Saturday, November 12, 2005

Married to the mob

A decade ago, the cellphone was a prized gadget owned by a coveted few. Today, it has become a buy that suits all pockets and tastes. Roopinder Singh connects to the past, present and future of the must-possess you can’t leave home without

Photo by Pradeep TewariIT connects people like nothing else has done over the years. No wonder it is so popular. Everyone reading this article either must be owning a cellphone or knowing people who do. Not much of a feat since there are over two billion mobile phone connections globally—one in three persons in the world has a mobile phone, also called a cellphone.

When cellphones first came to India in 1994, there were just a few service providers, and the brick-like handsets cost a lot, had a short battery life and a call cost as much as Rs 19 a minute.

The first use of cellphones was by businesses. Today too, businesses use cellphones, but these are restricted to not just the CEOs but the plumbers and electricians too own it. Incidentally, Nokia estimated that companies that embrace mobility could expect to see a productivity jump by as much as 6 per cent.

Anyway, as numbers have grown, cellphones have become ubiquitous. In certain parts of the world, the number of subscribers exceeds the population of the area concerned. And in many nations, mobile phone connections and landlines are neck and neck in numbers. Chandigarh was the first city to have more cellphones than landline connections, and now there are 43 million mobile phone subscribers in India. The market has shown a growth rate of over 50 per cent in the last few years.

Cellphones manufacturing was a low priority till now, but LG has set up a plant which has a capacity of two million sets a year. Nokia too has announced its intent and BenQ is checking its options here. This is, of course, linked to the fact that India, along with China and many nations in the African continent, is where the market for new phones is.

Sunshine industry

If we look at the financial figures, a comparison between the Chinese and the Indian telecom markets reveals that the total revenue for China is $65.3 billion, whereas India stands at $17.78 billion. The total subscribers in China were 674.5 million, as opposed to 98.08 million in India, according to a study paper published by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The capital employed for every mobile service subscriber also works out in favour of China, $163 vs $167 for India.

Even though the information technology industry has been hogging the limelight, sources point out that the rate of expansion of the mobile telecom industry has been explosive, and it is definitely a sunshine industry. What is expected to further fuel the growth is cheaper handsets (Rs 1,250 or less), as well as micro payments of as less at Rs 5 or 10, such that even those who have a limited amount of disposable income can use mobile phones.

Youth power

Youth is driving the market today, and the cellphone is a new status symbol for many. While communication is a very basic human need, the feature-rich, highly individualistic instruments are fashion statements in their own right, besides signalling, quite conspicuously, the wealth of the individual. In fact, many who do not own a cellphone feel left out.

Two years ago, replacements accounted for barely 10 per cent of the total handset market. Today, it is about 25 per cent. The figure is expected to rise up to 30, even 40 per cent in the next two years. The value-added services by telecom companies further contribute to this rise in services, since what began as a communication tool is now a multimedia device. So much so that the camera phones sold many times the number of digital cameras last year.

Short messaging service (SMS) has become a major communication tool of today, and has even led to a new sublanguage at the cost of, many would complain, good grammar and proper English.

Today’s smart phones would have a feature-rich body that would include contacts and calendar, Internet browser, e-mail, multi-tonal ring tones, MP3 player, digital camera, location capability and video. These are personal digital assistants as well as gaming and entertainment platforms.

Criminal intent

As German philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out, nothing is good in itself. Cellphones, in the hands of crooks, become sophisticated tools of ill intent. Whether it is purveying pornography, intruding on privacy by taking photographs, or using them with criminal intent, cell phones have had their share of headlines.

The Delhi MMS case, in which a minor boy allegedly made a sexually explicit MMS involving him and his classmate, was much discussed. Many schools have now banned cellphones on their premises. Even in the US, a recent survey by Amplitude Research showed that 23 per cent elementary (primary), 53 per cent middle, and 72 per cent high school children have a cellphone. However, parents overwhelmingly said these devices should not be used during school hours.

While technology as such can’t be faulted for its misuse, the law needs to be tightened to tackle its misuse.

Health risk

There have been persistent concerns about the effect of cellphones on the health of individuals who use them. These largely focus on the emissions of radiofrequency (RF) radiation from the phones (the handsets) as well as from the base stations (the tower-like antenna) that receive and transmit the signals. Since handsets are held near to the head, the impact is magnified it is feared.

There have been many studies on the dangers of using cellphones. There have been reports that suggest that cellphone users have a higher degree of vulnerability to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and even leukaemia. Such claims have been dismissed by various governments and while people are cautious, the sale of cell phones has been increasing exponentially. When an NDTV opinion poll asked viewers if the benefits of cell phones outweigh their health risks, 60 per cent of the viewers said ‘Yes’ and 40 said ‘No".

Future trends

When you want to reach out to the largest numbers of users, you have to include those at the lower end of the pyramid. One of the biggest drivers of growth of the cellphone industry is the constant endeavour of manufacturers to come out periodically with freshly designed basic instruments at reduced costs. On the one hand, manufacturers expect to fuel growth with inexpensive phones as well as mircro-payment plans, while on the other hand, the sale of mobile phones with cameras exceeds that of digital cameras, and now cellphone companies are coming with phones that double us as MP3 players too. In fact, cellphones have become all-in-one devices, with cameras, video cameras, multimedia, e-mail and other facilities. The expanding role of this convenient device will ensure a bright future for it.

Cellular origins

WHAT exactly is a cellphone? Basically, it is a sophisticated radio device. Earlier, you had radio telephones that were big, hardly portable. In 1921, the Detroit Michigan Police Department became the first user of mobile radio telephones in the US. However, these were primitive machines, and such was the technology that even in the 1980s they were often in briefcase-like containers, and had a range of about 70 km or so. Such radio telephones required powerful handsets, as well as big antenna for base traffic. They were powerful and monolithic, but limited to 20 or 30 channels.

Another approach to mobile communication was explored as far back as 1947 by D. H. Ring at Bell Labs. As per this approach, an area could be divided into a grid of small cells, and as the user went from one cell to the next one, the instrument too switched to the next grid, and made seamless communication possible. Such a method required the use of less powerful instruments. This made the instruments cheaper as well as smaller. Its special system would also allow frequencies to be reused in cells that were not contiguous, thus increasing the number of persons who could use the phones, without impinging on the scarce wireless spectrum resources.

It was in 1978 that the first service trial of a cellular system developed by Bell Labs was held in Chicago. Though the first cellphones were analogue, since 1980 the thrust has been on digital systems, which offer better sound quality, greater channel capacity and lower cost than analogue. It also allows for many new features to be added. Of course, new phones have many times the processing power of the old ones, but advances in electronics technology have made it viable and cost effective.

Just as Americans drive on the different side of the road, they have cellular systems that are not compatible with the rest of the world. This is because they, and the Canadians, have technical standards and frequencies that are different than the rest of the world. Europe has led the rest of the world since the 1980s by adopting the GSM and CDMA standards.

The first cell phone service was started in the US in 1983, the same year that Time magazine declared computer the "Man of the Year". However, the US accepted GSM only in 1995. In India, both the technologies are vying with each other, thereby providing the customers with a choice of systems. Today, China is the largest cell phone user, with 400 million subscribers, almost double the number of users in the US, which is second in this list. India is a distant sixth, behind Russia, Japan and Brazil, according to the Computer Industry Almanac.