Recently, students from MIT journeyed to Shenzhen, China, the capital of low-cost electronics manufacturing, where they discovered that cell phones can be had for as little as $10, likely the world’s cheapest. That’s according to Joi Ito, head of MIT’s Media Lab, who spoke today from Cambridge, Massachusetts during a program broadcast by the BBC World Service.
Since 2012, the guts of a cell phone have been inexpensive enough to be included free in a limited run of promotional issues of at least one magazine—but that’s just the electronics, and the phone they came from is $86 retail. Ten dollars for a complete phone, including what is presumably a serviceable battery, is pretty stunning. It means basic cell phones, the kind capable of calls and texting, which are still the majority of phones on the planet, are now a commodity affordable to just about everyone.
In many countries, these phones are capable of things that smart phones in rich countries would be hard-pressed to accomplish, simply because the local telecom infrastructure has been set up to accommodate them. For example, 31% of Kenya’s GDP is funneled through a cell phone-based payments system, M-Pesa, which can be accessed via text message.
Ito credited these ultra-cheap phones with being a unique enabler of the Arab Spring, since so many have been shipped to the Middle East, and non-smart phones have a dominant market share there. Not all listeners agreed, however. Kashif-ul-Huda, executive editor of a news outlet concentrating on the affairs of Indian Muslims, responded on Twitter that the “Arab spring as an example of social media success is highly exaggerated.”