CTIA keynoters tout how wireless fills social needs

Wireless communications 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 with one 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 earthquake in Haiti.

Stanton is the chairman of Trilogy International Partners, owner of Voila, one of three mobile service providers 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 of cell phones in poorer countries like Haiti, where landlines are limited, is evident in the way they are used for everyday banking and e-commerce transactions, not just in the way they are used during emergencies.

Some Haitian people today use cell phones as mobile wallets -- they get paid via mobile credits that are later converted to cash. Thousands of Haitians also offer up their mobile phones to others to make short calls 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 -- one that won't need to install the copper wires used in traditional telecommunications systems. Instead, the country could deploy a first rate telecom infrastructure based entirely on wireless technology.

Other CTIA keynoters also showed examples of how mobile technologies are used to benefit low-income and disenfranchised people worldwide.

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, offered several examples of ways 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 the box-office hit 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 they could 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. government'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 program called "Text4Baby" that the White House set up in February to help pregnant women get 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 bebe in Spanish, 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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