Shaping the Future Mobile Information Society

An explosion in the use of mobile telephony has taken place within the last two decades. It has cut across geographic and socio-demographic criteria, with developing and developed countries alike witnessing staggering growth rates. Mobile lines overtook fixed lines on a global scale at the end of 2002. At the end of 2003, there were over 1.35 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, compared with only 1.2 billion fixed-line users.

The growing importance of mobile communications has a number of implications. Although ITU has been working on technical specifications for Internet and mobile networks, such as 3G's IMT-2000, for over a decade, this is the first time that it has convened a global meeting to examine the social and human considerations relating to the rapid development of this technology.

"Mobile phones are everywhere. The typical user carries one with them wherever they go, and would be hard-pressed to part with it. In this respect, the mobile phone has moved beyond being a mere technological object to become a key "social object", present in every aspect of our daily lives," noted Mr Roberto Blois, Deputy Secretary-General of ITU, who opened the workshop.

"The question that is raised is how well equipped we are as a society, and as individuals, to live in a world of technological ubiquity? As we move towards a future in which the mobile phone may become the personal ICT device of choice, are the appropriate safeguards in place?"

The ITU Workshop entitled "Shaping the Future Mobile Information Society" was held in Seoul, Republic of Korea from 4 to 5 March 2004, and was hosted by the Ministry of Information and Communication. Some 50 experts participated in the workshop, representing a range of regulatory and policy-making agencies, mobile operators, service providers, academic institutions, futurologists, private firms, and others. Mr. Svend Kraemer, Head of Sector within the European Commission's Information Society Directorate, chaired the meeting.

Two background papers were prepared for discussion at the workshop: "Broadband mobile communications towards a converged world" and "Social and human considerations for a more mobile world". In addition, a number of case studies were prepared covering country experiences in Japan, the Republic of Korea, Morocco and Norway. All meeting documents including case studies and presentations are available here .The experiences of a number of other economies was also presented, including Canada, Hong Kong (China), India, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States.

A Mobile Information Society: Changing lives and attitudes

The Information Society may be defined as a world in which "everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge" (Declaration of the World Summit on the Information Society). The mobile information society is based on realizing the so-called 3 "A"s (anyone, anytime, anywhere). The generation that has grown up using mobile phones (labeled "GenTXT" in the Philippines) will have different social habits and norms than their parents. Like any technologies, the associated social changes bring benefits but also pose challenges and ethical questions.

The workshop generated numerous anecdotes from around the world:

In Norway, for instance, public policy requires that individual tax returns are publicly available via the Web. This has promoted a Friday night boom in SMS traffic to the tax service as Norwegians meeting friends, business colleagues or potential mates check on their earning potential before deciding whether to take the relationship further.

In Japan, automated SMS alerts can be sent to parents' mobile email to inform them on when and where to pick up their children after school ("Child Pick-Up Service").

In the Republic of Korea, downloading anti-mosquito ring tones helps to making camping a more pleasant experience while traffic alerts delivered to in-car navigation systems help Koreans to arrive at the camps-sites in good time.

In Kenya, farmers use mobile e-mail to check current market prices in order to avoid exploitation by commodity speculators or middlemen.

In Morocco, banks send SMS to their customers to tell them of the completion of funds transfers.

In Germany, young men who do not use SMS to reaffirm their love for their partners soon find themselves lonely.

In the Philippines, enables Filipinos working overseas to stay in touch with their loved ones via instant messages converted to SMS on mobile phones.

In Scotland, a network of SMS users co-operatively tracks the movements of Prince William, the heir to the British throne, to ensure he never arrives anywhere without a crowd of admirers.

In Sweden, mobile gamers ("Botfighters") track and "kill" other users nearby via SMS. When riding the Stockholm subway, SMS can also alert a small group of "fare-jumpers" to the presence of ticket collectors.

The Workshop addressed the issues of change in social behaviour and manners with the advent of mobile telephony. Among the insights expressed is the notion that the highly targeted group communications enabled by mobile voice and SMS messaging would tend to weaken more conventional 'face-to-face' community forms while conversely strengthening networks.

Privacy and Identity in a Mobile World

Mobile phones are shaping the identity of individuals, families and social groupings. They are increasingly viewed as a status symbol by adults and youths alike, and clearly affect the way people interact with each other. An interesting example is the growing trend of "bluejacking" (particularly in Europe), which allows users to send anonymous notes at no charge to others (often strangers), within the range of their bluetooth-enabled phone.

Like many information and communication technologies (ICTs), mobiles are meant to save us time. But this new generation of always-on, anytime, anyplace technologies may allow for levels of convenience and safety, but also of surveillance, unknown and unimagined by earlier generations.

In a digital environment, protecting one's identity is becoming an increasingly difficult task. One of the new rituals is the conscious concealment or display of the "caller identification" feature on mobile phones. The staggering growth of camera-enabled phones raises concerns about the use of photography for exploitation or invasions of privacy. In order to take full advantage of advances in wireless medical technologies, patient records and information stemming from " body area networks" must be adequately protected. And as we start reaching for the next billion users, the need to manage unsolicited messaging (Spam), while ensuring that innovative services are developed, will become even more acute.

The question that is raised is whether we are well-equipped as a society, and as individuals, to live in a world of technological ubiquity, a world in which an intelligent microwave warms up your dinner before you get home, or your mobile phone tells you that your spouse is late for dinner. Consider the use of tiny Radio Frequency ID tags imbedded into clothing to help retail businesses track inventory. Will these remain active once the item has been purchased and what kind of information will be collected? At the dawn of this new age, it is important to consider what effect these technologies are having on the way we grow, interact, socialize and learn.

Mobile at heart: Opportunities and Threats for the Youth Market

Mobile users are getting younger and younger. A technology-savvy segment of society, young people are enthusiastic early adopters of new mobile services. Their use of mobile "txting" (e.g. SMS, email, MMS), mobile Internet services and gaming typically exceeds that of their older counterparts.

In the Republic of Korea, for example, the largest use of the mobile Internet is among junior high school students. In the Philippines, teenagers are the most avid texters. In Japan, the penetration of mobile phones among 18-year-old girls is nearing 100 per cent.

Young people use mobiles to create and maintain social networks and to reflect their popularity or position in a peer group. The attitude of young people towards their mobile phones is not purely related to device functionality, but rather to their own individuality or identity. The youth market is an important predictor of how the future mobile information society will develop. Service providers and operators alike are looking at better ways to target this growing market segment. At the same time, one must ensure that young people are protected from, inter alia, inappropriate content, invasions of privacy, excessive spending, technological addiction (such as gaming addiction), and any negative health effects (e.g. sedentary lifestyles, cellular radiation).

In preparation for the Workshop, a paper entitled "Mobile phones and youth: A look at the U.S. Student Market" was commissioned. The paper reports on the results of a survey of mobile usage and behaviour among high school and college students.

Riding the mobile wave in the developing world

The mobile technologies in use in developing countries are largely the same as those used in the developed world, benefiting from the economies of scale that have been achieved globally in the manufacture of handsets and base stations.

But applications are often different. Prof. Jhunjhunwala presented a number of examples from India of the way in which mobile communications can be used to provide, for instance, low cost ATMs (automatic teller machines), remote education and remote health monitoring services, and open-access Internet Kiosks.

One promising concept for helping to accelerate the narrowing of the digital divide is the so-called "portable Internet", which is a new wireless-based technology, which attempts to bridge the gap between short-range wireless LAN technologies and longer-range 3G technologies.

In the Republic of Korea, some 100 MHz has been set aside in the 2.3 GHz band for portable Internet services which will offer up to 1-2 Mbit/s of bandwidth per user for an estimated US$15 per month. Future mobile handsets would work seamlessly with existing wireless infrastructures.

Potentially the biggest demand for portable Internet solutions could be in developing markets where new rollout networks are being planned, and where there is a requirement to cover low-density rural populations. It was also argued that concepts of universal service need to be updated to take account of technological developments, in particular the development of high-speed Internet services.

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