CTIA keynoters tout how wireless fills social needs

Wireless communications are leapfrogging wired throughout the Third World

LAS VEGAS -- The wireless phone is becoming a great equalizer between the haves and have-nots around the world, according to multiple keynote speakers at the CTIA Wireless conference here this week.

Wireless industry pioneer John Stanton provided his audience of the most dramatic examples of the spread of wireless technology when he showed a video that described how cell phones helped save lives in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 Haitian earthquake.

Stanton is the chairman of Trilogy International Partners, owner of Voila, one of three mobile operators in Haiti. He traces his wireless roots to mobile innovator McCaw Cellular in the 1980s.

In the video, one relief worker said that while some military-grade communications had failed in the earthquake, his ordinary cell service continued operating. Stanton said he learned of at least 100 people trapped in earthquake rubble who used cell phones to deliver voice and text messages telling rescuers where they were.

In an interview, Stanton said the enduring value cell phones in poorer countries like Haiti, where landlines are limited, is their use for banking and e-commerce transactions as well as for emergency communications.

Some Haitian workers today use cell phones as mobile wallets -- getting paid via mobile credits that are later converted to cash. Thousands of Haitians also offer up their mobile phones to others to make microcalls for a fee, Stanton said.

"In America, we grew up with the notion of wired telecommunications, but wireless has a 21st century role," Stanton said. "In Third World countries, [wireless] is really leapfrogging the wired platform. "

Haiti, Stanton believes, can be the world's first "copper-free" country-- not needing to install the copper wires used in traditional wired telecommunications. Instead, the country would primarily use a first rate telecom infrastructure based entirely on wireless technology.

Other CTIA keynoters also showed examples of how mobile technologies are used worldwide.

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, offered who several examples of Twitter has been used in various countries to organize street protests.

"It's striking, we had no idea Twitter would become so widely used," he said. "Often protests are organized over Twitter. Letting people communicate openly can have a profound influence ... you have a sense of yourself as a global citizen."

In his keynote, James Cameron, director of Avatar and other motion pictures, said the ubiquity of easy-to-use texting and other mobile communications widely influences political discourse, even in the U.S. "Now you have bottom up political power," Cameron said. "All these [wireless] tools help people function together at a micro level."

Cameron said he recently learned of a tree planting program in India that would require using one-tenth the normal amount of water for the plants. The government found that the details could be delivered to farmers more easily via one-to-one wireless communications than through normal government channels. "[By] using social networking ... these innovations were down at the level of the peasant farmer," he said.

Aneesh Chopra, the U.S. chief technology officer, joined Stone and Cameron on a keynote panel and described how cellular technology can transform the lives of people in need throughout the world.

For example, Chopra described a "Text4Baby" program set up by the White House in February to help pregnant women get necessary diet and medical tips several times a week. He praised cellular providers for waiving text fees so the information can be distributed free-of-charge. Expectant mothers can set up the service by texting the word "baby" or in Spanish "bebe" to 511411.

"Already we have 25,000 moms registered," Chopra said. "There's a great deal of innovation taking place."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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