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    Phones outnumber radios among South Asia's poor

    Penang (IANS): Phones are catching up with TVs, and the number of phones being used by 'bottom of the pyramid' households have already outpaced the number of radios and computers in South Asia, researchers have said.

    LIRNEasia, a Sri Lanka-based Asia-Pacific information and communication technology (ICT) policy and regulation capacity-building organisation, said in India a hundred bottom of the pyramid (BOP) households now had 50 TVs, 38 phones, 28 radios and one computer.

    Radio has been displaced from its No.2 position after television in India. In India, and also Pakistan and Bangladesh, at the bottom of the pyramid, the mobile is more prevalent than the radio.

    Respective prevalence of TV, phone, radio and computer in South Asia and around is as follows: Bangladesh (52, 41, 13, 0); Pakistan (68, 39, 24, 3); India (50, 38, 28, 1); Sri Lanka (80, 64, 77, 4); the Philippines (63, 50, 52, 1); and Thailand (75, 70, 64, 12).

    "A mobile gives you information when you want it, where you want it. It's with you. Common use PCs are in common use facilities that have opening and closing efforts. You have to make the effort to go to it," Rohan Samarajiva, Chair & CEO of LIRNEasia, told IANS here.

    "The mobile is becoming absolutely the predominant mode by which people at the bottom of the pyramid interact electronically," he said.

    "In 2006, we had data which said that the largest proportion of Indians at the bottom of the pyramid were using public phones. In 2008, the role of the public phone has been taken over by 'my own mobile'," he said.

    "However, that doesn't mean to say that the ubiquitous public phone in India is going away. Because, in our qualitative research, we found that Indian culture - where the public phone has been around long - now accomodates the public phone and has a special niche for it," he said.

    For instance, women who live in their husband's house find it more useful to have conversations with parents and siblings via the public phone. There's some privacy and separation in space, Mr. Samarajiva explained.

    On the other hand, a woman using a public phone in Pakistan or Bangladesh gets sneered at. But women in India were very clear that there's no pressure against them using public phones.

    Mr. Samarajiva pointed to the work done by Microsoft India on Warana Wired and Warana Unwired one of the earliest e-development projects providing information to farmers in Warananagar, Maharashtra.

    "They found this was a project which was about to collapse. Because the PCs were not in use, they were not being repaired, they were costly... Now they have developed a model called Warana Unwired, which is quite useful and at lower cost."

    This is now being replicated in Vietnam. "If you think about it, the farmer who wants to know the price of sugarcane is getting it while he's in his tractor. Definitely the mobile is superior in that way."

    Quality (of use of technology) cannot be judged by volume alone, argued Samarajiva. "One telephone call or two made by a Kerala fisherman to decide which fishing harbour and market place he should take his catch to could give a lot of productivity."

    Counting phone calls and saying productive phone calls are fewer in number than unproductive ones is bad research, argued Mr. Samarajiva. "A phone call saying, 'Take me to the hospital, I'm having a heart attack', is not the same as someone talking to his wife or girlfriend. Phone calls need to be judged qualitatively," he argued.

    "This time, in October 2008, we asked 'Do you use it for business purposes at least once a day?' The highest response we got was from Bangladesh, but even in India at the bottom of the pyramid, it's 70 per cent (usage). Sri Lanka is very regressive there."

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