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Cell Phone Nation

By Robin Jeffrey
Review by Dhiraj Nayyar

The importance of the mobile phone goes beyond easier conversation across geographies.

A claim that the cheap mobile phone is the most disruptive device to hit humanity since shoes may seem contentious, but by the time one has turned the last page of Cell Phone Nation, it is hard not to be convinced by the argument, at least when the context is India. Several devices invented in the last century could claim legitimate competition with the cell phone for their revolutionary impactâ??the automobile, railways, aeroplanes, television, computers and the Internet. And given the events of the last 18 months in India, when large sections of the youth have harnessed the power of the Internet to mobilise in opposition to the mighty Indian state, it would seem brave to push the case of the humble cell phone.

The Internet has indeed been a democratising force for a loud minority but the cell phone has been a source of real empowerment for India's millions. It is able to overcome the obvious hurdles of poverty and illiteracy which limit the outreach of, say, the automobile or the Internet. Over the last decade, it has become highly affordable and its usage is not constrained by a lack of education, still a reality for a third of Indians. Its reach, therefore, is unparalleled. By the end of 2012, there were 900 million cell phone connections in India, more than double the number of bank accounts. Even if some people have more than one connection, it is reasonable to assume that almost every adult in India owns one.

Between The Covers: The telecom story is not a fairytale entirely.The book acknowledges this reality.Some of the best bits of the book detail the rampant cronycapitalism in telecom.

The importance of the mobile phone goes beyond easier conversation across geographies, a revolution in itself for a country which until 1991 had only one phone per 165 people. It has revolutionised small businesses, the occupation of a majority of Indians who are self-employed. The authors write about the cases of hundreds of Kerala fishermen who use their cell phones out at sea to discover which market on shore will offer them the best prize for their catch. It has given them choices like they never had better, and better incomes. Then there is the case of a Delhi-based henna artist who was driven out of his roadside stall by an insensitive state but found that a cell phone enabled him to carry on with his business without an establishment. Of course, the ever expanding telecom industry has generated employment, direct and indirect, for millions of India.

The telecom story is not a fairytale entirely. Cell Phone Nation acknowledges this reality. The role of the Government has been dubious at best, malicious at worst. The private sector hasn't always been above board either. Some of the best bits of the book detail the rampant crony capitalism in telecom. Somehow, quite incredibly, the main stakeholders, consumers, have not suffered the machinations of sundry politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen which eventually exploded with the 2G scam and crippled the financial viability of several telecom companies.

There are other dangers lurking. Like any cutting-edge technology, cell phones have dual uses. They can be used as much for expanding a business as for expanding a network of terror. The technology also leaves open space for intrusions of privacy. The authors document the large imports of surveillance equipment most of which are not accounted for in legitimate uses.

Cell Phone Nation promises to "paint a whole pictureâ??imperfect and incomplete but whole" of India's telecom revolution. The book succeeds because the canvas is so rich and incorporates every dimension. It is the perfect preamble to an exciting future when the power of cheaper Internet will eventually combine with the reach of the cheap cell phone. That will be another game changer.(India Today)

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