The Union government is trying to evolve a framework for using the mobile platform to improve the access of a large section of the population, especially the poor, to basic financial and banking services. This coincides with the growing realisation, globally, of the need for developing countries to put mobile technology to optimum use to serve the underprivileged.

If this newly launched initiative bears fruit, the large ‘unbanked’ segment of the population will have access to services such as depositing and transferring money, ‘cash-in’ and ‘cash-out’ and making transactions across service providers using even low-cost mobile phones.

This is just an example of the immense potential of mobile platforms to deliver a range of services to vast segments of the population. Developing connectivity, infrastructure and bandwidth has taken centre stage all these years, but the focus needs to shift to how to take advantage of the infrastructure, “and particularly the existing availability of mobile networks, to deliver human-centred, life-critical services to people,” the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the global body that sets Web standards, recently noted.

The Centre’s ‘financial inclusion’ initiative, for instance, will have to overcome a range of challenges from the technical to the administrative and regulatory ones before it becomes a reality. Some weeks ago, the Centre constituted an Inter-Ministerial Group to take it forward. Efforts are also on to try out a system that could support voice-based authentication and offer a multilingual interface.

Voice-based solution

The solution that is offered to promote financial inclusion will have to be voice-based, said Ashok Jhunjunwala, an expert who leads the Telecommunications and Computer Networks Group (TeNeT) at IIT-Madras. Many of the ‘unbanked’ are illiterate, and may not be able to type on their mobile phones, he said in response to a question.

The Mobile Payments Forum of India (MPFI) has been trying to put in place unified technical standards to make it possible for banks, telecom service providers and companies to jointly use the mobile platform for payments. The MPFI’s Technology Committee drew up recommendations on Interoperability Standards for mobile banking some time ago. The banks and the other players will have to accept and implement such a system to pave the way for a universal mobile payments system to become operational.

Several States have started rolling out mobile governance projects, or are preparing to do so. It is the way forward for three reasons: reach and penetration, the easier learning curve and the mobile phone’s capability to handle SMS, voice and data, says Sanjay Vijayakumar, chief executive officer, MobME Wireless Solutions.

In the broader context, the ‘Mobile Web for Social Development Roadmap,’ released by the W3C a couple of months ago, notes that four categories of players are primarily involved in harnessing mobile technologies for social development: network operators, handset manufacturers and service developers, besides public authorities.

Different technologies and types of applications are available for the mobile platform; each offering a matrix of advantages and disadvantages, especially when the needs of the disadvantaged segments are taken into consideration — those with disabilities and low reading skills, and those speaking lesser-known languages and without computer literacy.

For instance, the W3C has recommended that network operators try to develop and extend low-cost data services, even low-bandwidth ones like GPRS, and ensure SMS support for different languages. Handset manufacturers should ensure that all their products have at least GPRS access and provide the required level of support to the programming language Java or browsers that follow standards. Handsets should also be able to support all languages and features like text-to-speech capability. The public authorities should consider ‘the mobile platform as the most widely available option to deliver ICT services to people’ and develop appropriate policy frameworks.