Life, liberty and the pursuit of wireless connectivity

We hold these rights to be inalienable: Cheap cellphones...

By Andrew Leonard
Published December 12, 2006 1:18AM (EST)

As of September, India is the fastest growing cellphone market in the world, according to the market intelligence firm iSuppli. "India had more than 6 million new mobile-phone subscriber additions in September," said Jagdish Rebello, an iSuppli analyst.

The quote came in an iSuppli report titled "Is the Mobile Phone a Basic Human Right?" As best I can recall, in the 18 months or so that I have been receiving iSuppli updates, this is the first time the words "human right" have been mentioned. Squeezed between more conventional iSuppli article titles such as "LCD-TV Manufacturers Strive to Avoid Commoditization" and "Large-Sized TFT-LCD Panel Market Reaching a Crossroads" the question seemed startling and incongruous. (Although, come to think of it, "avoiding commmoditization" should be a basic human right.) Why was the firm even posing such a question?

The answer lies in the peculiar dual nature of cellphones as consumer electronic devices -- like iPods or Gameboys or personal computers -- and effective poverty alleviation tools. It has been much remarked upon in the past 18 months that cellphones can make a very real, very empowering, difference for very poor people. Whether it's farmers or fishers suddenly being able to call around and shop around for the best prices for their crop or catch, or the ability of a rural laborer to avoid walking miles in (often fruitless) searches for available jobs, or the possibility, in some countries, to actually use phones as mobile bank accounts, the devices have proved useful in an astonishing number of ways. They represent a true leapfrog technology that directly enhances the lives of those at the so-called bottom of the pyramid. Forget about the land line, the cable link, even the computer -- just go straight to the cellphone.

This creates something of a historic anomaly. Countries with lots and lots of poor people, like India, are suddenly also great prospective markets for the latest in advanced technology, provided cellphone manufacturers can get their price points down.

But is seeing poor people as a potentially lucrative market the same thing as saying that poor people have a "right" to cellphones? What exactly does that mean? Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank, has long argued that "microcredit" is a human right -- that is, every human being should have easy access to at least minimal amounts of credit. Grameen Bank also has a very successful "Village Phone" program that pushes cellphone penetration. But if phone service is a basic human right, doesn't that imply that governments should be subsidizing their dispersal?

It might be a moot point. ISuppli predicts that by 2010, there will be 4 billion subscribers to wireless communication services. Ownership of a cellphone may not be an inalienable right, but the things will be effectively ubiquitous, anyway, so what's the difference? If you want to make a call, you'll be able to.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Wireless