Why emerging markets need smart internet policies

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has released its latest study into, well, the affordability of internet access. The study shows how big the challenge is on that front in emerging markets – for over two billion people there, fixed-line broadband costs on average 40 percent of their monthly income, and mobile broadband costs on average 10 percent of their monthly income.

The United Nations’ “affordability target” for internet access is five percent of monthly income, so there’s clearly a ways to go in many developing countries. Almost 60 percent of global households are still unconnected and, unsurprisingly, those who can’t afford to get online tend to be poor, in rural communities and/or women. As my colleague Biz Carson wrote the other day, women are being left behind in the related smartphone adoption stakes too.

A4AI comprises players from [company]Google[/company] and the World Wide Web Foundation to the international development departments of the U.S. and U.K., and its report — unveiled Wednesday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona — takes into account drivers of connectivity such as electrification and policy. As A4AI executive director Sonia Jorge pointed out quite reasonably in a statement, those who are unable to afford internet access are quite often those who most need it to improve their lot.

Still, she noted, good national “policies and principles” can make a big difference. For example, the A4AI report praised Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru for having solid infrastructure rollout plans. Costa Rica, which topped the affordability rankings of 51 emerging and developing economies, has been working to provide universal access since 2009.

According to A4AI, the policy areas that need attention include national broadband plans, competition-friendly environments (remember, many of these countries still have powerful telecoms monopolies), good spectrum allocation policy, the promotion of infrastructure-sharing, and “widespread public access through libraries, schools, and other community venues.” Strong political leadership helps, they added.

This is very much a long-term game. In the meantime, we have initiatives such as Google’s Loon, which is not quite ready yet, and [company]Facebook[/company]’s Internet.org, which is out there but somewhat divisive, both in terms of its impact on carriers and its threat to net neutrality. Both come with a still-fuzzy commercial imperative; from a societal standpoint, it is surely healthier for governments in emerging markets to foster more neutral and competitive alternatives.

White space broadband, which Google and [company]Microsoft[/company] have both been championing, could provide part of the solution (particularly in rural areas), but again it’s being held back by sluggish policy-making. Very few countries have authorized its use thus far, due to concerns over its impact on the broadcasting industry – the technology uses the spectral gaps between TV stations, though it’s now proven that it can avoid interference – and perhaps its threat to telecoms monopolies as well. Again, smarter government can make all the difference.

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BlackBerry shows off affordable, touchscreen-only Leap handset

BlackBerry has launched a touchscreen-only smartphone — its first since the Z3 a year ago — called the Leap. It will be reasonably affordable at $275 off-contract when it goes on sale this April.

The handset has a five-inch display and will reportedly go on sale in Europe and Asia first. BlackBerry is pushing the security angle pretty hard on this one, no doubt as a partial reaction to efforts by the likes of Blackphone and Jolla to appeal to privacy-conscious businesses and consumers.

“Companies and everyday consumers are finding out the hard way that mobile security is paramount. BlackBerry Leap was built specifically for mobile professionals who see their smartphone device as a powerful and durable productivity tool that also safeguards sensitive communications at all times,” BlackBerry devices chief Ron Louks said in a statement.

Indeed, the company also used Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to announce the BlackBerry Experience Suite, which is actually three suites of services that will work across rival platforms including iOS, Android and Windows. Two of the bundles will cover productivity and communications and collaboration, while the third will provide encryption and privacy controls for emails and documents.

Security aside, BlackBerry is promising that the Leap can take up to 25 hours of “heavy use” before its 2,800mAh battery gives up. It has an eight-megapixel rear camera and 16GB of internal storage with extra microSD support. As with other recent BlackBerry phones, the Leap also comes with the Assistant voice-and-text command feature and two app stores, BlackBerry World and the Amazon Appstore.

According to reports of the MWC unveiling of the device, Louks also briefly held up an unnamed handset with a slide-out keyboard that will properly appear later this year.

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Jolla and SSH push Sailfish Secure as “European alternative” mobile OS

I’ve got to hand it to Jolla – despite significant teething problems, the upstart Finnish mobile-maker has clung on, using crowdfunding campaigns and general community-mindedness to maintain interest around its alternative OS, Sailfish.

And now Jolla has done something really clever: at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it’s revealed a partnership with SSH Communications Security – the Finnish firm behind the widely used Secure Shell crypto protocol — to develop a “security-hardened” version of Sailfish OS for governments, businesses and privacy-conscious consumers.

Sailfish OS may be Android-compatible, but it isn’t an Android fork. This means the secure version, if it works out, will provide a real alternative to Silent Circle’s Android-based Blackphone, which targets a similar set of customers.

The positioning is none too subtle: Jolla’s Monday statement points out that Sailfish Secure would provide a “European alternative” to “Android or other U.S.-based operating systems.” Silent Circle is of course based in the U.S., as are Apple et al. Here’s what Jolla chairman Antti Saarnio said in that statement:

It is evident that the world needs a secure, transparent and open mobile solution alternative, which is not controlled by any country or major industry player. Together with leading security expert SSH Communications Security we are aiming to create an open European mobile solution running on Sailfish OS. We are also inviting other industry players to join the initiative.

Interestingly, Jolla and SSH say governments and large corporations will be able to “adapt” Sailfish Secure to different hardware configurations. Together with the Android compatibility of today’s Sailfish OS, that suggests it will be able to run on Android hardware, though I’ve asked Jolla for confirmation of that.

Jolla may be small fry, but it doesn’t have a lot of competition in the European mobile OS stakes. It’s smart for the company to capitalize on that, particularly given the mistrust many in the region have about U.S.-based technology, and given how EU politicians are desperate to find local players they can champion. Nasdaq-listed SSH is a serious player, too, so there’s credibility to this push.

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Microsoft’s new budget Lumias are all about the services

Microsoft has unveiled a couple new handsets, the Lumia 640 and 640 XL, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The phones themselves are pretty low-priced for their decent specifications, but what’s particularly interesting about them is the degree to which they’re delivery devices for Microsoft’s services.

Both the 5-inch Lumia 640 and the 5.7-inch Lumia 640 XL, which cost from €139 ($155) and €189 respectively, come bundled with the [company]Microsoft[/company] Office apps and a year’s subscription to Office 365 that can be used across the phone itself as well as one PC or Mac and one tablet. That includes a terabyte of OneDrive storage and 60 Skype World minutes per month.

Bearing in mind that the same bundle of services usually costs €69/$69 per year, that’s a pretty sweet deal, and it may tempt quite a few budget phone buyers into using Microsoft’s subscription services.

What’s more, Microsoft also announced a “Universal Foldable Keyboard” – a fairly thin Bluetooth affair – that will work with not only Windows devices but also iOS and Android devices. Microsoft has been putting out some decent Office apps for those rival platforms of late, and the keyboard is just one more way for it to keep users of almost any device thinking of the Microsoft brand and heading for its services.

Sure, the company didn’t unveil any new flagships on Monday – these will probably appear closer to the release of Windows 10 – but it did demonstrate how its mobile hardware and software strategies are coming together nicely as the Nokia handsets acquisition shrinks in the rear view mirror.

Here are the specs for those new Lumias, by the way: The 640 and 640 XL are both based on a 1.2 quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and a gig of RAM. The XL has a 3,000mAh battery as opposed to the smaller phone’s 2,500mAh affair, and a beefier camera too at 13 megapixels versus eight megapixels. Both devices have a dual-SIM option.

The 640 will cost €139 for the 3G version and €159 4G version, and will ship in April. The 640 XL will cost €189 for the 3G version and €219 for the 4G version, and will appear first in March.

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Huawei leaks its own Android Wear watch early in Barcelona

Look at the list of Android Wear partners and you won’t see Huawei there. Maybe the list needs an update. And while we’re at it, the folks who manage signage at Barcelona’s airport might want to check their schedule: They have advertisements appearing that show the new Huawei Watch.

Huawei hasn’t officially announced the product yet, so the ads, spotted by Android Central on their way to the Mobile World Congress event, were made public a bit early.

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The ad shows an elegant looking, round watch with relatively small bezels compared to current smartwatches. The ad specifically notes that the Huawei Watch is powered by Android Wear, so it uses [company]Google[/company]’s platform and works with Android phones.

Based on the mini billboard, expect the Huawei Watch to launch in three styles: Gold with brown band, black with a matching sport band and a shiny silver or metal case with fancy mesh band. Without much of a retail presence in the U.S., we may not see the Huawei Watch sold here although Huawei does sell phones directly through an online website.

LG’s affordable phones get back-mounted buttons, but no G4 in sight

Ahead of Mobile World Congress, where Samsung, HTC, and other handset makers are planning to unveil their high-end devices for 2015, LG has bolstered its lineup with four new devices — but the anticipated successor to last year’s high-end LG G3 isn’t one of them.

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At a glance, the four new devices — named Magma, Spirit, Leon and Joy — look a lot like last year’s LG G3. They use the same slightly curved “design language,” including LG’s rear-mounted volume and sleep buttons. But these phones aren’t going to compete in the high end with the Galaxy S6 or the HTC One M9. They’re affordably priced devices, but all four phones will ship with Android 5.0.

Here are the specs: All four phones are remarkably similar; the main difference is screen size. The Magna comes with a 5-inch 720p display, the LG Spirit is packing a 4.7-inch 720p screen, the LG Leon has a 4.5-inch 854×480 panel, and the low-end LG Joy has a 4-inch 800 x 480 screen. None of the cameras are world-beaters, either, with the LG Magna coming with a 8-megapixel rear shooter, down to the LG Joy with a 5-MP camera.

They’re all powered by unspecified 1.2GHz or 1.3GHz quad-core processors, and all four come with LTE support and 1GB of RAM. There are alternate versions that lack LTE, along with other downgraded specs, and sport a plastic rear shell instead of a metallic build. The LG Joy looks like it comes with soft buttons, instead of Android’s on-screen buttons, and its sleep button is on the side of the handset, not its rear shell.

Unfortunately, these phones don’t look like LG’s Aka line, a line of colorful mid-range phones with personalities and names. They will, however, have LG software features like Gesture Shot, which can take a selfie triggered by your hand, and Glance View, which debuted on recent premium LG phones and takes advantage of OLED displays to show notifications when part of the screen is off.

This announcement could indicate that the LG G4 may be a few months away — but in the meantime, LG’s latest high-end device, the LG G Flex 2, is launching in the United States soon. Price for the new devices hasn’t been announced, but they’re expected to roll out to “select markets” this week.

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