1991, 2012 and 2030: Mobile phones and communications: then, now and in the future
The second dimension – and the one that concerns me more – is whether I will still be able to communicate as openly as I do today. Will I still be able to connect the device of my choice to the network of my choice?
There is no denying the mobile phone has had a profound impact on society. This impact has been across all social tiers – from the top of the pyramid to the bottom. Today, in most locations around the world, a mobile phone of some sort is generally affordable and, for most, a necessity. Getting a mobile phone is no real adventure either – head to one of the literally hundreds (or thousands, as the case may be) of mobile stores in most cities and towns around the world and you pretty much can get one of your liking on the spot. Put in a SIM card from a service provider of your choice, turn the phone on, follow the provider’s registration guide and you can generally be on your way with your new phone and number in less than half-an-hour.
Gone are the days when one had to put in an application for a landline and, in some countries, wait for literally years till you got connected. Hopefully, you were still in the same house when the telephone company’s van turned up for the installation!
The mobile phone itself has evolved. My first experience with regularly using a mobile phone was in 1991 with the iconic “brick” from Motorola – Model 8800, if I remember correctly. In its time, it was a wonderful device which brought to its owner a true sense of being “connected on the go”. Today I use a Motorola RAZR Android- equally wonderful in the current context!
The difference, a very big difference, is my current phone does a whole lot more than just make- rather expensive, back in 1991! – Phone calls. Today I get a certain number of free phone minutes with my phone (including international calls should I want). I have a data plan with the phone that gives me 3G access nearly everywhere I am – this lets me email, tweet, browse the Web, navigate the location I am in, watch online TV broadcasts or video, listen to online radio and take, and send to others, pictures and video. And it also allows me to make phone calls without using the phone companies’ services, and charges. We certainly have come a long way in 20 years……Which makes me think. Where will we be 20 years from now? For one, I hope I am not completely senile so I can actually think about and answer this question – I have even set myself a calendar entry to remind me 20 years from now!
I think there are at least two dimensions to consider. One is the technological, from a design and product point of view. What will the phone-like device look like in 2030? I say phone-like because I don’t even know if we will still call it a phone then! I went from the 55mm thick Brick in 1991 to buying the 7mm thin RAZR in mid-December 2011. Not to mention the bright and colourful scratch-resistant touch screen display and the various connectivity and application options. For much of January 2012 I had to keep double-checking if I had the phone in my pocket as I went about my daily activities. Apart from being a fraction of the size of the Brick, it’s also some 7 times lighter. And compared to what it replaced, my current phone is some 40% lighter.
The second dimension – and the one that concerns me more – is whether I will still be able to communicate as openly as I do today. Will I still be able to connect the device of my choice to the network of my choice? Will I be able to use the service of my choice to communicate – be it voice, data or video? Will I still be able to use the Internet – and whatever I wish to browse on it – without having someone else enforce rules and regulations on what I can or cannot browse, without worrying about what device I use to do so? Will I still be able to communicate with whoever I want, in whichever country, using whatever service provider they are using? And will I be able to send that person a data file while we speak? Will that person be able to edit and send that file back to me by the time our voice conversation ends?
Whatever my phone-like device looks like, features it has – and whatever we will call it – I am sure I will still be able to look back and do a comparison in 2030 to what I had in 2012, and be able to say “wow, imagine then and now”.
My only hope is that in 2030.and irrespective whether I am senile or not! – The world is still able to communicate openly and freely using a communications device and service provider of its own choice, that the Internet (or whatever we call it then) has not been politicised, regulated and thrashed to the extent that all the great things it has allowed us to achieve – from education to trade to healthcare to community empowerment – is all but a distant memory.
The decisions we make today have an impact on our collective tomorrow. In 1988, a treaty called the International Telecommunications Regulations was developed at the World Administrative Telegraph and Telephone Conference (WATTC-88). These have not been revised since then, but will be at the end of this year at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The updated treaty will be voted on and decided by the world’s governments and, needless to say, the decisions made at WCIT could have a profound impact on the communications networks of tomorrow.
Let’s hope the decisions made by our governments at this international treaty event take into account the needs, wants and aspirations of their citizens – we the people who voted them in – and that such decisions are geared towards the continued and open development of technology, the Internet and the way we communicate.
Regional Director : Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau at the Internet Society
Expert Views | Rajnesh Singh