On 11/12/2003, Cliff Missen wrote:

> You can still go into markets in much of the developing world and find
> someone whose business it is to write letters for others. (I like to
> harken back to old American Western movies where the farmer strides into
> the Western Union Telegraph station, hooks his thumbs under his overall
> straps, throws back his shoulders, and drawls, "I want to send me a
> message to Warshington...")
> Today, villager's messages are being delivered on paper to a Internet
> Cafe and then transcribed into email for delivery worldwide by someone
> who holds an email account. There may someday be a SERVICE that enhances
> this informal relationship to the point where a single "griot" can
> manage email accounts for hundreds of clients through a simple handheld
> device. It'll take a little tweaking of the current email and client
> software, but it's very possible.

Exactly. In fact, I am currently looking for a source of funding to
develop (with an expert technology source right here in India) precisely
such an application - voice mail to anyone anywhere, delivered over a
modern handheld based telecom system, using the Net's proven store and
forward paradigm. CDMA technology, recently deployed with an aggressive
and innovative approach, has begun to push the limits of deployment
already, with far many more connections in select rural areas in the
past few months than traditional telephony could achieve in fifty years.

My thesis for voice mail is something I emphasise again and again, the
situation on the ground is that peoples of old nations have hundreds of
living languages, only some of which are supported meaningfully by
written scripts. New technology or expanding the use of known technology
makes sense when such realities are incorporated or allowed for. I think
this applies to much of Africa and Asia. The idea of someone writing a
message for someone else is seductive (we have Rudyard Kipling's 'Kim'
as a classic literary example: as a young schoolboy, Kim uses an
itinerant roadside letter writer to send his postcards, and, BTW, you
will find such letter-writers sitting outside post offices everywhere in
India even today). We need to look beyond this system.

Thank you for the word 'griot', a fascinating concept, and very much
alive here in India, yet amazingly easy to diminish or destroy

On 11/13/2003, Don Richardson wrote:

> The telephone is the most basic unit of telecommunications service. The
> policies and programs implemented in support of rural telephony services
> are a critical part of the supporting environment for other rural ICT
> initiatives. In most cases rural connectivity can best piggyback on or
> leverage infrastructure that is primarily intended to support rural
> telephony. Among rural populations, voice communications will usually be
> the most immediately useful and easily accessible service (application).
> In addition, a great deal of evidence shows that telephone services are
> the primary source of revenue for rural telecommunication services.
> Without that revenue, operators would have no justification to extend
> their networks to rural areas, and these networks are critical for
> supporting other applications like the Internet. For example, many
> research studies on telecentres and phone shops that provide both
> Internet and telephone services conclude that voice communications (i.e.
> phone calls) provide the overwhelming majority of telecentre revenues.
> For these reasons, it is important to examine in detail the rural
> telephony policy and programmatic issues that form part of the operating
> environment for broader rural ICT/connectivity initiatives. Basic
> telephone services enable agricultural extension stakeholders to
> creatively integrate a wide variety of other ICT applications that would
> not otherwise be possible.

In India, the 'partyline' system, where one telephone operator handles
outward dialing for many users, thus saving on installation costs and
allowing many users to share a single telephone line has always been
'legal', yet the rules were framed in such a way as to prevent its

The reason is political: most likely to do with the inability of power
groups (even, and perhaps mainly, minor bureaucrats) to do anything that
brings about sweeping change. Formal submissions to regulatory bodies
over the past five or six years pulled out fiscal data to show how
impossible it is to deploy telecom in the rural areas of the country,
yet we have proven evidence today to show that the data was muddily
compiled. Towards the end of last year, a private audience with the
minister in charge gave him enough gumption to order the private
deployment of partyline telephone networks (but only for the rural poor,
not the urban poor). Although the largest telco here is still the
government owned provider, it will not lift a finger to extend its
networks with such services. The audience was not mine, I am only
reporting someone else's efforts, the Rural Telecom Foundation, which
had to invest serious bucks in getting the special cheap dial-less and
ring-less telephone instruments made.

Although on lists like this, we try to find new ways to make technology
work for social improvement, the reality is that at least 75% of the
reason that such projects are so hard to implement (outside of one-time
pilots), is that the status quo is amazingly hard to change. Maybe a
restatement of the golden rule: 80% of the effort is needed to persuade
the servants of the people to step aside, and only 20% to do the work.

The 'new technology' software and services project I refer to above will
enable large numbers of users to share voice lines, thus increasing the
economic viability of the system. Since the telephone operators are
themselves mobile, using wireless handhelds, there is no call for
cabling, so easy to damage or disrupt, and so intrusive. I have a proper
preliminary descriptive document available, should there be any interest
here in helping out.


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