People Are Always Going to Talk

According to a United Nations telecommunications agency report released Tuesday, the number of new mobile phone contracts is diminishing as cell phone usages reaches a “saturation point.” I consider the implications of a so-called saturation point, and with more than 6.7 billion inhabitants of this world, wonder how this could possibly occur.

Worry not about the future of mobile phone contracts. Sprint, TMobile, Verizon and countless other mobile providers are tirelessly developing innovative phone styles and services to suit every technology lover’s dream. I think it's safe to say that in developed nations, mobile upgrade offers, growing renewal rates and the merging world of internet and phone communication are all indicators that mobile providers are not going anywhere.

Yet, in terms of new subscriptions, the demand is not as high as one would expect. But how about those remote villages in the mountains of Africa or dunes of the Milddle East? One might assume there are millions of people who have yet to purchase a cell phone for the first time. This is true to an extent. Having spent a month in Kenya, I certainly came in contact with natives of remote villages who had seen neither a digital camera nor consequently their physical appearance, let alone a mobile phone. However, the majority of Kenyans (especially in urban and suburban areas), owned cell phones and had access to mobile services. 

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), more than 90% of the world’s 6.7 billion people live in areas with access to mobile phone networks and 143 of the 194 world countries offer high-speed mobile services that can be used for broadband. While many Westerners have multiple subscriptions, in developing countries only about half of their citizens have one, according to isuppli corp research

Thirdworld2_23_04_08 From my observation, the ability to access the internet and mobile providers, even in Kibera, the largest slum in Sub-Saharan Africa, was startling. Inhabitants of the urban area could indeed easily access the internet for a small fee at a nearby restaurant or for free at community centers. At the community-based NGO where I volunteered, almost all the local youth I encountered had cell phones despite their relatively meager standards of living. How interesting it was to receive texts on my temporary African Nokia cell phone in the evening from Kenyans I befriended. These youth also loved to access the (albeit extremely slow) internet and connect on Facebook, which we still use to stay in touch with each other from Nairobi to Boston.

Internet continues to grow, with 2 billion people worldwide expected to have access to internet by the end of the year, but this number hardly compares to the 5.3 billion mobile subscriptions predicted by 2011. At first, the comparison of internet to phone users seems too expansive. But when it comes down to it, it makes sense that phone usage would surpass that of the internet: people are always going to talk, as evidenced by the communications (and specifically mobile phone) industry seeing no decline in demand throughout the economic crisis. In developing countries like Kenya, even the most simple, low-end mobile phones are connecting people and providing businesses a critical lifeline to consumers and suppliers. 

This research does prove that one notion is fading: mobile phones are incompatible with the nature of non-Western countries. Emerging instead, is the idea that human's are innately wired to want to connect with others, even if it's via mobile phones and messaging. For what I believe to be the better, mobile phones are reaching every income level, culture and country, and while subscription growth is slowing, the effects and innovations of the industry are proliferating. 

- Contributed by Claire Luke. Follow her @Claire_Luke.