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English via your mobile

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:48 UK time, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Much of the action at the Mobile World Congress this week has been about ever-smarter devices and faster networks bringing constant connectivity - at quite a hefty price - to consumers who want to be at the leading edge. But there is also a lot of activity aimed at the developing world - from Vodafone's $15 handset to the further roll-out of mobile money transfer services in Africa.

Screengrab of BBC Janala siteAnd then there's Janala, a phenomenon which appears to be revolutionising the teaching of English in Bangladesh using simple mobile technology. Janala - it means Window - is a service run by the BBC World Service Trust and funded by the UK's Department for International Development which launched in Bangladesh last November. At the Mobile World Congress this morning its creators are revealing that it has already served up one million English lessons over mobile phones.

Here's how it works. Bangladesh's 50 million mobile users simply dial 3000 and get access to hundreds of three-minute audio lesson and SMS quizzes. The classes range from Essential English for beginners to How to tell a story for more advanced learners.

Now, as with any mobile service, plenty of people will try this once and not return but the figures show that English-by-phone is proving more compelling than just about anything else. 39% of callers return to the service, compared to an average 5% return rate for other mobile information products in Bangladesh, and the content for beginners gets a 69% repeat rate.

You can see the service in action in this YouTube video of a BBC report.

Price is of course key here, and local mobile operators have co-operated in keeping it very low - at 1 Taka (1p) a minute it's about half the price of a normal call or text message. Janala appears to have tapped into a huge unmet need to learn English as a means of getting access to the global economy.

I've not seen any data, but even at the cut-price call rate, this service must be delivering a not-insignificant boost to the revenues of the mobile industry in Bangladesh. It will also help market mobile phones to the two-thirds of the population who are not yet connected.

Just as with the rapid take-up of mobile money transfer services in Africa, the mobile industry is finding that consumers in developing countries can be even more eager to adopt innovative services than those in the developed world. It's just a question of spotting the need, whether that be the urgency of sending money home without getting on a bus, or the desire to get a job which demands knowledge of English - or even the demand for Premier League football scores delivered to your phone by SMS.

And these services don't need 4G technology, capacitative screens, or HD video to be compelling to their users. Perhaps the mobile firms need to follow the example of millions of Bangladeshis - and just listen and learn.

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