Bolivia is a very odd place...witches markets, dried llama foetuses, coca everywhere...they even have weirdo telecoms in the form of the human phone box.

 

The phone boxes with legs (Independent)


What's a developing nation to do about its lack of a decent telecoms network? Rhymer Rigby reports on an ingenious idea from Bolivia


09 December 2002


You see them everywhere in Bolivia, from La Paz to Cochabamba to Santa Cruz, wandering the streets, dressed in bright company livery, mobile phones chained to their waists. They are the latest, strangest additions to the telecoms network. They are Bolivia's human phone boxes (right).


In a bizarre marriage of developed-world technology and developing world labour, Bolivia's telephone companies - such as Viva, Entel and Telecel - have come up with an ingenious alternative to conventional public telephony. Instead of laying lines and building booths, they simply give employees mobile phones and uniforms, and send them out on to the streets. Any punter who wants to make a call then approaches the employee and pays anything from one Boliviano (about 9p) per minute.
It sounds unlikely, but the system is so popular that these human phone boxes now greatly outnumber their glass and metal counterparts. It's an interesting tack for a country that has long been one of the poorest in South America: don't follow the path of everyone else who has gone before you by building the expensive fixed-line network and putting in expensive fixed phone booths. Instead, put in a mobile network, and because labour is cheap, and so (comparatively) are the mobile phones, put those out on the streets. If someone in Silicon Valley had come up with the idea, we would call it brilliant. Because it's been done in Bolivia, nobody has heard about it.


But how well does it work? Customers like the convenience. David Lopez, a Cochabamba businessman, says: "There's not much point in buying a mobile phone, because it's easier and cheaper to use the people on the street. Mobiles are not expensive, but this way you don't have to keep buying top-up cards. And these people are everywhere." As if to underscore this point, just after Lopez had finished his call a man pulled up on his motorbike, and chatted to his girlfriend for a couple of minutes while still on the bike, and then peeled off.


The walking phone boxes themselves seem fairly happy with their lot. "The pay is fair, although of course, it depends on the number of clients," says Victor Hugo (yes, his real name), an employee of the private Telecel phone company. Echoing Lopez, he says that the public like the convenience and find the service cheaper than pay phones. But in the six months that he's been working, he says the competition has hotted up considerably. And a quick glance around any major city bears him out: on Cochabamba's Plaza 14 de Septiembre or La Paz's main street, El Pado, there are places where the phone boxes outnumber the customers.


Bolivia's mobiles for hire are just the latest telecoms curiosity to come from the developing world. The Philippines made headlines a few years back, when free texting was offered: suddenly Globe Telecom, the main operator, found SMS (Short Messaging Service) driving its sales and the country was sending twice as many messages as western Europe. (Eventually the volume crashed the telecoms system.) Last year, a Muslim court in Dubai ruled that a text message counted as a written declaration of divorce.
The main reason for these quirky signs of the developing world's love affair with the mobile is that many such nations have very underdeveloped conventional fixed-line networks, which take years and huge investments to build - especially in a country such as Bolivia, where 37 per cent of the 8.4 million inhabitants live in rural areas, and 70 per cent below the poverty line.


Only about 6 per cent of the population has a fixed phone line (and 80 per cent of all the phone lines are in the three main cities); it's the lowest such penetration in Latin America. Mobiles have made a consistent impact since their introduction in 1996; by 2000, there were more mobile phone numbers being used in Santa Cruz, the second largest city, than landlines. Equally, though, mobile phones remain a tool for the urban dwellers: 90 per cent are city-based.


Andrew Tolputt, a freelance telecoms consultant who has worked with a number of developing nations, explains: "Poor fixed infrastructure and the costs associated with providing last-mile access means that it often makes sense for the telcos to leapfrog straight to mobile."