As the world has struggled through the global financial turmoil of the past years, the beginnings of a new wireless economy quietly took root among many developing nations. This new economy isn't based on recently discovered natural resources or cheap labor. It's based on the idea that mobile communication has the unprecedented ability to unlock opportunity -- even among the most poor and most isolated.
This emerging economy is one that is powered by micro-entrepreneurs who use a single mobile phone to connect their villages in Indonesia to the world or who, by using a wireless financial transaction network, enable instantaneous and secure financial transactions in Kenya. It's an economy powered by widespread mobile communications that has the ability to knock down geographic and economic barriers in ways that were unthinkable just ten years ago.
Recently, Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, said that wireless communication is a breakthrough technology that is a key to solving the worst problems associated with health care, poverty and access to education.
"Now in every village where I go, someone's got a cell phone, somebody can make an emergency call, someone can find out the price on the market, someone can start a business empowered by the fact that they can reach a customer or a supplier, someone can drive a taxi or a truck for that reason as well. Everything is changing," said Sachs.
The impact of this change has been particularly galvanizing for women around the world -- improving opportunity and economic independence. A study by The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women found that mobile phones boost female literacy in rural Pakistan where reading materials are often scarce, give women an unprecedented opportunity to open and manage businesses in male dominated societies like Saudi Arabia and can allow women to play a critical role in agriculture in places like Uganda because mobile phones can now be used to relay information about local, regional and global market conditions.
In Indonesia, Qualcomm, in a joint project with Grameen Foundation, has provided a range of mobile phone-based services to individuals. This project facilitates the creation of businesses for those living at the bottom of the economic pyramid and, at the same time, extends telecommunication access to people who cannot afford a mobile phone. These entrepreneurs sell minutes to other villagers as well as other applications and services which further increase their incomes. So far, the program has 15,000 entrepreneurs of whom over 80 percent are women.
Today there are over six billion mobile connections in the world and more than ninety percent of the world's population lives within reach of a wireless network. This, combined with faster wireless networks and ready access to smart devices, is breaking down the barriers to geographic and economic isolation. More and more of the world's population is gaining access to the same kind of computing power and connectivity that has transformed daily life for developed nations.
And what are people in this emerging wireless economy doing with this access? They are doing amazing things.
In China, wireless technology is improving the lives of cardiac patients using mobile phones that allow doctors to remotely monitor their condition. In Jordan, students who never had access to computers now have tablets that link them to the Internet for the first time. And perhaps most importantly, this wirelessly enabled economy is giving poor and disadvantaged individuals the tools to help themselves. The benefits that are being reaped are not the result of some massive shipment of aid. Wireless technology is creating entrepreneurship on a small scale that allows a single woman to set up a business in a small village or a single farmer or fisherman to access and disseminate market information in order to get the best price for their products.
Qualcomm has seen firsthand the transformative power of mobile technology as part of many projects created through its Wireless Reach initiative -- programs around the world that help educators, health care workers and entrepreneurs take advantage of mobile technology. These programs affirm Jeffrey Sachs claim that "the cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development."
What Sachs and others have discovered is that the cell phone is a pocket-sized empowerment tool that can connect even the most remote villager to the world. We are just beginning to realize the potential for wireless technology to extend the reach of opportunity to economically and geographically isolated people around the world. Nevertheless, it is already clear that mobile technology will be one of the most influential agents for economic change.