Monday, April 28, 2014

Money Changers

What are the basic tools in your personal financial toolbox? Cash, of course. A debit card tied to a checking account. Credit cards. A savings account. And then there are a whole bunch of comparatively passive tools designed to stave off disaster - health and life insurance, retirement account, mortgage, stocks, and bonds.

Now imagine you were born and raised in rural Tanzania, or Thailand, or Brazil, and you have none of the pre-conceived notions about those financial tools. There are no banks in the village, and even if there were, you're not sure the bank can be trusted. No one owns a credit card, or insurance, or stocks or bonds. You're paid in cash for the work you do. Your daughter convinced you to sign up for mobile money when she moved to the capital to work, and it was the easiest way to send money home. Then, it seems overnight, you could use your mobile wallet to buy food, or pay for a taxi. Now you have a better phone, and your daughter says you can use it to find information about the weather or yesterday's game, open a savings account, buy insurance, apply for a small loan, and pay bills.

The fact is, the concept of money is undergoing a fundamental transformation, and different players are stepping in to offer financial services where there were none before. (Think M-Pesa and its imitators, Google Wallet, and Facebook's quiet, impending launch of mobile money in Ireland.) New financial services by any company will have to gain the trust of wary consumers and navigate a tricky set of regulatory and business-model obstacles. Still, the relatively open regulatory environment, the greenfield technology and banking landscape, and a clear willingness by consumers to adopt technologies that improve their lives make developing countries fertile ground for the introduction of new financial services. Emerging markets are already out in front of a brave new financial world, and villagers in Tanzania, Thailand, and Brazil are starting to look at our paper checks and credit cards with a mix of confusion and humor.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Net Wars - Attack of the Drones

At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg urged operators to offer unlimited, low-cost service bundles, in which free versions of Facebook, Whatsapp, Google, Skype and other popular sites are treated like "utilities." Experience in the Philippines and Paraguay, he said, prove that the net benefit - typically in broader penetration, more subscribers, and increased daily use - justifies the expense of building out a network and offering free and bundled services. This assertion received a polite but muted response from an audience that is all too aware of the capital and operating costs of rolling out more, bigger, and better networks. Less than a month after the MWC, Zuckerberg (as the figurehead and public face of reiterated his intention to deliver last-mile Internet services with solar-powered drones, satellites, and lasers. Though light on details, the idea has generated a fair amount of buzz and only a few critical comments about how developing countries may not be excited about a fleet of US-company-supported drones circling their airspace. Even fewer consider the implications of Facebook's drones (or Google's balloons) bypassing network operators completely, and putting the keys to Internet access firmly in the hands of advertising giants.

The Day of Global Internet Coverage is coming, though no one knows the date. It's notable that the advertising, e-commerce, and mobile phone crowd is making the most noise about it. And why shouldn't they? They have a lot to gain from Bushmen friending Sherpas. Someone will find a workable model for extending Internet connectivity to every corner of the globe, by working with network operators to reduce their CAPEX and OPEX exposure (e.g., through leasing models, sponsored access, compressed bandwidth technologies, PAYGI or PAYGS plans), or by floating drones and balloons, or with a combination of these and other ideas. 

No single company will achieve the goal of global coverage., with the footprint, depth of experience, and vast assets of all the partners (Facebook, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Samsung, and others) could move it along significantly. But all those assets still need to be marshalled under a clear and detailed strategy, as surely as solar-powered drones need the sun.