flow exclusively from mature markets to emerging regions as they had in the past. For example, both the GCC’s and Africa’s mineral resources are being hungrily devoured by China to the benefit of all three economies. This is conferring a protective effect on them which wasn’t possible in prior cycles.  Flows of knowledge and capital are becoming omni-directional and multifaceted.

So?  It’s a classic “good news, bad news” story for mature economies, like the U.S. and EU. The good news: healthier, emerging markets can continue to buy products from mature economies like U.S. and Europe, hastening their recovery.  But the bad news: the price of oil will likely remain higher, longer — despite the reduced demand for oil among mature economies.

And, let’s consider the implications for Western product-service providers who see opportunities for delivering services to some of these EMEs.

Alchemy & Emerging Markets

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Many of the leaders of global business convened at Davos this week in their annual summit to discuss the state of the world economy.  Like last year, the ’08 conference paid lots of attention to ventures that are reducing the misery in the poorest parts of the developing world.

Bill Gates advocated, as he has in the past, for a market-based (“creative capitalism”) model in which enterprises in the developed world contribute to fighting poverty.

Creative capitalism harnesses the profit motive among companies in developed markets to meet the business needs of a largely neglected market that’s growing at a faster rate than the developed world.  This model has been frequently stressed among world leaders, particularly since C.K. Prahalad’s seminal book (’04) The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.  The U. of Michigan scholar makes a convincing case for focusing on emerging markets that, in the aggregate, will rival the size of the developed world.

A self-described “impatient optimist,” Gates is keen on these markets, citing successful projects in several industries—in food, technology, cell phones—that are opening the door for other ventures. And he argues that self-interest among companies meeting needs will drive new forms of innovation.  And, he credits Microsoft’s billions in contributions over the years for successfully bridging the digital divide.

This story has gone unheralded because results have come in slowly.  But the success stories are mounting. In a few months China will surpass the U.S. as the country with the largest number of internet users. It already has the same number of mobile-phone users (500m) as all of Europe.

In Mumbai half the residents now have mobile- or fixed-telephone subscriptions and the number is growing by 8 million monthly.  The growth potential for the telecommunications market throughout the developing world is enormous.

Gains aren’t only evident in the CTI services sector. India’s Tata Motors recently unveiled the world’s cheapest car equivalent of $2,500 aimed at low income consumers currently using motorbikes. Meanwhile, in Africa, people who live in rural villages are using mobile phones to pay bills or to check food prices and find the best market for their wares.

Despite the high-profile successes and the long tem market promise , Western companies don’t often make their margins offering services to developing economies.  Profits are too meager to entice most companies to invest in this space.  Barriers – political, cultural and beaurocratic – are high.

To succeed in this kind of environment, businesses will need a new organizational model enabling distributed collaboration to be far more efficient and effective. Such a model, will rely on peer-based, bottom-up decision making.  The new model will be enabled if not sparked by technology that enables collaborative efforts over vast distances.

This could result in a kind of business alchemy.  The new business model will probably emerge in successive approximations —through trial and error.  Two steps forward, and one step back.

Techno trend roundup…

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

Google released its annual year-end list of its most popular queries, suggesting the latest trends. No surprises this year. The fastest rising query in ‘07 was ‘iPhone,’ an impressive techno-business phenomenon. Its meteoric sales in Europe this past week prove that the iPhone is a truly global phenomenon.

But, with all the hoopla about how the iPhone is revolutionizing the marketplace, we’re missing another interesting – if less sexy – mobile trend: the rapid acceleration of cell phone penetration in emerging markets and its impact on the global marketplace.

Mobile phone penetration in developing regions is staggering. And, it’s a key contributor to economic growth. Studies show that every 10 percent increase in mobile penetration results in a country’s GDP growth of 0.6 percent.

The growth of mobile teleco penetration affects global poverty, and the way people in emerging regions consume a growing range of services from prepaid phone cards to banking services.  Micro economies in rural villages are developing around those who buy and sell prepaid vouchers. People are using cell phones to enable their nascent businesses to flourish. Some of these micro-enterprises are growing – rapidly.

Until recently, network coverage in emerging regions focused on large cities as well as in major tourist areas. But operators are realizing the sheer economics of extending their networks to rural areas, particularly in regions without fixed line infrastructures. In order to do this, base stations are being built at a record pace. It’s a major undertaking, with financial costs to match.  But the ROI is massive.

Looking back at the past year and looking ahead, here are the hot, new trends facing teleco operators in emerging markets:

1. Infrastructure sharing: operators using the same base station sites and transmission equipment reducing network infrastructure costs.
2. Consolidation of carriers.
3. Investment is coming from unlikely sources such as private equity firms.
4. 3G leapfrogging in emerging markets. (Operators in Qatar and Saudi Arabia have begun to offer 3G services, as did South Africa.)
5. WiMAX is emerging as a platform alternative for introducing new mobile services over vast expanses.
6. Deregulation in Middle East markets is enabling greater competition and better service/pricing. GCC nations, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, as well as Lebanon are awarding new licenses for carriers.  Consumers are benefiting from better service.
7. Regional call-centers will be used to help convert prepaid customers to higher-revenue, lower-churn post-paid accounts.
8. Celtel’s Pan-African roaming network will enable people across geographic borders to connect without having to pay for incoming calls.

I’m not knocking the iPhone as the tech-business story of the year. Apple’s success will change the shape of things to come in the coming year and beyond. The iPhone has earned a special place in the zeitgeist of commerce.  But, consider the under-reported story of mobile penetration in emerging regions, and fathom the scope and scale of what’s on the horizon.