Cost. With voice calls often costing between $0.10 and $0.20 and text messaging costing only around $0.04, it can often be much more cost efficient to communicate simple messages through SMS.
Asynchronicity. Often a person simply wants to communicate a message without requiring immediate consumption or feedback. I can only speak as an American, but in the US, the immediacy of voice calling has in some situations come to be seen as obtrusive, whereas SMS allows recipients to digest and respond to messages at their leisure.
Unreliable Coverage. Connectivity across Africa is shoddy at best, and in rural environments, it can often be nearly inexistent. "Sometimes [users] have to wait hours, hike miles, or climb trees to have voice conversations," (p. 4). Furthermore, asynchronous messages provide the extra advantage that only one of the two parties needs to be within range of the network at a given time to communicate.
However, there are still issues that prevent SMS from being the sole method of communication across Africa. Among others, these are their impersonal nature, high rates of illiteracy among the population, and the difficulty of typing in local dialects. Users in Brewer's study expressed a clear preference for voice communication, citing that "hearing a particular person’s voice made the conversation more serious for business purposes, and more meaningful for personal uses," (p. 4). Furthermore, with high rates of illiteracy and local dialects that do not lend themselves to English character set phones, SMS is not always a feasible mode of communication either.
Brewer's group seeks to take the most valuable aspects from both voice calling and SMS to combine them for a novel solution: asynchronous voice messaging. AVMs (my own acronym) offer a potential low cost alternative to calling while also allowing users to convey the personal essence of one's voice. They circumvent the limitations of illiteracy and local dialects while also allowing recipients to consume messages at their own pace. Since AVMs do not need to be delivered immediately, providers could transit them by utilizing excess bandwidth at very little marginal cost, theoretically passing that savings on to the consumer. To quote the paper, "the resources of a synchronous communication system are idle most of the time. This is due to the resources required for synchronous communication, which must be provided exactly when needed. Asynchronous communications improve this situation by allowing for load balancing, moving messages to times when the system is under-utilized," (p. 2).
Brewer and his team conducted a pilot study with approximately 230 individuals in ten different villages, and their findings were hopeful, providing a solid proof of concept for this potentially major paradigm shift in African telephony. What do you think? Could voice messaging provide a viable alternative to SMS in Africa? Is this an area Google should be looking into?
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