Can you hear me now? Yes - Mobile phones in the Mongolian countryside

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Photo courtesy of Steve Burt through a Creative Commons license

A few years ago, I spent a few days in a ger (yurt) in what seemed like the end of the world—Baruunburen district in Mongolia’s Selenge province. It took more than seven hours to get there from Ulaanbaatar, via Erdenet, Mongolia’s third-largest city. The paved roads gave way to dirt ones, but even these faded away until they were nothing more than tire marks in the grass. We took the final leg of the journey on horseback through a small, rain-gorged river, and finally arrived at a ger, a white speck in a huge, green valley surrounded by hills that went on forever.

A little later, I checked my phone to see if there was a signal. There wasn’t. Then my host pointed to a nearby hilltop and explained that I could catch a signal from there, so off I went. It took about 20 minutes of vigorous climbing to get the top, but it was worth it. The view was spectacular, and sure enough, I caught a stray signal. I pinched off a few text messages to my wife, a continent away in Ukraine.

It may seem inconvenient to climb a hill to use your phone, but think—ten years ago, even this would have been impossible. In a country where three million people are spread over 1.5 million square kilometers (Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world), communicating without mobile phones can be difficult and expensive. Just think how hard it would be to get a message to a herder somewhere in the hills, or to someone in a ger in the next valley. It’s easy to see that mobile technology is more than a convenience in rural Mongolia.

The Global Partnership on Output-Based Aid (GPOBA), a partnership of donors and international organizations, had a lot to do with developing rural communications in Mongolia’s countryside. With World Bank support, it piloted an approach to bring voice and broadband Internet services to the countryside in partnership with private service operators. This led to a highly successful rollout on a much bigger scale.  In an article in Handshake, a journal on public-private partnerships, GPOBA reports that today all 335 districts in Mongolia have mobile phone services, broadband Internet services are now available in 34 district centers, and the distance herders have to travel to make a call has fallen by more than half.

But that’s not all—mobile banking is taking off in Mongolia. Several of its top banks, including Khan Bank and XacBank, have been expanding their mobile banking services to the countryside. This means herders won’t always have to travel to conduct financial transactions, which will make their lives a lot easier. And I’ll be able to pay a few bills the next time I want to send a text to my wife.

There are probably other ways that mobile phone technology is changing life in the Mongolian countryside, ones that city dwellers like me can't imagine. If you have any good stories, please share them in the comments section below.


David Lawrence

International Development Consultant

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