Telecom: Nice to Have or Basic Necessity?

It's been a busy week for organizations like Telecoms Sans Frontiers (TSF). With two natural disasters in quick succession -- Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan earthquake in China -- they've once again sprung into action, deploying teams to these hard-hit areas with communications equipment at the ready.

When natural disasters strike, communications networks, often so vital to subsequent relief efforts, are highly vulnerable. True, in Burma there wasn't much mobile infrastructure for Cyclone Nargis to destroy, but in China -- a country with well over half a billion mobile phone users -- there's plenty, and at the earthquake's epicenter it literally collapsed under the strain (although, ironically, some of the landline infrastructure remained intact). Without the ability to communicate, essential field-based co-ordination is problematic, if not impossible. A hastily deployed communications network can save time, money and -- more importantly -- lives.

Events such as those in Burma and China drive home the importance of telecommunication in our connected world, but relief operations are not alone in feeling lost without it. Today, growing numbers of people in the developing world rely on telecommunications -- usually in the shape of a mobile phone -- for a wide range of daily activities. You just have to look around and ask. Few people want to remember life before their mobile, and for increasing numbers of children and young adults, they have never known life without one.

With increasing evidence that mobile technology helps improve economic opportunity -- not to mention more efficient access to health services, education, financial services and a general feeling of well-being and "connectedness" -- households in the developing world are going to increasing lengths to own and use mobile communication tools. Recent studies in Uganda show rural households using their limited budgets to purchase airtime instead of food. For some people this raises awkward and challenging questions, while for others it simply shows the importance that the poor place on their ability to communicate and transact.

At the height of the recent Kenyan post-election violence, the New York Times reported that "fuel, food and cellphone credit" were in short supply. Who would have thought, even just a few short years ago, that in a time of crisis cell-phone credit would be mentioned in the same sentence as 'essential' fuel and food items? In Uganda there may be no immediate humanitarian crisis, beyond the challenges people face on a daily basis and a president determined to cling to power, but here airtime is seen by many as an essential commodity, and seemingly one as more important than fuel wood and food in a growing number of cases.

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