Neil Tyler talks to Paul Williamson, SVP and GM of Arm's Client Line of Business, about the company's role in helping to bridge the digital divide.

While engineers have been focussed on working to develop newer, faster and better smartphones Arm is now looking at how it can make these technologies more accessible to thousands more consumers and, in the process, creating a more connected digital society.

Ultra-Low Cost (ULC) smartphones are seen as a key enabler in delivering on those ambitions and according to Paul Williamson, SVP and GM of Arm’s Client Line of Business, “Over 1.2 billion ULC smartphone units will be shipped between now and 2026. In addition, we can add 350 million ULC smartphone units by converting an extra 20 percent of the predicted feature phone market to ULCs between now and then.”

A further 500 million smart feature phones are expected to be shipped between now and 2026 which can provide services like 4G connectivity and downgraded versions of apps like WhatsApp.

“That’s a potential market of over two billion ULCs and smart feature phones,” said Williamson, “so we’re not just looking at a social impact opportunity, but an economic one as well.”

ULC smartphones tend to offer basic functionality but for many people in low-income countries they are lifesavers, providing access to services, apps, information and resources.

“We believe that ULC smartphones can help bridge today’s digital divide and that it’s time to take action and close the affordability gap,” explained Williamson. But, addressing that gap will also require additional problems like infrastructure and access to data, all of which are limiting factors, to be addressed.

“If we can unlock access to better services and more resources then people will be able to use things like education and financial services, enhancing both economic and social development.”

There is a genuine problem here that needs addressing but the challenge is immense.

“We wondered whether a better feature phone might be of more value, but users need to have the freedom to access localised services in their own language that will make sense to them. They cannot be limited to services provided solely by the operator. That’s where the gap and jump in performance between ULCs and feature phones needs to be closed.”

A big problem for many developing economies is that devices aren’t subsidised and the costs of smartphones are prohibitive, in many cases costing as much as six month’s earnings.

Williamson said that to address this problem partnering with, and commitment from, multiple organisations would be required.

“We’re working with carriers, OEM and chip vendors to provide the right capabilities in a device at the right price point,” he explained. “By bringing more lower cost devices into a market, carriers will be able to increase utilisation, especially in those markets where coverage is already good. Greater accessibility will also bring additional commercial benefits.”

What’s needed, according to Williamson, is the ability within the industry to create a more affordable ULC option and for silicon vendors, foundries, OEMs, distributors, retailers, operators and even Governments and NGOs to work more closely together and that’s where Arm and its partners will have a role to play in the development of the ULC smartphone market.

“As a company we are committed to giving people in low-income countries access to more capable mobile devices and experiences,” he explained.

“Upgrading users from feature phones to ULC phones will allow people to truly engage with and benefit from the digital world and when more people are connected and part of the wider digital society, the more opportunities grow for everyone. But all of this has to go hand-in-hand with better network coverage, more affordable data tariffs, better content and supporting policies.

“Arm is essentially calling on everyone in the smartphone value chain to support the shift to more affordable ULC smartphones for low-income economies,” Williamson explained.

The case for more ULC smartphones is compelling and Arm will be actively encouraging its ecosystem partners to join it as it looks at bridging the digital divide.

“We’ve taken the necessary internal steps and we now need to engage with our partners to define the right silicon, operating systems and cost points,” said Williamson.

“That thinking is in place and now we need to engage with other people in the value chain so that we can increase accessibility to these devices,” he added.

“The key question for everyone involved in this is: what do we need to do to develop an ecosystem that delivers on these goals and impacts societies around the world for the better?”