My other big 2009 project

Aside from my food book, the project that has consumed most of my mental bandwidth this year has been my special report on telecoms in emerging markets, which is published in The Economist today, and is on the cover everywhere except Britain. The accompanying cover article highlights what I think is the most exciting aspect of the report: the potential for mobile money to trigger a second wave of economic development in poor countries, as big as the one caused by the initial introduction of mobile phones. In addition to the cover leader and the 14-page report, there’s also an audio interview in which I summarise the main themes, and a videographic that picks out some of the figures about telecommunications technologies and their impact on development. Yup, it’s a multimedia extravaganza.

You have to fight your way through to the end of the report before you get to the inevitable telegraph reference; it’s actually in the last paragraph. My point: that the project to connect everyone on earth to a single communications network, which began with the invention of the telegraph in 1791, is on the verge of completion. Within a decade, it’s likely that everyone who wants a mobile phone will have one. The next step will be to make access to the internet just as universal.

Being able to write a special report like this is one of the best things about working at The Economist. We usually get five weeks off to do it, a generous travel budget, and 14 pages in which to lay out our arguments. (It’s also the only time we get a byline.) I took three weeks off to do this report — one was spent doing reporting in Uganda, and the other two were spent writing at home — but I’ve actually been researching it pretty intensively since the start of the year. It’s like doing a small book. And as with a book, it’s great to see it finally emerge into the world.

13 thoughts on “My other big 2009 project

  1. Hello sir, I really appreciated this report. I found it clear and easy to read. I’m working for the world’s No. 1 company in mobile entertainment called buongiorno. I wanted to know why special reports are easier to read, I think short articles tend to use very idiomatic or weird words and expressions. I am French myself, I enjoy reading this magazine a lot but it’s frustrating at times as the English level used tends to be OTT. Still I prefer The Economist to Time or Newsweek big time.


    1. I’m glad you liked my special report, and it’s very interesting to hear your perspective as a non-native English speaker. I wonder if we use more unusual words in short articles to save space — the long form of a special report, by contrast, allows us to write more naturally. But the editing may also have something to do with it. The woman who edits the special reports is German, so perhaps she smooths out the English particularly well.

  2. Dear Tom, thanks for your answer 🙂 It’s interesting to know how your magazine is made and edited. I read it every day online and sometime on print if I can afford it lol. And I make lot of progress in English like never before. My girlfriend calls me a nerd though. Sigh you can’t win them all. Keep the good work! Make me know when you get an new article published too. Thanks. Irnbru

  3. Tom: I liked your Edible History… very much. As a biologist, I am familiar with plant introductions and their effects, but your chapters on feeding armies, and on the development of the nitrogen-fixing process and synthetic fertilizers were my favorites, with information new to me.

    Also, if you have missed the following book, you need to read it: Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History, by Mary Kilbourne Matossian, Yale 1989.

    1. Glad you liked it — thanks. I have toyed with doing a world history (for my next book) through diseases. But I think I’m done with world histories. I feel like doing something much narrower, as I did for my first three books.

  4. Hi Tom,

    I have really enjoyed the series on developing countries and the society impact of telecom. I strongly believe that this will be a turnaround for many countries and then we have not calculated the fact that Internet access probably adds more society value then voice and this will be a possibility to come. The aspect I feel is missing from todays discussion on this topic is the fact that in many many developed countries we are still at a broadband usage of less then 60% and growth rate has declined…and yet many governments and industry influencers still see fiber build out as the one and only way to solve this broadband growth although the business rationale isnt there. If Japan (were I live) would be able to climb from 65 to 70 % broadband usage the society benefit would be maybe 50 Billion dollars in yearly increased GDP. With the current growth rate this will take around 5-10 years. IF the government and regulatory body would aggressively promote and use cellular networks as the means to quickly achieve this 5% penetration increase instead of pushing a fiber only strategy the society would greatly benefit in terms of 50 B usd in increased GDP per year and a reduction in needed society investments of at least 50-80%. Talk about business case. So, why isnt it happening ? The telecom industry is a very tradiotional one and moving into internet access would mean competing with low prices and flat fee structures…and they dont think that is a good idea when voice is still such a great business…shipping a million more bits for less money cannot be a good business BUT this is the trick. Supplying real high speed internet access using cellular networks isnt only a great society value’s also very good business.

    hypothesis: If we can change countries future with increased voice usaage. How much value would the world see if we can dramatically speed up internet usage ?

    sorry for long comment but I strongly believe that the real world change will come when we all are connected to internet…and we already have the means to acheieve this. we just need to believe its possible. rgds morgan

    1. Thanks for your comments, Morgan. I agree that broadband everywhere, delivered via wireless, is a worthy goal and would have a big impact, particularly in places with no broadband at the moment. I have two observations.

      First, you are in Japan, which has some of the fastest and most widely deployed broadband on earth, and you are complaining that it’s not good enough. This illustrates my theory that people in every country grumble about their internet infrastructure. (America always says South Korea and Japan are better; so do Europeans; South Africans envy the situation in Europe; and so on.) 65% broadband penetration isn’t bad, especially with some connections at 100Mbps. But there’s always room for improvement.

      Second, is there really an economic benefit to 100Mbps over, say, 25Mbps connections? If so, what are South Koreans and Japanese doing that the rest of us, with our slower connections, can’t? Nothing that I can see; it just makes it quicker to download pirated movies. And if superfast broadband has huge economic benefits, that ought to show up in higher GDP growth. It doesn’t seem to. That suggests that gap-filling with wireless rather than fibre, as you suggest, would not put those people with wireless access at a big disadvantage.

      1. Maybe one could argue that the real boost to societies productivity would come when everyone is connected and even with 65% this still leaves a very large part of the population, unconnected, even in Japan. I do agree, 100Mbps is nice to have but not a necessity to achieve the connectivity goal, ie wireless supplied broadband to the remaining 20-60% of all the countries in the world would create instant benefits.

        I think your series of voice to the developing world is great, my wish would be that the next series would be about how to close the connectivity gap, I think this has the potential to do more for the world then the voice communications has done. If you decide to dig into this..we have a real good case in point in japan. Japan IS the most advanced broadband country in the world but still, a startup operator called EMOBILE has built a greenfield network and focused only on connectivity, they are today the world largest connectivity operator with 2 million laptop/modem users in their network (second in the list AT&T have maybe 1M)..AND they are making profits after less then 3 years in business…this is unheard in the developed telecom world..until today. So, EMOBILE have proven what all the regulators and existing operators are saying is a very bad business actually is a very profitable and good business. Its all about mindset. If we can change the mindset of telecom influencers I believe that we quickly could see actual GDP change.

        Your next serie should be about this, I would be happy to support with facts and numbers.

  5. Very much so. Met him yesterday and we discussed this topic. He was invited to speak at Chinese event and this was one of the topics he wanted to bring up. Imagine how much growth China could continue having if they steadily also connected their people in order to balance a likely decline in low value labour productivity. Trillions ?

  6. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your special report! I am actually conducting a study right now about the economic impact of the cell phone among India’s lower classes. Granted – I have as yet been unable to read your report, but I am planning on finding some way to access The Economist premium content through my university–Hong Kong University. Just to be clear, however, in your report, have you highlighted your sources for the statistics? Also, I feel a little uneasy about my topic of discussion just because this industry is one that seems to be measured only in ballpark figures since it moves so fast–not only that but also on the random occurrences of people having 5 or more cellular phones. Anyway, I hope to get a chance to talk to you about my research–I would love any type of input you may have to give.


    1. Yes, my report has a list of sources online. I think it’s subscriber-only, but here it is anyway. I agree that the number of mobile-phone subscriptions is not the same as the number of users, because of multiple SIMs and multiple devices in both poor and rich worlds. But I’m upfront about that in the report. Whether it’s 3 billion or 4 billion people who have phones, what’s not in doubt is that they are making a huge difference to people’s lives; and when I’ve been in India and Africa it really does seem as though every other person has one, which is roughly what the figures suggest. It’s not just a small group of rich people with five phones.
      “The Next 4 Billion: Market Size and Business Strategy at the Base of the Pyramid”. World Resources Institute, 2007.
      “The Digital Provide, Information (Technology), Market Place Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries”. Robert Jensen, Harvard University. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 1st 2007.
      “Does Digital Divide or Provide? The Impact of Cell Phones on Grain Markets in Niger”. Jenny C. Aker, University of California, Berkeley, 2008.
      “Information and Communications for Development 2009: Extending Reach and Increasing Impact”. World Bank, 2009.
      “Poor People Using Mobile Financial Services: Observations on Customer Usage and Impact from M-PESA”. Olga Morawczynski and Mark Pickens, CGAP, August 2009.
      “The GSMA Development Fund Top 20 Research on the Economic and Social Impact of Mobile Communications in Developing Countries”. GSM Association, 2008.
      “Measuring the Information Society – The ICT Development Index”. ITU, 2009.

  7. Hello sr. I am Ivan , i was read your article. is amazing, in my university i study about techmology comuncaction , basically wifi, and the convergency the comunication … i wish be time for read more about this, I still not read the economist yet, but the chapter is about me very very interesting,i was saw a video about future media , but i can not understand the english is to faster…well , I will found a friend … definitely I will continue studing and research this subject…. thanks for you blog and your conference, you show us the way… redgards from PERU
    ppdd.: I’ am sorry for my poor english

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