No wires attached

Mark Hickey describes the communications revolution sweeping developed
and developing countries and outlines the changes that
the power of mobility will bring

An astonishingly rapid global revolution is under way, fundamentally changing the way people live. Wireless service is taking hold in developed and developing countries alike, spreading even faster than radio, television and telephones did, and revolutionizing telecommunications. There is a simple secret to its success: wireless means mobility and mobility has the power to change lives.

The power of mobility can be measured in the soaring number of people who already rely on wireless communications. Adopted more rapidly than almost any other 20th-century invention, it now helps an estimated 470 million people worldwide keep in touch and share information. Industry experts predict that within five years the number of worldwide wireless customers will have almost trebled to 1.26 billion. And by 2010, according to the International Telecommunications Union, cell phone users worldwide are expected to outnumber those with traditional phones.

The power of mobility has already transformed lifestyles. The first wireless customers were business people, boosting their productivity by keeping in touch while in transit. Now wireless phones are used as an essential communications tool by businesses and consumers alike, used on roadways and city streets, and in neighbourhoods, shopping malls, urban centres and rural areas all over the world. They appear to know no boundaries, encompassing people of all ages from all walks of life, all over the world. Voice communication dominates the wireless world at present, but data communications are already starting to add significant benefits and will play an increasingly important role in future.

Increasing accessibility
Worldwide changes in wireless regulation have helped make the service more accessible. As regulatory barriers to market entry have fallen, competition has increased, consumer awareness of the power of mobility has grown, and rates have declined. These in turn have increased penetration of the market and stimulated greater use of wireless networks.

Technology has also improved, giving customers better coverage, longer battery life, clearer calls, and smaller, less expensive handsets with enhanced features and functionality. Such developments have both attracted new customers and encouraged existing ones to use their wireless phones more frequently.

Demand, competition, regulatory change and new technology continue to move the wireless industry into a new era of growth and challenge. Over time, industry observers expect customers to move more of their communications to wireless networks, as they cease to distinguish between wireless or wireline services and instead simply reach for whichever device is handy.

Jump start
Most of the world’s people, it is estimated, have never placed or received a phone call. By working rapidly to fill that communications void, wireless will be central to the new global telecommunications growth of the future. In 1999, 22 per cent of the net additions to the world’s wireless users were in developing countries; by 2005, industry analysts expect, this proportion will have increased to 75 per cent. The capital costs of wireless are less than those of the traditional landline network, and developing countries are seizing the opportunity to use it to build and upgrade existing communications systems; in effect, jump starting into the 21st century. In the process, cultural barriers to understanding and sharing are being reduced, as nations and individuals alike grasp the advantages and reap the rewards of communicating. Mobile technology is moving ahead at break-neck speed. New handsets, new services and new standards are being introduced all the time. And increasing reliance on the Internet – the fastest growing service ever – is opening a new frontier. Until now access to the virtually unlimited information from all over the world that it puts at our fingertips has been restricted to desktop PCs: remote workers, or those without access to a computer, have not been able to access it.
Barriers to understanding and sharing are being reduced as nations and individuals grasp the advantages of communicating
But now new Web-enabled cellular phones are able to retrieve information from the Internet, as well as to send and receive voice messages. News stories, sports results and stock market quotations can all be accessed by mobile phones, and new services are just around the corner.

These will include on-line banking and travel information and booking as well as many applications for e-commerce. Business users will be able instantly to access important information held on computer systems back in the office, including office e-mail, and electronic calendar and address book systems. And, of course, there will be a wealth of entertainment information, television listings, film previews and games.

As the evolution of wireless continues, third-generation technology is expected to transmit data much faster than is now possible, enabling mobile phones to receive Internet data, video communications and graphics faster than traditional fixed lines, and even receive television broadcasts.

The start of the new millennium is witnessing a telecommunications world that is very different from even the recent past. Clearly challenges lie ahead. But driven by the power of mobility, the world is going wireless and an ever increasing number of people everywhere are reaping the rewards of communicating in a world without wires

Mark Hickey is Human Resources and Regional Services Executive Director of Vodafone.

PHOTOGRAPH: Marwa Elhasan/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | The right to diversity | Gain, not pain | Changing course | From summit to summit | Empowering the poor | The environment millennium | Focus On Your World | Competition | A critical priority | Flashing indicators | Sea changes | No wires attached | Now for vigorous action | Malmö Ministerial Declaration | Young, impatient and soon to be in charge | Green spot in Africa

Complementary articles in other issues:
David Wheeler, et al: New millennium, new regulation (Beyond 2000) 2000
Terrell J. Minger and Meredith Miller: From hydrocarbons to bits and bytes (UNEP – Looking Forward) 1999
David Nostbakken: The future is not what it used to be (The Way Ahead) 1997
Don de Silva: From bypass to superhighway (Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996