Mobile futuresNov 13th, 2011 | By Ian Poulton | Category: International
‘Pastor, pastor!’ The woman was of very advanced years, osteoporosis had affected her badly and she walked with a severe stoop. Her face was filled with history and character. What things had she not seen? She would have remembered independence 50 years ago; she would have had vivid recall of the genocide seventeen years ago.
Speaking no Kinyarwanda, I stood and smiled. She extended her right hand in greeting, her left hand resting on her right forearm as a mark of respect. I took her hand and listened to her words. Her smile and the sparkle in her eyes suggested the words were ones of welcome.
‘Thank you’, I said, thank you. May God bless you’.
She laughed and squeezed my hand and then shuffled on down the path. As she did so, there was the sound of a mobile telephone ringtone. The woman pulled at a string and the phone appeared from within the traditional African dress she wore. The juxtaposition of traditional African society and 21st Century technology was a moment worthy of a photo, except to have taken one would have been intrusive, rude to a woman who had been so warm in her greeting.
Mobile phones are everywhere in Rwanda, even the poorest of farmers will break off from conversation at the behest of their ringtones. A technological piece of leapfrogging has taken place; they have gone from pre-modern communication to contemporary forms without the century long development of the telephone that took place in Europe and America.
In part, the development of a conventional telephone network was not feasible with few potential subscribers in poor farming communities; in part, there was the recurrent problem of copper wire being cut from the poles in order that it might be sold as scrap metal. The mobile phone network demands much less infrastructure and it allows people to connect in a less structured and less formal way. The woman greeting me at the church could not have dreamed of a telephone in her house, but has no need to worry, for her phone is with her wherever she goes.
Dozens of homes in my Co Laois parish have been without a telephone service since last Thursday because the cables along a length of road were cut and the wire taken. It is the third such occurrence I know of this ye and causes anxiety to an older couple I know. Driving the road this morning, white Eircom vans were parked at the roadside and technicians were busy trying to restore the service.
Perhaps the answer is not to keep replacing the old system but to contemplate something new. Why not simply issue people with mobile phones and provide customers with a service without copper wires? There would be the argument that fewer and fewer subscribers would leave the fixed line network unviable, but is that not going to happen anyway? With the giants of the mobile phone industry offering more and more sophisticated packages, it can only be a matter of time before a tipping point is reached. Are the anxious older couple to be left with a service that commands fewer and fewer resources, or might there be a leap forward?
If the lady outside Gahogo church two weeks ago can cope with mobile phone technology, then it should be possible for her Irish counterparts, and there would be nothing to sell to the scrap dealers.