Providing Sustainable Access to Underserved Populations By Aggregating Core Mobile Services

Despite the growth of smartphone adoption and mobile internet access around the world, the majority of underserved populations in emerging markets still depend on core mobile channels – primarily voice, SMS and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) – for communication, which are provided by mobile network operators (MNOs). However, working with MNOs has its challenges as each operator is invested in its own technical infrastructure and commercial plans, and are often at different stages of the regulatory process. This makes it difficult for the development sector to effectively partner with MNOs to create long-term, financially sustainable access to core mobile channels for those who still need them.

This is a problem the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is addressing as part of our Platforms and Services work, specifically, how to help the development community seize the opportunity to work with MNOs and leverage core mobile channels to reach underserved populations.

What’s the Best Solution?

Mobile aggregators can help address some of the challenges the development sector and MNOs face in working together.

While they come in many forms and focus on delivering different services, mobile aggregators’ core business is to offer cross-MNO services. They help to smooth the integration points across operators by providing access to pre-negotiated volume rates and required regulatory approvals. Many are also interested in developing services which can be sold to other operator partners, making them the perfect host for supporting Mobile for Development (M4D) services and driving long-term sustainability. Some mobile aggregators have also created platforms featuring standard Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) which organizations and even individual developers can leverage to create and launch services at scale, almost instantly. While working with these intermediaries has the potential of reducing many delivery complexities, there continues to be financial, technical and operational barriers that DIAL plans to investigate and address.

DIAL recently convened representatives from the mobile industry as well as the development sector to discuss these barriers as well as potential solutions. Facilitated by the Brightfront Group, participating organizations included Praekelt, Africa’s Talking, Cellulant, Instedd, Souktel, UNICEF, Voto Mobile and World Vision. The discussion illuminated common areas of interest, including joint learning, industry standardization and identifying market incentives.

Joint Learning to Share Existing Best Practice and Expertise

The wide range of perspectives and experiences within the group not only made for lively discussion, but also reinforced the usefulness of collaboration and sharing of best practices and concerns across sectors. The group highlighted examples of successful collaborations between aggregators and the development sector that could already be shared, including:

  • The curation and dissemination of best practices in working with aggregators / the mobile sector in the form of suggested how-to-guides, wikis, checklists and templates, which would make it easier for newcomers to the space (or to different geographies or sectors) to orient themselves to what has been tried and has worked (or hasn’t).
  • The formation of joint learning networks, whether physical or virtual, where both interested implementing organizations as well as potential aggregator or technology partners can gather, identify one another and exchange experiences.

Industry Standardization to Accelerate Time to Market

The group also agreed that while the aggregators have done a lot of work in integrating their platforms with multiple MNOs, there was still standardization work to be done – such as technical, operational, regulatory and/or commercial – to speed up time to market. This can take the form of:

  • Common basic technical / service standards that can be used by the development sector and align with aggregators and technology partners on objectively verifiable criteria. This will make it easier for implementers within the development sector to locate the right technology partner to work with, with common expectations of service and delivery.
  • Pre-negotiated agreements and protocols with headline agreements between operators, aggregators, regulators and governments that can dramatically shorten time of response, particularly during times of humanitarian crisis.
  • Bundled hardware / software solutions, which can complement the pre-negotiated agreements and protocols and be pre-tested and deployed rapidly around common use cases.
  • Best practice regulation around services supporting the underserved, helping shorten regulatory processes around areas such as short code approvals and sharing of mobile data.

Market Incentives to Catalyze and Drive Participation

Finally, there is recognition that players in all sectors, particularly those in the commercial sector, require targeted market incentives for meaningful participation. These incentives could incorporate:

  • Demand pooling and forecasting, which reduces the fragmentation of asks originating from the development sector and creates future pipelines that enable players to plan and invest in capacity, which in turn reduces uncertainty and lowers costs.
  • Financial incentives for entering new markets, for high risk markets with no aggregator presence to reduce risk for local players to test out demand.

These ideas will be tested further and incorporated as part of DIAL’s Mobile Network Integration work, as we and our partners continue to look for ways to bring the mobile sector closer to the development ecosystem.  We are also on the lookout for feedback and suggestions so please feel free to email your thoughts to Kai-lik Foh, Program Director, at

A record of the workshop discussion areas and outputs is attached below.

Kai-Lik Foh joined the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) in February 2017 as Program Director of the Mobile Network Integration Initiative, aiming to improve the pace and efficiency of service delivery by the development sector through core mobile channels. He works to identify as well as promote innovative solutions in collaboration between the mobile and development sector, to improve access to basic digital services for the underserved. 

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