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Saturday, 20 October 2012 12:48

Why mobile phones are changing the world


International mobile phone industry group GSMA has announced that there are 3.2 billion mobile phone users in the world.

There are 7 billion people on earth, including babies, the infirm, prisoners and others who can’t use a phone. But still early half of the world’s population have the things. In Australia and many western and Asian countries there are as many – or more – mobile phones as there are people.

There are 50 million new mobile phone connections every month – more than a million a day (or more than 50,000 every hour, or more than one every second). A quarter of the growth is coming from just two countries, India and China. Most of the rest is coming from other developing countries, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria all in the top ten.

For many years I used a slide in presentations which compared the industry’s forecasts for mobile phone penetration with what actually happened. In 2000 the UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) Forum underestimated the growth in mobile phone shipments over the next five years by a factor of two – twice as many shipped as they thought would happen.

If an industry body can get got so wrong – and they are more often optimistic than pessimistic – it shows the difficulty of forecasting these things.

The real news is that even in the developing world, by far the majority of adults have a mobile phone, and that is now the way most people on this planet access the Internet. To most people on this planet, the Internet revolution and the mobile phone revolution are the same thing.

I remember visiting Shanghai back in the 1990s. I was wandering down the Bund, as one does, and my phone rang (it was wine merchant calling from Australia). My guide, a young Chinese girl, saw my Ericsson flip phone and pulled out her own phone – it was exactly the same, even down to the banana yellow colour.

She asked me how much my phone cost me. I said a couple of hundred dollars. I didn’t really know – it was part of a plan. She told me hers cost her over a month’s salary, up front. Then it really hit me just how much people are prepared to pay for the convenience of mobile telephony. Every time a see figures like three billion mobile phones, I am reminded of that conversation.

Most of these new mobile phone connections are being taken up by people to whom the expense is a very significant part of their disposable income. More than a motorbike, more than a smart shirt, more than just about any other consumer item, people will buy themselves a mobile phone as soon as they can afford it. The cheapest models are now well within the reach of all but the poorest of the poor, and even smart phones are increasingly affordable.

China is now the largest mobile phone market on earth, with nearly a billion connections. India is a fair way behind, but catching up quickly. For many years small shops offering STD and ISD calls were commonplace on the subcontinent. They have now declined substantially in numbers – people just borrow a friend’s mobile phone now, if they don’t have one themselves.

The provision of mobile phones to the world’s poor has done more to alleviate poverty than any number of aid programs. There is little in life more important than communication, as the growth in numbers in the developing world attests.

When you have communications, you can do things you never could before. The free flow of information oils the wheels of commerce – we talk about the eBusiness revolution that the Internet has enabled, but the sudden ability to talk to a supplier or find out market prices in the next village has worked similar wonders in subsistence economies.

Many developing countries have been able to leapfrog the entire wired infrastructure phase of telecommunications, going straight from nothing to wireless. The cost of installing a mobile phone network is comparatively small, and well within the reach of even the tiniest and poorest countries.

If the government won’t do it, private enterprise will. As the numbers show, the entire population is their market. And as we move 4G and LTE telephony and beyond, and as even the smartest multimedia phones drop in price, as they are, it will be through mobile phones that most people on Earth are accessing the information riches of the Internet.

Mobile phones are changing the lives of people all around the world in a way that no other technology yet has. And they have the potential to change their lives even more. That is because even the simplest mobile phone is much more than a telephone. Increasingly it is also a camera, a text messaging system, a display device, and a storage device.

This is true of even the cheapest phones – as the cost of the technology drops, the amount of technology you get for your money increases.

We take mobile phones for granted. We often forget how much they have changed the world – and improved people’s lives.

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire. He is one of Australia’s longest serving and most experienced IT journalists. He is author of the only definitive history of the Australian IT industry, ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing.’

He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time weekly IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.

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