SUVA (Island Business) – Nothing has revolutionised communication in the developing world as the advent and proliferation of mobile phones—and nothing in the history of the recent Pacific Islands has caught on so fast and had such a profound impact on peoples’ lives.
The wireless technology of mobile phones has helped countries leapfrog ahead at an incredible pace when compared to the decades it took for fixed line telephony to spread, especially to the more remote areas even in the developed world.
People still remember a time not so long ago in countries like New Zealand when one had to wait at least a couple of years to get a phone line after an application was lodged.
In some cases there was no telling when and if a phone would be available in a given location within any kind of timeframe.
Contrast that with walking into a mobile retail outlet in Honiara, Suva, Apia or anywhere in the Pacific Islands and walking out with a phone that cannot only put you in touch with anyone anywhere instantly but also give you the power to communicate in a variety of modes – text, graphics, email and accessing the internet.
Convergence has been the name of the game for some time in the brave new world of information and communication technology and the world’s big technological corporations have been in a race to mass produce single devices that do nearly everything you need to interact with the outside world – a digital version of the once indispensable Swiss knife.
As well as a personal communication device, mobile telephones have grown to be an invaluable business tool.
It has aided fishermen and produce growers coordinate with their marketing supply chains downstream in a more efficient manner, leading to less spoilage, wastage and getting merchandise quicker to the point of sale.
It has boosted efficiency and occupancy in the hotel industry, especially in a country with a fast growing hospitality industry like Vanuatu.
And it is being used to collect and send biomedical data to medical centres from remote areas, boosting healthcare.
Indeed, these are only three of the many modern communication miracles that mobile telephony can achieve.
Its full potential is vast and limited only by the imagination and commercial considerations like the capacity to invest and the size of the potential market.
But these are easily overcome as seen from several instances in the Pacific Islands.
For some time now the possibility of using mobile phones as devices for payment has been discussed in the developing world and has even been successfully trialled in a few countries.
A mobile phone based banking service is now on the cusp of a technological possibility in the Pacific Islands.
Last month, a meeting organised by the Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme (PFIP) in partnership with the Central Bank of Samoa (CBS) was held in the Samoan capital, Apia, between bankers, financial institutions, government regulators and mobile phone technologists.
The PFIP team is facilitating five such information exchanges in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea in the coming months.
The final information exchange is scheduled for Vanuatu at the end of February.
Mobile phone banking, while it has been in use for some time now in many parts of the world, has been largely used for accessing account information and management far more than actual transactions.
Its use in cash transactions such as in the case of daily buy/sell situations has so far been limited.
This is due to a number of factors not the least because of a lack of regulatory system as well as a redressal system in case of misuse.
One of the attributes of the new information and communication technologies is the sheer speed with which they proliferate leaving everything in their wake breathless and clueless in equal measure about how to deal with such rapid proliferation.
This is especially so in gauging the impact they could have on a number of existing systems like a country’s legal framework and projecting the serious situations that may arise out of possible misuse.
Even in a technologically advanced society like Australia and New Zealand, there have been dozens of scams reported where millions of dollars have not only been skimmed off the banking system by fraudsters using identity theft and hacking banking websites but also, as reported last month, skimmed peoples’ accounts through point of sale devices at retail outlets in Queensland, Australia.
A problem here is that such crimes can be perpetrated irrespective of the location of the fraudsters because of the seamless way in which the world is connected owing to global communication networks.
The electronic trail left by fraudsters does make detection easier no doubt but prosecution becomes cumbersome and all the more difficult even where legal systems have been revised and upgraded to include new methods of fraud using technology such as cyber crime.
But in the case of most Pacific Islands’ legal systems, such measures do not exist and few have plans to revise and upgrade them to include crimes such as these.
The initiative of the Fiji government announced last month, therefore, is a welcome development.
According to news reports, under the new Crimes Decree expected to comes into this month, cyber crime is criminalised under “Computer Crimes”, giving police the powers to arrest and charge perpetrators.
But this is so long as they are on the country’s sovereign soil.
Even as the PFIP initiative got under way in Samoa, a computer security expert working in the Pacific Islands warned that the islands economies, particularly the ones like Fiji, were prone to cyber crime and technology-based fraud and most countries had poorly developed legal tools to deal with the situation.
It is therefore imperative for governments to take cognisance of the inevitability of mobile phones and the internet being increasingly used for financial transactions in the near future and urgently rise to the legal challenges thrown up by them if the public and commercial organisations are to take to the new technology.
A robust legal system that has tools and procedures to deal with modern ICT-based fraud comprehensively would also boost the confidence of overseas investors.
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