Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol is researcher at the Interdisciplinary Internet Institute, where she’s assistant to Prof. Manuel Castells, and Lecturer in Econometrics at the University of Barcelona.
She’s now published, along with Manuel Castells, Jack Linchuan Qiu and Araba Sey, the book Mobile Communication and Society and has kindly accepted to answer some questions about the book and about the use of mobile phones for development. Here they go:
Question: The book’s presentation says that
Mobile Communication and Society looks at how the possibility of multimodal communication from anywhere to anywhere at any time affects everyday life. Can you summarize 392 pages into 3.92 lines? ;)
Answer: Of course I can’t… But here you are some of our main findings:
Having a mobile phone, at least in developed countries where nowadays it is a personal device, means having Relentless Connectivity. Put it simply, we are available 24 hours a day, as well as our contacts are.
Communication is held among the different nodes of our Network of Choice. For instance, some times we prefer to call a friend asking for some indications to get a specific address than to talk to the bus driver.
As we are nodes of a network, we can establish Instant Communities of Practice. Flash mobs are one example, as well as it were the concentrations in front of the headquarters of the Spanish conservative party PP, in the evening of the 13th of March, 2003.
In this context, the Blurring of the Social Context of Individual Practice increases and our different everyday-life-roles are mixed. For instance, a security guard talks to her boyfriend without need of asking permission to her supervisor; students can communicate with other friends outside the classroom and do, at least, two different activities simultaneously, etc.
Q: Surely wireless technologies and applications are not used the same way everywhere, and thus their impact is different two. Could you point the main divergences in use and/or impact between developed and developing countries?
A: In developing countries, among less wealthy segments of population, the mobile phone is the first private telephone available to the family. It allows not only outcome calls but, most important, incoming calls. It is very often a collective device, thus all the members of the family use it… normally as it were a fixed telephone. However, sometimes the handset becomes mobile and goes out of home, often under the mother’s supervision.
On the other hand, boom calls (those made not to be answered) are used not only for fun but also in business. A customer could make a boom call to the milkman to order some milk. Usually, they had previously agreed the meaning of the boom call in order to avoid misunderstandings.
Finally, it is worth to point that in developing countries having a handset is not essential, and the SIM card would be enough to guarantee communication. A SIM card can be used in a mobile payphone, there you can also check if somebody has called you or has sent you an SMS. The SIM card works under a prepayment system so the expenses are kept totally under control.
All in all, the main difference between rich and poor users is that, among rich people mobile telephony is a complementary technology while for the poor it is an affordable substitute of the expensive, and sometimes inexistent, fixed telephony.
A: Around developing countries some innovative and fairly effective mechanisms and products are emerging to address the problem of telecommunication access. Some operators in there have begun to offer scaled down services, as in China (the Little Smart phone) and India (Wireless Local Loop telephony). But there are also grassroots’ projects, as the successful Grameen’s Village Phone program. Created in Bangladesh, it has been adopted in some other countries, as Uganda, South Africa and Ghana, in the same or in a modified form.
There is, indeed, a common agreement that this kind of initiatives increase consumer surplus as a result of reduced communication costs, and improve access to business information, while service providers have gained additional income (up to 40% of household income) as well as social and economic empowerment, especially in gender terms.
Q: Thus, “leapfrogging”: buzzword or keyword?
A: Time will say, but up to day what we can say is that landscape in some parts of Africa has changed. In the main street in a tiny rural town you can usually see two or three mobile payphones, and an antenna in the top on the nearest hill. There is a lot of activity around these mobile payphones.
Indeed, there is not overwhelming evidence to support the leapfrog hypothesis in terms of eliminating stages of economic development. However, and following Coyle (2005) (2.7 Mb), one of the most important identifiers of the potential developmental impact of mobile telephony could be its contribution to moving developing countries as close as possible to universal telecommunications service, which has been shown to have been the critical mass level at which telecommunications began to exhibit significant impacts on economic growth in advanced economies [emphasis is mine].
Q: And what’s next? Where does research on wireless networks in the field of ICT4D head to?
A: Three studies I would recommend you:
- Digital Poverty: Latin American and Caribbean Perspectives (684 Kb)
- Innovations in Wireless Telephone Service Access in Ghana
- The Economic and Social Benefits of Mobile Services in Bangladesh (1.61 Mb)
And three general resources:
- Information Technologies and International Development
- Diálogo Regional sobre la Sociedad de la Información [Regional Dialogue on the Information Society]
- Wireless Communication and Development: A Global Perspective (Workshop)
Thanks a lot for your time!
- Site of the book at MIT Press, with full table of contents and sample chapters.
- Mobile Communication and Society: review of the book
- Wireless Networking in the Developing World
- Village Phone Replication Manual
If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:
Peña-López, I. (2006) “Mobile Communication and Society: Interview with Mireia FernÃ¡ndez-ArdÃ¨vol, coauthor” In ICTlogy,
#38, November 2006. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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