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University of Wisconsin–Madison
Poverty-related issues in the news, from the Institute for Research on Poverty

Tag: Cellular phones

Technology and SNAP Beneficiaries

Startups are finally taking on food stamps, By Tonya Riley, September 6, 2017, Wired: “Felicia Graybill uses her smartphone for everything: sending email, checking Facebook, and even monitoring her bank account. But for years, when the 28-year-old Brooklyn mom went to check on her food stamps benefits she might as well have been using a landline. Reviewing her balance required dialing into a hotline and entering her entire card number. All she could access was the sum of her funds—there was no way of breaking down how and when she’d spent the money…”

Lifeline Program and Internet Access

FCC to halt expansion of broadband subsidies for poor people, By Jon Brodkin, March 29, 2017, Ars Technica: “The Federal Communications Commission is dropping its legal defense of a new system for expanding broadband subsidies for poor people, and it will not approve applications from companies that want to offer the low-income broadband service. The decision announced today by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would halt implementation of last year’s expansion of the Lifeline program. This 32-year-old program gives poor people $9.25 a month toward communications services, and it was changed last year to support broadband in addition to phone service…”

Mobile Banking

  • Dial M for money: Can mobile banking lift people out of poverty?, By Nurith Aizenman, December 9, 2016, National Public Radio: “If you live in Kenya there’s a jingle you hear on television and radio a lot.   ‘Things are now modern!’ they sing. ‘Things are now developed.’ It’s an ad for a type of banking service called M-PESA that’s run entirely through your mobile phone. You set up an account with the phone company. You can send and receive funds by text. Or, if you need to make a cash deposit or withdrawal, you do it through a vast network of agents — small-time vendors in kiosks and shops, for example, that the company has set up…”
  • Here’s why mobile money is dramatically reducing poverty in Kenya, By Robert Gebelhoff, December 22, 2016, Washington Post: “For Tavneet Suri, an economics professor at MIT who grew up in Kenya, much has changed in her home country over the past decade. What used to be an economy relatively closed off to the rest of the world is now a one where the vast majority of people are paying bills and sharing money with one another through cellphones…”

Public Benefit Program Application and Eligibility

How 10 text messages can help families find out if they qualify for food stamps, By Max Lewontin, February 16, 2016, Christian Science Monitor: “A new texting-based system aims to simplify the process of applying for food stamps in Alaska, where 27 percent of people who are eligible for a common federal program that helps people buy food they need aren’t getting the benefits because they haven’t applied, state officials say.  Using text-based prompts, the system lets families see whether they would qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in a series of 10 text messages, compared with a 28-page application that they would ordinary have to fill out…”

Lifeline Program and Internet Access

The FCC wants to help America’s poorest pay for Internet, By Brian Fung, June 18, 2015, Washington Post: “Major upgrades are coming to a federal aid program that helps low-income Americans connect to basic communications services.  The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to consider how to allow eligible Americans to purchase Internet access using government funds, in a move that recognizes high-speed Internet as a key to pulling the poor out of poverty. The decision highlights the FCC’s fast-growing role in regulating broadband. In a 3-2 vote, the agency opened a process to expand its Lifeline program — a Reagan-era plan that gives $9.25 per month to Americans who meet income requirements or who already receive some form of federal assistance…”

Internet Access for the Homeless

Fighting homelessness, one smartphone at a time, By Claire Cain Miller, April 14, 2015, New York Times: “Holly Leonard has been homeless on and off for years. There was a stint in jail and, more recently, a period in a women’s homeless shelter, while her husband slept in their car. But last month, the two moved into a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, Calif., complete with a small garden. Ms. Leonard found it on Craigslist while using her Nexus 5 smartphone — a donation from Google that she got from a San Jose nonprofit called Community Technology Alliance…”

Mobile Banking – Haiti

How Haiti is fighting poverty by killing cash, By Margo Conner, January 27, 2012, Christian Science Monitor: “In Haiti, cash is escaping from wallets and savings accounts are breaking free from brick-and-mortar banks. Two years after 2010’s devastating earthquake, mobile money has taken off in the island nation. While the country has seen setbacks in many areas and continues to struggle, one bright spot is the transformation of the country’s traditional banking sector. Physical banks were wiped away by the quake and subsequent hurricane, and a mobile banking network that uses cell phones has grown up in their place…”

Technology and Innovation for Developing Countries

To help the poor, experts invent solar-powered hearing aids, motorcycle ambulances, Associated Press, September 12, 2011, Washington Post: “A bit of creativity never hurts, especially when it comes to solving health problems in developing countries. Instead of the usual donated medicines and health equipment, some experts are inventing new products for the poor, like a solar-powered hearing aid or a motorcycle ambulance. Both inventions were showcased at an engineering conference in London. And in a new report published online Monday in the journal Lancet, the United Nations highlights innovations like using text messages in South Africa to remind women with HIV to get their babies tested and tucking medicines into Coca-Cola crates to reach remote villages. Hundreds of thousands of replacement joints, surgical tools and other medical devices have been sent to poor countries over the years. But according to the World Health Organization, about 75 percent of the donated goods sit unused, either because they’re broken or no one knows how to use them…”

Lifeline Phone Subsidy Program

Regulators say low-income phone program is hemorrhaging millions, By Fred Hiers, August 2, 2011, Ocala Star-Banner: “Federal and state regulators are working to fix a program they believe is making millions of dollars in unauthorized payments to low-income phone customers. Lifeline is a federal program, paid for by all phone users, which subsidizes low-income people in order to help pay for their phone installations and use. The limit is one phone. The subsidy goes to the phone service provider. The annual subsidy for customers is nearly $162 per year. According to a Florida Public Service Commission report, 642,129 Floridians were subscribing to the program as of June 20, 2010. Other states also administer the program. The problem is, some customers are receiving payments for more than one phone, regulators say…”

Cellphone-Only Households

Youth, mobility and poverty help drive cellphone-only status, By Sabrina Tavernise, April 20, 2011, New York Times: “It’s not quite the stuff of bragging rights, but Arkansas and Mississippi find themselves at the top of a new state ranking: They have the highest concentrations of people in the nation who have abandoned landlines in favor of cellular phones. At the other extreme? People in Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey are still holding on to their landlines, and they have the lowest concentrations of people whose homes use only cellphones. The study, released Wednesday, was part of an annual survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. Information from interviews was blended with census data to draw a map of cellular-only use by state. Its findings reflect patterns of consumer behavior that are driven by age, mobility and, in a strange twist, poverty. According to Stephen Blumberg, the researcher who conducted the study, nearly 40 percent of all adults living in poverty use only cellphones, compared with about 21 percent of adults with higher incomes…”

Access to Financial Services for the Poor

Gates Foundation pledges $500 million to help the poor save money, By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $500 million Tuesday to help create new banking systems that will reach into the world’s most impoverished corners and allow families earning $2 a day or less to begin saving money. After years of promoting microcredit borrowing to help impoverished farmers and bottom-of-the-rung entrepreneurs expand their business opportunities, foundation leaders said it was increasingly apparent that saving, not just credit, is crucial to helping poor families weather crises, pay for schooling and make small investments to expand their incomes. ‘Loans for the poor in some ways may be more intuitive for people to understand, and I think people naturally understand that poor people often don’t have access to capital or to credit or to cash. But I think people don’t often as easily grasp the concept that the poor actually need to save,’ Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the foundation, said at a forum here on the swiftly expanding global financial sector aimed at serving millions of poor…”

Telecommunications in Developing Nations

Nokia taking a rural road to growth, By Kevin O’Brien, November 1, 2010, New York Times: “On Saturday at dawn, hundreds of farmers near Jhansi, an agricultural center in central India, received a succinct but potent text message on their cellphones: the current average wholesale price for 100 kilograms of tomatoes was 600 rupees. In a country where just 7 percent of the population have access to the Internet, such real-time market data is so valuable that the farmers are willing to pay $1.35 a month for the information. What is unusual about the service is the company selling it: Nokia, the Finnish cellphone leader, which unlike its rivals – Samsung, LG, Apple, Research In Motion and Sony Ericsson – is leveraging its size to focus on some of the world’s poorest consumers. Since 2009, 6.3 million people have signed up to pay Nokia for commodity data in India, China and Indonesia. On Tuesday, Nokia plans to announce it is expanding the program, called Life Tools, part of its Ovi mobile services business, to Nigeria…”

Telecommunications in Developing Nations

For the poor, cellphones can offer lifeline, By Cecilia Kang, September 8, 2010, Washington Post: “For the world’s poorest, cellphone technology carries opportunity, aid groups say, as text messages and other mobile applications have created a new platform to reach the most remote farms and crowded urban slums of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Grameen Foundation, a Washington-based group known for helping women with the smallest of business loans, has two dozen people in a technology lab here developing mobile Internet applications to help spread its microfinance model. It’s warning farmers in Uganda about banana crop rot through text messages and collecting data on spreadsheet applications on smartphones…”

Millennium Development Goals

  • UN reveals global disparity in broadband access, By Jonathan Fildes, September 2, 2010, BBC News: “The Central African Republic is the most expensive place to get a fixed broadband connection, costing nearly 40 times the average monthly income there. Macao in China is the cheapest, costing 0.3% of the average monthly income. Niger becomes the most expensive place to access communication technologies, when landlines and mobiles are also taken into account. ‘Access to broadband in an affordable manner is our greatest challenge,’ Dr Hamadoun Toure, secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), told BBC News. The statistics were released ahead of the UN 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York on 19 September…”
  • World leaders urged to act on poverty, By Danny Rose, September 1, 2010, Sydney Morning Herald: “The world’s aid and charity organisations have resolved to again urge governments to pump billions of dollars into the global fight against poverty. Any suggestion that they lacked the resources to do so was a ‘nonsense’, the final day of the United Nations DPI/NGO (Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organisation) Conference was told on Wednesday. A fraction of the world’s military spending would fund the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), said Professor Phil Batterham, convenor of the three-day conference in Melbourne. Around 1600 delegates represented more than 350 Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) at the conference…”
  • Some have progress at their fingertips, but for others pain and poverty linger, August 28, 2010, The Age: “A street beggar’s dirty hand is drawn to his mouth in the universal sign for hunger. A busy foreigner bustles past and shrugs, indicating he does not have any local coins. ‘I take SMS,’ calls the beggar. This truly is the digital economy. While Melburnians struggle to work out how to use a myki card, Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, buzzes on a banking system based on short messages sent from mobile phones. Known as m-pesa – ‘pesa’ is Swahili for money – the mobile service works on a debit and credit principle. A vendor nominates a price, the buyer sends a text message to transfer funds between accounts. Should a person need hard currency, booths are dotted around the country so people can make withdrawals. The service is booming. Almost 12 million Kenyans used m-pesa in the past year, sending $A462 million in small transactions. Ready access to cheap mobile phones, even for the poor, gives the mobile money system many advantages over a traditional cash-based economy. Security is one thing – for Kenya’s many slum dwellers, finding a safe place to stash savings is tricky…”

Lifeline Cellular Phone Program

Federal program buys cell phones for the poor, By Scott Canon, July 30, 2010, Kansas City Star: “A cell phone in every pocket. And for growing numbers, it’s free. ‘It’s a sign of the times,’ said Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and author of ‘The Poverty of ‘The Poverty Rate.” ‘When does a luxury become an absolute bare necessity?’ Roughly one in 10 American households qualifies for a direct phone subsidy. In a fast-growing number of states, including Missouri, that equates to a free cell phone. It is both news and history – the extension of longstanding telephone subsidies for the poor, and cell carriers taking advantage of virtually guaranteed profits. While cell companies see the federal Lifeline program as a way to scoop up hundreds of millions of dollars in business, the move has raised questions about the way Americans subsidize each other’s phone service. More than 2 million poor people have been given free handsets and prepaid cell service – albeit on the simplest of phones, often with barely an hour’s talk time per month – as wireless carriers scramble for a toehold with a new class of customers…”

Mobile Internet and the Digital Divide

  • Can mobile phones narrow the digital divide?, By Omar L. Gallaga, July 3, 2010, Austin American-Statesman: “Jared Esquivel has had his new cell phone, a white Nokia Nuron, for only a week. But it’s the fifth one he’s owned since he was 10 years old. Jared is 16. The Travis High School student uses the phone to text family members, check in constantly on Facebook and view World Cup scores on ESPN’s mobile website. His family’s T-Mobile account includes phones for his sister, mother, father and grandmother. Most of them are enabled for unlimited Web access and texting. When Jared and his 13-year-old sister both need to use the family’s aging computer for homework, their mother, Juanita Esquivel, sends one of them to the mobile Web. ‘One of them would be up until 2 in the morning because the other one was sitting there using their computer,’ Juanita said. ‘I eventually was like, ‘Just use your phone!” The country has been swept up into an intoxicating romance with cell phones, especially smart phones such as Apple ‘s iPhone 4, with 1.7 million units sold in its first three days on the market. A global study by research firm Gartner Inc. suggests that by as soon as 2013, mobile devices will overtake personal computers as the most common way people access the Internet. But nowhere in the U.S. is the shift from desktop and laptop computers to cell phones making as much of an impact as in Latino households like Jared’s or in African American and low-income households, in which the cell phone is often the primary tool used to get online…”
  • Pew study finds rapid increase in mobile Internet use by low-income Americans, By Matt Hamblen, July 9, 2010, Computerworld: “Wireless access to the Internet has long been seen as a potential economic bridge for disadvantaged groups in those regions of the world that lack a wired infrastructure. For example, in poorer countries like Haiti, where landlines are limited, three mobile service providers have moved to widely offer the ability for cell phone users to complete wireless banking and e-commerce transactions. Some observers note that low-income groups in the U.S. can also gain profound benefits from wireless access by using some key applications. This week, the Pew Research Center in Washington said that a survey of 2,252 adults over 18 in April and May found that low-income groups in the U.S. are now the fastest adopters mobile Web devices. The survey found that 46% of households earning less than $30,000 a year are wireless Internet users. That lowest income group surveyed was the fastest growing — up by 11 percentage points from 35% in April 2009…”

Cellular Phone Service and the Poor

Advocates say poor need available free cell phones, By Alfred Lubrano, June 14, 2010, Philadelphia Inquirer: “Should the poor have cell phones? It’s a question that has engaged both ends of the political spectrum since 2004, when the conservative Heritage Foundation published a controversial paper saying the poor enjoy ‘high living standards’ and cited as proof that many have cell phones, among other things. In rebuttal, advocates for the poor have argued that cell phones are not luxuries but necessities, as basic to modern life as electricity. Complicating the debate these days is a new development: free cell phones for the poor and working poor distributed by a Miami wireless company. They’re paid for, in part, by charges on phone bills that the federal government allows carriers to levy. It’s a little-known collaboration between the federal government and phone carriers, devised by the Reagan administration 26 years ago…”

Mobile Banking – Kenya

Mobile banking closes poverty gap, By Jane Wakefield, May 28, 2010, BBC News: “Mobile banking has transformed the way people in the developing world transfer money and now it is poised to offer more sophisticated banking services which could make a real difference to people’s lives. Currently 2.7bn people living in the developing world do not have access to any sort of financial service. At the same time 1bn people throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia own a mobile phone. As a result, mobile money services are springing up all over the developing world. According to mobile industry group the GSMA there are now 65 mobile money systems operating around the globe, with a further 82 about to be launched. Most offer basic services such as money transfers, which are incredibly important for migrant workers who need to send cash back to their families. M-Pesa in Kenya is perhaps the most famous of these and it has attracted 9.4 million Kenyans in just under three years. Now it is ready to move to the next stage. M-Pesa, has recently partnered with Kenya’s Equity Bank to offer subscribers a savings account, called M-Kesho…”

Cell Phones and Access to Financial Services – India

Cellphones a tool in India’s fight against corruption, By Rick Westhead, May 24, 2010, Toronto Star: “In many remote corners of the developing world, cellphones have become a valuable tool to battle poverty. Farmers use them to get timely weather forecasts and tips about fertilizers. And when their fields are harvested, they rely on contacts in nearby markets to send SMS messages that help them decide where to take their produce for the best prices, cutting out greedy middlemen. Now, government officials in the central Indian state of Bihar hope the cellphone can tackle a new challenge: battling government corruption. In early 2009, officials with Bihar’s ministry of health told an international development agency of their concern that frontline health-care workers might bolt their jobs. Bihar has 72,000 accredited social health activists – volunteers who are paid commissions for ensuring children are born in hospitals and properly vaccinated. But the activists typically aren’t paid for months and, even then, only get a portion of their earnings because local managers demand kickbacks of as much as 40 per cent in exchange for their paycheques…”

Telecommunications in Developing Nations

  • In rural Africa, a fertile market for mobile phones, By Sarah Arnquist, October 5, 2009, New York Times: “Laban Rutagumirwa charges his mobile phone with a car battery because his dirt-floor home deep in the remote, banana-covered hills of western Uganda does not have electricity. When the battery dies, Mr. Rutagumirwa, a 50-year-old farmer, walks just over four miles to charge it so he can maintain his position as communication hub and banana-disease tracker for his rural neighbors…”
  • Special report on telecoms in emerging markets, By Tom Standage, September 24, 2009, The Economist:
    • Mobile marvels: “Bouncing a great-grandchild on her knee in her house in Bukaweka, a village in eastern Uganda, Mary Wokhwale gestures at her surroundings. ‘My mobile phone has been my livelihood,’ she says. In 2003 Ms Wokhwale was one of the first 15 women in Uganda to become ‘village phone’ operators. Thanks to a microfinance loan, she was able to buy a basic handset and a roof-mounted antenna to ensure a reliable signal…”
    • Eureka moments: “How did a device that just a few years ago was regarded as a yuppie plaything become, in the words of Jeffrey Sachs, a development guru at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, ‘the single most transformative tool for development’? A number of things came together to make mobile phones more accessible to poorer people and trigger the rapid growth of the past few years. The spread of mobile phones in the developed world, together with the emergence of two main technology standards, led to economies of scale in both network equipment and handsets…”
    • The mother of invention: “Providing mobile services in a developing country is very different from doing the same thing in the developed world. For a start, there may not be a reliable electrical grid, or indeed any grid at all, to power the network’s base stations, which may therefore need to run on diesel for some or all of the time. That in turn means they must be regularly resupplied with fuel, which can be tricky in remote areas. Then there is the challenge of running the network profitably…”
    • Up, up and Huawei: “In the 1960s, when Japan emerged as a manufacturing exporter, it soon became a byword for low cost and low quality. Much fun was made of unreliable Japanese watches and cheap Japanese cars. But quality improved and Japan became a powerful force in electronics, carmaking and other industries. Today Toyota is held up as a model of efficient manufacturing, and Japanese firms lead the world in clean technology, carmaking and consumer electronics. China hopes to make a similar transition…”
    • Beyond voice: “In a field just outside the village of Bumwambu in eastern Uganda, surrounded by banana trees and cassava, with chickens running between the mud-brick houses, Frederick Makawa is thinking about tomatoes. It is late June and the rainy season is coming to an end. Tomatoes are a valuable cash crop during the coming dry season and Mr Makawa wants to plant his seedlings as soon as possible. But Uganda’s traditional growing seasons are shifting, so he is worried about droughts or flash floods that could destroy his crop. Michael Gizamba, a local village-phone operator, offers to help using Farmer’s Friend, an agricultural-information service. He sends a text message to ask for a seasonal weather forecast for the region. Before long a reply arrives to say that normal, moderate rainfall is expected during July. Mr Makawa decides to plant his tomatoes…”
    • Finishing the job: “How long will it be before everyone on Earth has a mobile phone? ‘It looks highly likely that global mobile cellular teledensity will surpass 100% within the next decade, and probably earlier,’ says Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, a body set up in 1865 to regulate international telecoms. Mobile teledensity (the number of phones per 100 people) went above 100% in western Europe in 2007, and many developing countries have since followed suit. South Africa passed the 100% mark in January, and Ghana reached 98% in the same month. Kenya and Tanzania are expected to get to 100% by 2013…”