On a recent trip to Shenzhen, China, a group of MIT students discovered that you can buy a cell phone there for as little as $10. While the cost of mobile phones has continued to decrease over time, the fact that you can buy a gadget that can make phone calls and send text messages (and has a working battery) for that price is pretty astonishing. The head of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito, reckons that these are likely the world’s cheapest phones.
A $10 price tag means that virtually anyone in the world can afford a mobile phone. Moreover, in parts of the world where basic phones are still more predominant than the “smart” variety gaining steam in the developed world, local infrastructure makes these gadgets more powerful than even smartphones in rich countries.
In Kenya, more than 30 percent of its GDP is fueled by M-Pesa, a mobile payments system that operates via text message. (See a video about M-Pesa here.) Though they may make life easier, smartphones in developed countries have not yet become anywhere near as important to driving economic growth.
Despite the rapid proliferation of smartphones in many countries, basic mobile phones still account for the majority of those used around the world. And given the tremendous economic possibilities for mobile payment systems to create economic growth, perhaps the most basic, cheapest cell phone might make it the world’s most useful.
Phi Beta Iota: The telecommunications companies — including Virgin — have refused to focus on the future and keep trying to sustain the legacy model that is neither affordable by the five billion poor, nor sustainable as a model for global persistent communications and Internet access.