SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 29 SEPTEMBER 2002
The Big Cell
HERE comes the pretender. In a new and connected world of images and text, the internet is about to get a rival and a serious one at that. The mobile phone is going to seize the moment and there couldn't be a better time to do it.
The internet has scaled some amazing heights in such a short time. Especially compared to the communications technologies that predated it. But all the net can do right now is tread water and hope for better days to come. It is in its weakest position since it was launched. Taking on water after being holed by the mines of dotcom exuberance and intellectual property rights.
The single great achievement of the internet has been to come up with an alternative broadcast model. First it started with sending text via computers over the telephone lines. This was followed by images and then sound and video, all courtesy of the world wide web, an amazing technology that continues to thrive on the internet.
It took generations before television created the infrastructure that supports its ubiquitous presence in society today. Yet it took only a decade for some computer code and some copper wires to create an alternative. And it was very alternative. It couldn't possibly compete with the range and quality of the moving images and sound of broadcasting. But it could do one thing that no other form of broadcasting could. It allows anybody to transmit - from any place and at any time. The internet's uniqueness is its two-way one-to-one and one-to-many facility. Not just voice, but sound and image.
Building it was also unique. An experiment in public/private partnership on a massive scale. The public telephone utilities were handed over to the private sector, sometimes for a song. As computer networks were connected around the world, oceans of information flooded across the wires and an economic boom of tidal proportions made computers personal and put them on the desktop.
Now with looming recession and political uncertainty throughout the world, investment in internet infrastructure is almost at a standstill. The irrational investment in internet-related technology over the last decade has ended because there was, and is, no money in it - yet.
So there couldn't be a better time for mobile phones to step into the limelight. After all they are the lasting legacy and proof that Ireland has just experienced its biggest economic boom ever. Forget the Bertie Bowl, the humble mobile is the real symbol of this countries flirt with modernity. There are more mobile phones in Ireland than land lines. Almost three-quarters of the population own and use one. Most significantly, mobiles have become an essential component of everyday life. Like the automatic teller machines before them, life is almost impossible to imagine without them, although sometimes it brings great pleasure to try.
But while Ireland's brief fling with the internet ended with the e-hub getting the e-heave, the country's love of the mobile continued unabated. From the moment the gadgets became small and affordable, they were flying off the shelves faster than you can say Special Savings Incentive Account.
And now the mobile's time has come. The Christmas market is gearing up for a huge push to sell the latest generation of phones. These ones are genuinely innovative - they can send and receive images and a star is born. As the internet languishes from lack of investment, the mobile phone pretender has managed to catch up.
Starting with voice, then texting and now images, cellular technology has also built an alternative broadcast system. Put voice and images together, add some transmission speed and a decent screen and hey presto - it's television.
What has brought the mobile to the brink of the sort of success that was once predicted for the internet? In some ways, the mobile's rise and rise can be seen as a greater achievement. It has far outpaced the internet's reach. In Ireland use of the internet at home is only at about 37%, while mobile phones are used by about 75%. Mobiles have brought text messaging from out behind the inaccessible complexity of computers and software. And all this achieved without any of the controversies that wracked the internet from day one.
No porn. No hatred. No squabbling over free speech and who has the rights to what. And best of all, no spending from the public kitty. In fact, money flowed the opposite direction and government coffers became fatter from the licence fees. Surely this was the way to do it and the marketing blitzkrieg between now and Christmas will reflect the mobile's ascendancy.
Mobile phones are the internet the way it was envisaged by the media and entertainment companies. The mobile networks are built to their liking. Not an alternative method of broadcasting but an alternative to the internet. Using the same ingredients of sound, text and images, but with one gigantic difference. The mobile is only for one-to-one communication, not one-to-many. Mobile phones from here on in will have far more in common with cable television than with the internet.
Recent reports, including one from the telecoms regulator's office, seem to suggest that the level of investment required for broadband roll-out in Ireland is somehow linked intrinsically to the content that people will want and pay for. No such worry has ever crossed the minds of the mobile operators as they continued to build their networks. Why? Because the owners and operators are going to make that decision for people. Content or service selection is only available from withing the menu offered.
There's an awful lot of money to be made from mobile phones. The technology is uncumbersome and the hunger for more seems insatiable. By the time the marketing gurus have finished eating their Christmas turkey, a lot of Irish homes will have unwrapped a next generation mobile and the games can begin. If the experiment that was the internet has come to a halt, then the mobile phone is manoeuvring itself for a coup d'etat and taking a giant step on the road to the broadband nirvana that has proved so elusive to date.
But this is private enterprise's internet with no connections whatsoever to the academic, scientific and educational wellspring of the fledgling internet. It's a private network, devoid of any public service or universal access dimension. Pay-per-view brought into the telecommunications arena with gusto.
As Ireland faces into a periodic of heightened economic uncertainty, there may be a tendency to overlook the necessary communications infrastructure that is required to compete in a globalised and interconnected world where bandwidth is everything.
Government in Ireland will be faced with many other challenging problems besides the absence of broadband. The private sector can only afford to build the necessary infrastructure if it can then make money from the content. In other words, the only money that seems to be available is investment along the lines of the traditional broadcasting model.
The mobile phone is just about ready to set about proving that point and the clock is now running.