The Great Wireless Debate
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[22 February 2001] - The debate at this week's Internet World Wireless (IWW) conference is whether the omnipresent cell-phone is truly synonymous with the wireless revolution and whether its ultimate function is to make the Net more accessible.
"No one should care about Internet on phones," said Jack Powers, a speaker at the Internet World Wireless (IWW) conference. Nonetheless, in a continent like Africa where cell-phone penetration is far greater than PC penetration, surely we should care?
Japan's popular i-mode service currently offers a constant connection through a packet-circuit network that enables anything from an image to a search engine enquiry to be sent and received via a cell-phone. Similar services are available throughout Europe - yet the worlds supposed information-revolution leader, the United States, is lagging far behind its Asian and European counterparts.
Powers, however, was dismissive about the versatility of European cell-phones these countries, he maintained, have to rely on their phones for Web access because desktop computers cost more there than they do in the US. The point with 'wireless,' he maintains, "is the extension of the Net to fixed wireless and wireless LANs (local area networks)." For Powers, cell-phones are secondary.
At the IWW about 150 exhibitors are touting their antennae, satellite dishes, and wireless Ethernet hardware as alternative Net access devices yet not all of them see cell-phones as secondary to the wireless revolution.
Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia (amongst others) all consider cell-phones as pivotal to the Nets future. "If, for example, you need information now and are looking to buy something, you don't go home and sit down at your computer to check prices," said Lars Nilss, manager of strategic marketing for Ericsson.
Though highly developed nations like Japan and Sweden make ideal showcases for futuristic Net-enabled cell-phone services it is unlikely that such services will ever hit the African continent unless they are seriously pursued as viable methods for bridging the so-called digital divide.
The cell phone, after all, is as close as many on this continent will arguably ever come to being connected and should the cell-phone truly be synonymous with the wireless revolution then Africans, at least, can look forward to some form of realistic digital empowerment.