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Magazine Web Edition > October/November/December 2013 > Digital Dharma: Information Technology

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INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

Mobiles and Mass Communication

THERE ARE OVER SEVEN BILLION PEOPLE on Earth. According to the International Telecommunication Union, the number of mobile-cellular subscriptions reached 6.8 billion in 2013! In the meantime, land lines have leveled off at about 1.3 billion. Mobile phones and their effects have been present in industrialized countries for years, but few people stop talking and texting long enough to actually think about how drastically mobiles have shaped their lives. In a few decades people have gone from having sometimes hours or days between communication—to being constantly available at the touch of a button. Throughout many countries, everyone now has the potential to communicate with anyone at anytime. A mobile-connected country is one united in a new and powerful way, and now a mobile-connected world is emerging. Telecommunications and the Internet have become humanity’s central nervous system, instantly relaying information to anywhere on Earth.

Though communications technology has long been prominent in the US and Europe, it is relatively new in the developing nations of Asia and Africa. In 2000, the United States and Europe both reached the point of having more mobile phone subscriptions than fixed land lines—this expansion occurred just 15 years after the first mobile call was made. But comparatively the growing rate of use in many Asian and African countries is staggering. It was a big deal when the US went from zero mobile phones to nearly every one of its 316 million people owning one in 25 years. But now India has jumped from 45 million wireless subscriptions in 2002 to nearly 900 million in 2012. Such growth would have been impossible with a land line phone system. India’s mobile connections continue to rise by ten million each month. For a technical analysis of mobile phone impact in India, see bit.ly/india-mobile

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Big data from cheap phones: Researchers in Kenya are using mass mobile data to track malaria outbreaks, pinpoint hot spots and message people about disease cases in their area. One of the researchers stated that if the disease were to be eliminated, this is how it will happen.
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Throughout many developing nations, mobile phones have been met with tremendous positivity and optimism. In a study of usage in South Africa, 85% of small business respondents interviewed had no other means of communication, and said that mobiles have reduced travel, brought higher profits, turnover and increased efficiency.

Another study, by the Indian Institute of Management, looked at mobile usage in India’s slums. It found that in the average four-person household earnings for mobile users is 67% higher than non-users. The average monthly income for those who had owned a phone for less that one year was almost 25% lower than those who owned a mobile for over two years. And, the longer a person had a mobile phone, the more likely they were to be earning regular wages or be self-employed.

Information services in India are helping farmers through mobile phone notifications, voice messaging and help lines, providing information about diverse areas of farming. One farmer acted on timely weather information, received through the service IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Limited, to protect a harvested crop that was exposed to the elements. He estimates that without this information he would have lost 50% of the harvest. Making use of the service’s information on planting techniques, diseases and other practices, he shifted from “guess-based” approach to one of modern, scientific cultivation. He credited these changes with a 25% increase in his annual income.

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Connected: A young man in India talks on his mobile
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The expansion of mobile voice services throughout the world is just the beginning. Internet access is the next big step in communication. Currently only about 40% of the global population has Internet access. However, this number is growing rapidly, made easier because mobile Internet has replaced the necessity of desktops for web access. But how to get fast, cheap Internet to billions, many in countries without the proper hard-wired infrastructure? One possible answer has been offered by O3b Networks. Partially sponsored by Google, this global satellite service provider has recently launched four of 12 new satellites designed to provide billions of consumers in nearly 180 countries with low-cost, high-speed, low-latency Internet and mobile connectivity. As you can see, the possibilities are endless.

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A mobile future: This graph shows the estimated growth in mobile data traffic worldwide side by side with the global population from 2005 to 2013
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