Pipeline Publishing, Volume 7, Issue 5
This Month's Issue:
Wireless for Developing Markets
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Emerging Wireless in the Post-Promethean Age
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By Tim Young

In the saga of wireless communications growth, the age of Prometheus is drawing to a close.

For those of you who have lapsed in your study of ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan and the brother of Atlas, bearer of the heavens.

Most notably, it was Prometheus who stole fire from Zeus and brought it to mankind (and was brutally punished for this transgression… but that’s a topic for another day).

This gift fundamentally altered the way in which mortals conducted their daily lives. The light. The heat. The utility. The beauty. A post-Promethean world was enriched in countless ways, and all Prometheus had to do was deliver a simple technology.

And that’s the way wireless communications have worked in emerging markets for years and years. Build a tower, distribute prepaid handsets, and deliver low-ARPU voice service to subscribers thrilled to have any semblance of connectedness to the outside world.

The age of massive numbers of new subs is drawing to a close in much of the world.

number of wireless connections, according to Wireless Intelligence.

And it’s not just about raw numbers. Latin America has a penetration rate that analysts expect to reach 90% by the end of 2010, with Brazil closing in on 100% penetration.

Those are serious numbers.

When it comes to exploring the emerging wireless market, perhaps the most compelling frontier, geographically, would have to be Sub-

However, just as markets like Japan and North America matured, and penetration rates turned into saturation rates, so too has the communications market complicated in the developing world. For so long, massive growth rates have fueled the mobile expansion into emerging markets. Areas that lacked a proper communications infrastructure were numerous. Some were areas where harsh terrain prevented a conventional wireline infrastructure from being a practical goal. Other areas lacked the governmental stability or elite will to support such development. Still others saw network infrastructures laid during periods of colonial occupation, only to have later factions dig up the network itself, strip the wires, and sell the whole mess for its weight in scrap copper.

If there’s a more compelling image of the ins and outs of post-colonialism, I don’t know where you’d find it.

However, this age of massive numbers of new subs is drawing to a close in much of the world. A recent report by Wireless Intelligence notes that the world has a new second-largest mobile market, in terms of the number of regional wireless connections. While Asia-Pacific is still the undisputed leader in terms of its number of connections, the new number two is Latin America. It sports 530 million connections.

The former number two, Western Europe, actually saw a decline in the

Saharan Africa. In an era of increasing penetration, there is still a great deal of growth potential in much of the region. An analysis by Business Monitor International shows that even in the 22 larger, more developed markets in the region, mobile penetration is estimated at 55%. (By contrast, the European Commission reports that the EU had a 119% penetration rate in 2009.)

However, that’s only part of the picture. BMI notes that their analysis did not extend to the least developed markets in southern Africa, and that states such as Niger, Chad, and Malawi have much lower usage rates, bringing the continental saturation rate down to 30%.

Furthermore, as a recent story in Wired outlined, what wireless service does exist is being put to ever-greater use. In that story, a new model for using a mashup of Google Maps, cloud software, and SMS texts is being used to track inventory for medical clinics fighting Africa’s horrendous malaria epidemic. The program, sponsored by IBM, Novartis, and Vodafone, helped increase the ability of anti-malaria groups to ensure that a particular remote clinic was properly stocked by 300%. Hundreds and hundreds of lives are estimated to have been saved thanks to text messages and fairly simple software maintained thousands of miles from the clinics.

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