Aspects of Mobility
By Arnab B. Chowdhury
Arnab B. Chowdhury is founder and CEO of Ninad (www.ninad.biz) – an international e-Learning consulting firm, headquartered at Pondichéry, south India.
What is the most perceptible differentiator between plants and us? What enabled Babur to cross the Hindukush mountains to establish the Moghul dynasty in India, Columbus to discover the New World in an ad-hoc fashion or Neil Armstrong to take that small first step on the moon? Is there a common phenomenon that underlies these questions?
The answer perhaps lies in that basic instinct called - mobility.Over the past two hundred odd years, the fundamental pattern of human mobility has changed. Physical mobility has begun to be superseded by logical mobility that relates more towards our emotional and intellectual needs rather than solely our physical wants. For millennia, we have been physically mobile whether in the form of individual, family, tribe or army moving in search of better sustenance - better arable land, water, wealth, power or simply aspiring for better quality of life.
Logical mobility was founded more recently in 1830 when Joseph Henry demonstrated the potential of using electromagnetic phenomenon of electricity for long distance communication by sending an electronic current over one mile of wire to activate an electromagnet which caused a bell to ring. Later in 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse used this property of electricity to invent the telegraph and transmitted his famous message "What hath God wrought?" from Washington to Baltimore – a distance of 40 miles. Then followed, the epoch making first voice call over wire -- "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!” by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Logical mobility evolved from ringing a bell to telegraph to telephone, which in turn led to the television.
Later, in 1957 in retaliation to the launching of Sputnik – the first artificial satellite by the USSR, the United States formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defence. The mandate for Paul Baran of RAND corporation was to maintain its command and control over its missiles and bombers with a decentralized communication network in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. His final proposal was a packet switched network wherein packets of data (datagrams) were labelled to indicate the origin and destination of the information to be sent to the destination computer in the network. Multiple flavours of packet-switched networks including TCP/IP and X.25 emerged. TCP/IP, driven by education and defence in the United States, grew as a data network for computer users community - while the European industry nurtured X.25 that grew as the network offered by the telecom operators.
Add to it the development of the World Wide Web (WWW) started by Tim Berners-Lee as a text processing software in European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland back in 1989. This phenomenon converged communication technology with information technology, which ushered in the digital economy. With the World Wide Web, three societal needs were given the appropriate media platform to nurture: communication, commerce and entertainment. In all, this convergent development met the basic aspiration of logical mobility – the need and ability to access data, information and knowledge from anywhere, anytime.
But is logical mobility really making a difference to the quality of human life from a socio-economic perspective? The answer is 'yes' among the digital divide 'haves'. We, as distant learning student, sales professional, retail investor, digital entertainment consumer or anybody labelled as mobile worker, are already leveraging upon near-instant wireless and wireline information on the fly with networked devices such as cell phones, PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) and a host of smart mobile devices like the iPod.
But what about the 'have-nots'? What about that eighty percent of the global population that lives on less than one dollar a day, most of whom -- according to the World Resources Institute -- have never made a telephone call, let alone used the Internet? The answer is an almost inaudible 'yes' with a booming 'no'.
We still have to imagine how the benefits of mobile computing can percolate down to the larger bottom-tier of humankind when much larger issues such as health, literacy, and economic sustenance-related issues are looming ahead. A total sceptic might snigger – hey if we cannot supply decent electricity can we have PCs or cell phones that don't use electricity instead? Or look at the Dot Com boom and bust wherein we simply ignorantly labelled the 'have-nots' as 'have-laters'?
However, the optimist in us says that all is not lost. We aren't talking about the Wi-Fi hotspots and satellite telephones in the digital 'haves' world but about a couple of pioneering instances closer home in the Indian subcontinent where the digital economy landscape is as diverse from the hi-tech hub of Bangalore to Balasore district and where logical mobility has changed the lives from 'have-nots' to 'haves-now'.
One shining example is the Village Phone Program by GrameenPhone in cooperation with Grameen Bank – Bangladesh's internationally renowned micro-credit lending institution. This Program is a unique effort that provides telecommunications facilities in rural areas while providing the Village Phone operators, mostly poor rural women, a good earning opportunity with the commitment of "good development is good business". As an owner-operated pay phone, the Village Phone Program provides telephone services in rural areas where no such facilities existed before. It allows the rural poor, who cannot afford to become a regular subscriber, to avail the service. Typically, a borrower of Grameen Bank takes a loan of around 12,000 Taka and buys a handset and subscription of the mobile service while she is also trained on to how to operate it and how to charge the users for it. As of October 2003, there were more than 39,000 Village Phones in operation operating in nearly 28,000 villages of some 58 districts encompassing more than 50 million people living in remote rural areas!
Technologically, High Gain Antenna ensures smooth call completion in areas of weak signal while extending coverage for the Village Phone operation without further investment in network expansion. To counter remote villages without electricity, solar panel and DC batteries are being used for charging the cell phones. As a business, the average revenue per user (ARPU) of Village Phone subscribers is double that of the average business user. So imagine the difference in quality of life this Program can create in terms of being an essential communication channel during relief operations in the context of natural disasters, and in future when GrameenPhone integrates content services such as distance education, health assistance and adult education via fax, e-mail and Internet.
Another potential case is a project called 'Open Source Simple Computer for Agriculture in Rural Areas' or OSCAR that has the objective of developing a decision-making tool for weed identification and control that will address the issue of the declining agricultural productivity in South Asia. And that decision-making tool is essentially logically moulding agronomy know-how software onto a 'Simputer' - a hand-held 32MB Linux-based computer using smartcard technology that runs on three AAA batteries with a price tag of about Rs.10,000. Imagine Baldev Singh, a wheat farmer, instead of relying on his Doordarshan-fed Krishidarshan capsule, checking out his crop to evaluate his quality of wheat output with an easy-to-interface species identification software program in Hindi! A joint effort by French Institute of Pondicherry, Rice Wheat Consortium for the Indo-Gangetic Plains (Delhi), University of Wageningen (the Netherlands), and Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD–France), OSCAR has the potential to make a difference to the quality of agro-output, mindset and finally the quality of life for the millions of farmers and in turn millions of consumers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains and beyond.
With the digital economy, a new mobility paradigm has evolved from a physical mobility of goods (atoms and molecules) to logical objects (bits). Actual information and business workflows have changed in terms of operations leveraging upon the four essential characteristics of the digital economy – digitisation, immediacy, globalisation and virtualisation.
Economic divide in the society-at-large between the rich and the poor has always been an age-old issue that thinkers, philosophers and politicians have been trying to bridge with severe lack of success. In the digital context, the economic divide continues to lie in the ability to find, create, develop and utilize the right information at the right time in a cost-effective manner. Is logical mobility as a phenomenon going to help us to bridge that divide or is it going to be a grand global case of technological apartheid?