Sunday, November 6, 2011

Interesting use of ICT in Rwanda

As you may know, I now live in Rwanda since September 1st, 2011. I'd like to share with you some simple applications of information and communication technology I experienced or saw since I'm here.

In this first posting on that subject, I'd like to describe the experience of acquiring and using a mobile phone in Rwanda and probably in most of Africa.

But before speaking about Rwanda, let's go through the experience of buying a mobile phone back home in the US. By the way in the US they call it cellular phone not mobile. Cellular is a name based on technology. "A cellular network is a radio network distributed over land areas called cells, each served by at least one fixed-location transceiver known as a cell site" - wikipedia, while mobile rather describes a major advantage of the phone for the user. From a marketing point of view therefore mobile is a better name.

So if you want to buy a mobile phone in the US, you need to provide a picture ID. They will then record all your information in their system (and you hope it is safe). Next they will ask you for a credit card and perform a credit check on you. If you pass all these tests, they will then ask you to sign a contract committing for 2 years with a penalty if you cancel before that date. So now that they hold you prisoner, they inform you about the cost which you have to pay every month. They will offer you many options depending on how many minutes you think you will need. At the end of the month, you'll pay the price even if you did not use all your minutes, but if you exceeded the limit of minutes allocated, you'll pay an expensive price per exceeded minute. By the way this is only to use your phone in the US. If you want to use it abroad, you need another more expensive contract. And I forgot, if you want to send SMS you also need an addition to your contract with obviously an additional cost. Then you need to buy your phone, and they need to activate it. By the time all this is done you probably spent one hour in that shop.

In Rwanda, if you want to buy a mobile, you go to the shop. You select the phone you want. In my case I bought a simple Nokia phone. They offer you the choice between different phone numbers, you select one and they install the corresponding SIM card in the phone. They then activate the card and you are up and running. Total time: 5 minutes, total cost $23. The card is preloaded with enough units for a couple of days. I did not need to provide any ID or credit check. As soon as I was out of the shop, I was able to call my daughter back in the US with that mobile. And I was also able to send and receive SMS!!!

You only pay for what you use by loading units in your phone. You can buy units from young sellers at any street corner. You buy a card, let say for RWF5,000 (USD8.30), you scratch the code on the card, enter it in your mobile, and the units are added automatically to your phone. With RWF 5,000 I usually last two-three weeks. That money on my phone is actually mobile money. I can use it to pay for other services. For example, I bought an internet USB modem. I can charge my units to that modem from my mobile when I need to use it.

You may wonder why such a difference. While I did not really investigate this, I'll share what I think. In the US, mobile phone companies came out of traditional Telco companies renting land lines, i.e. fixed phone lines to your house to connect a fixed phone. So obviously, they needed to know your address and name to ensure that you ownd the house where they were going to dig a hole to connect the phone cable. They need upfront payment to pay for this labor and for the material. When they offered mobile phones, they did not see the need to fundamentaly change their billing system. In Africa, they were no landline phones or very little. Mobile company came to the market and wanted fast penetration. They offered an easy process to acquire a mobile phone.

That's it for now, next I'll talk about SMS based services.

Seeya later alligator


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