June 2005

The world in your pocket

Mobile phones are now in the hands of more than one billion people - one sixth of the world's population - and the numbers are still rising. Mobiles are no longer just a rich man's toy: Nokia predicts that by 2015, half the world could have one. And as the numbers grow, the mobile is changing from a 'phone' into something more.

In the developed world the 'more' is most likely to be seen as entertainment - MP3s, games, or mobile video. Elsewhere, it is clear that the mobile performs a more crucial role. It is both a communications device, even for places that do not have wired phones, and a way of 'plugging in' to the resources and knowledge of the modern world, through data services such as text messaging and access to the Internet. In less than a decade, a large slice of humanity could literally have the world in their pocket.

Under the umbrella: the African phone box

This is not just a 'might be' vision: it is already happening. The BBC's Peter Day recently reported from Ghana on the latest breed of one-man mobile phone entrepreneurs. Sitting by the roadside beneath an umbrella in the beating sun, they sell calls on their mobiles to passers by. There are reported to be 25,000 of these new entrepreneurs, in a country where only 8% of the population have access to a phone of any kind.

Set up in an instant wherever it is needed, this new form of capital-less enterprise needs no outlay other than the phone itself. Take a phone, an umbrella and a crudely painted sign, add an optional chair or desk, and you have a phone booth, African style. Selling calls at around 25p or 50c a minute, with costs of about half that, some of these one-person phone operators are said to make more in a day than they used to earn in a month.

Fishing by phone

Elsewhere, Nokia reports that fishermen on Lake Victoria use mobile phones to decide where they should land to get the best price for their catches. In Uganda and Senegal, distribution of market prices by text messaging and WAP allows farmers to obtain better prices for crops such as sorghum and grapefruit, avoiding exploitation by middlemen. Mobiles can distribute knowledge, power and even money in new ways.

Back in Europe, mobile phones are sporting new features - such as MP3 players, FM radios, and games. Around half of new phones now include in-built cameras. Once developed, mass production means it soon becomes very cheap to include these new features in standard mobile phones. Meanwhile the other 'must have' portable device is, of course, the iPod, while a range of competing multimedia players, games devices and PDAs are now available. In future these different devices may merge into a portable, multi-functional 'media processor'. For now, they are separate products, supplied by separate industries.

Trading work

In a pattern that is being repeated in many developing countries, mobile communications is becoming the first step to an advanced telecoms and IT infrastructure that enables new jobs. This includes the kind of call centre and IT outsourcing that has taken off in India, is developing in China, and that Africa now has its sights on. This provides a challenge for the old world. But it is a process of adjustment that is inevitable, as many types of work become tradable worldwide, across previously impenetrable boundaries. As basic manufacturing and service jobs move elsewhere, developed economies need to find new ways to add value, working both locally and on a global scale. This puts a new premium on innovation of all kinds.

Mobiles for all

In their different ways, user demand and market forces in very different countries and regions are leading to the spread of personal electronic devices, at a rate which is almost certainly greater than any other invention in history. The mobile is one of the most democratic inventions in history, because it is accessible to all parts of the population - ultimately in all countries.

There are major problems and costs in making cars (for example), PCs or even ordinary phones available to everyone in the world. But there are no insurmountable barriers, technical or commercial, in the way of everyone on the planet having a mobile phone - even a phone that includes data services such as text messaging, and access to the Internet. A mobile is a tenth the cost of a PC, and does not need mains power. And a mobile nework can be installed at a tiny fraction of the cost of a conventional wired network. What is more, it can provide countrywide coverage within months, rather than decades.

As experience in places such as Ghana and Uganda shows, this is already happening. In Ghana, four decades of post-colonialism led to only 400,000 wired phones by the turn of the century. But in 2004, a million mobiles were added in a single year. It is possible, even likely, that some people will have mobile phone access before they have a regular supply of clean water, or electricity. Mobile phones use little power, and can be recharged by a portable solar panel, or by devices similar to Trevor Bayliss's wind-up radio.

Mobiles are seen as a luxury in Europe and the USA, but in countries which lack basic telecommunications and access to information, they are becoming a basic tool which can make a significant difference to people's lives. Most importantly, they can dramatically speed up the pace of development, and give people a tool that helps them do things for themselves.

Plugging in - worldwide

Within less than a generation it seems likely that a large proportion - even a majority - of the world's population will carry a device that allows them not only to communicate with each other, but to plug into the information resources of the world. This apparently science fiction scenario is simply a straightforward development of what is happening today. It requires no new technical breakthrough, and no major investment other than what is already happening and can reasonably be expected, in countries around the world.

The effects that this will have on economies, social life, culture and even politics over the next decade will be complex and wide ranging, and we will return to this in future Views. There is no doubt that the impact will be profound, as barriers to communication and interaction on a global scale fall even further than they have today.


©2005 Mediation Technology


BBC Report: Mobile phones in Ghana

Nokia: Universal Access by 2015