Understanding Mobile Access From an Ecosystem Perspective

The expansion of mobile access has been a common refrain in international development for years now. It plays an important role in supporting human development, from economic and educational opportunities to political freedoms and human rights. Increased access to mobiles has been linked to positive social outcomes in dozens of countries.

Mobiles have been driven largely by market forces, but these forces have their limits. The GSMA reports that unique subscribers have grown at an annual rate of 7.3% from 2008-2013, but projects that it will slow to 3.5% per annum over the next seven years. There are currently 3.4 billion unique mobile subscribers—about half of the global population. The slowing growth reflects the fact that the other half will be harder to reach: it is more rural, less literate and numerate, and poorer. Given the potential benefits of mobiles, a lot of development agencies are thinking about how to promote this access further to these populations.

Organizations promoting access often talk of a “mobile ecosystem”. The metaphor is apt. Having access to something requires a whole system of elements to come together. For example, my access to clean water in New York requires pipes, water treatment, government agencies, regulation, financing, watersheds, aqueducts, and a lot more. These elements can interact in unexpected ways: changes in environmental protection could lead to mismanagement of the watershed, requiring further funding to purify drinking water, leading to a political backlash, and so on.

Similar knock-on effects can occur in a mobile ecosystem. Program planners and implementers need a strong understanding of these elements and their interactions in order to increase access and integrate mobiles into their work.

Understanding this ecosystem starts with the user, but it cannot end there. Any conceptual framework for analyzing access should build out from the user to the broader forces and context. Thinking about the system, therefore, looks something like this:

1. Start with the end-user capabilities, constraints, and interests. Mobile usage is one part of a fundamental human choice about how to engage with the economy and how to connect with those around us. Adoption of new technology is not strictly a question of the user’s education or generation. Cultural and gender dynamics complicate adoption. So the fact that any given mobile user sits along certain demographic, educational, cultural, economic, and other dimensions can influence whether they are able to use mobiles. Perhaps most importantly, the channels and initial uses through which technology is introduced can play significant roles: a device initially used as an economic tool can become a social tool, or even a political tool.

2. Branch out to the market environment, physical infrastructure, content, and connections. This is the “next layer out” from the end-user, with factors that are directly relevant but external to the individual. These include mobile network signal coverage and availability of user-appropriate devices, as they provide interested and capable end-users with services. The content and connections are also important in generating interest.

Just as we saw with clean water, the interactions of the mobile market environment with user behavior can yield unexpected results. For example, in countries where mobile service providers set high tariffs for cross-network calls or where signal coverage varies by network, users have grown accustomed to swapping SIM cards in their phones; this has led handset manufacturers to create dual- and even quad-SIM phones (see photo). This outcome points to the ecosystem nature of access: user habits (SIM swapping) pointed the way to a hardware solution (multi-SIM phones) to an access barrier creates by service providers (signal coverage and high tariffs).

3. Assess the relevant policy and regulatory structures. Finally, there are the regulatory structures and policies that impact either end-user capabilities and interests or the market environment. Naturally, telecom regulation is central. Equally important are the regulation and structure of related sectors that may be able to leverage mobile networks: banking, transportation, health, education, aid, and more. This layer starts to touch on the political and institutional aspects as well.

4. Find the leverage points. Cutting across the above factors are the leverage points that can be used to increase access. How can a policy change improve market competition? How can a new content offering increase interest? How would providers respond to a cultural or generational shift among users?

This is where systems thinking becomes especially important. The leverage points are not obvious unless you first understand the other elements, and bring synthesis techniques to surfacing the connections. These can be revealed through a combination of actor mapping and analysis of trends, feedback loops, and root causes in mobile access.


The market forces spreading mobile access are limited because access is a compound phenomenon. Multiple factors must align in order for an individual to make use of mobile technology. By understanding how these factors interact in the mobile ecosystem, we can continue to expand access and the social benefits that accompany it.

Futher reading.