This entry started out as a comment on Radka's post about Vodafone planting trees on behalf of people who get rid of paper bills - but once I started collecting links and th!nking about it, I figured it's something that could be very important to improving the infrastructure of developing nations.
Planting trees is one thing, and a very noble endeavor certainly. But switching bills to electronic copies already saves lots of trees - and to be honest, in today's developed world I'm not sure I have a use for paper bills any more.
Here in Estonia, almost all services offer e-billing. I only have one bill that comes on paper, and that's because I've been too lazy to go to the company's office and tell them to send emails instead. Almost all of my bills are paid automatically out of my bank account as well (with the exception of my apartment building's utilities, since the homeowners' association is too small for the bank to set up direct billing for them).
It's gone even further. Estonia runs a paperless government - all communication in state departments is digital - and most interactions between the people and the government are done online. The most successful example of an e-state is our tax return system - almost everybody files their taxes online, and it takes about 10 minutes, because all the information from banks and employer records is already collected in the background. Estonia has an ID card that allows digital signatures, so people can actually sign electronic documents with the same legal power as their signatures on paper. Et cetera.
Best of all, this stuff is very scalable, and can be rolled out in the Third World a lot more quickly and cheaply than classic Western bureaucracy. That ID card system? There's a version of it that allows authentication over mobile phones - you can see it being used in a video I made for the original Th!nk About It. I actually just activated this service a few days ago, when I got my shiny new smartphone (but it works on even the simplest Nokias). Now, I've grown up alongside E-stonia's digital revolution, and worked in the IT industry for over six years, including two years in a department that developed software for mobile phones. Despite that, the Mobile ID system still feels somehow magical.
The reason for the importance of Mobile ID is the nature of connectivity in the developing world. By the time when poverty is supposed to be eradicated, Estonia hopes to deliver ultra-broadband to every household - but in Asia, Africa and Central America, the best form of connectivity is usually mobile data. 3G connections, even older-generation GPRS networks, have a very serious advantage over wired internet: there is no need to lay down a cable to each house and apartment. That kind of infrastructure project requires massive public-works investment that is either unaffordable, or unjustifiable. For a commercial enterprise to invest into infrastructure, it must have confidence in the long-term political stability of the area, which is rarely available in the Third World.
Mobile networks are different: you just need to build the towers, and start selling SIM cards. If we assume that any new infrastructure rollout will start with the best available technology - which is a good idea, as proven by Estonia's rapid rise in IT after discarding a Soviet industrial legacy wholesale, and also by the historical example of countries losing wars, then becoming economic powerhouses because they had to buy the best new equipment to replace what was bombed - then a developing nation that embraces the newest mobile standards can expect its people to get very good connectivity indeed. Fifty kilometers away from the closest WiMax tower, a rural farmer with a directional antenna can get speeds as high as an Australian home will find at any money. In a town center, a kilometer away from the tower, the connection speed between a mobile phone and the tower is more than most people in the developed world will actually get out of their fancy home broadband equipment.
The viability of private investment into mobile connectivity services in the Third World is proven. The classic example is Somali Telecom - a for-profit enterprise, doing business in the world's least governed country (even if they supposedly maintain a small private army to guard the towers, and have their administrative offices in Dubai).
But never mind the broadband, and never mind 3G. Even the most basic mobile connection is more than enough to use e-state services, since most of them are just text. There are solutions already in place to bring the evil of modern banking to remote communities. But it is the universal access to information that has the biggest potential to start far-reaching changes in the attitudes and governance of developing nations.
Poverty breeds on ignorance. An informed and educated nation will not stay poor for long.