Wireless Phones Ring Off the Hook

Poorer nations skip over land lines to go cellular

ESTEVAO TAUKANE wears a bright-yellow feathered headdress and brown body paint, which make him look all the more striking when he reaches for his cellular phone.

Mr. Taukane, chief of 900 Bakairi Indians in the southern Amazon, uses his mobile phone to talk to government officials in faraway Brasilia about development projects for his village of Paku-era.

''We can't depend on smoke signals any longer,'' he recently told the Brazilian news magazine This Is It.

As Taukane's case shows, it's not just urbanites who are taking advantage of cellular technology these days. What started out as a niche market for traveling salesmen in rich nations is now reaching a mass market in many less-developed nations.

For countries ravaged by war or with iffy or nonexistent telephone systems, often cellular phones are the only means of fast communications.

And because of the short time needed to install such systems, some countries simply leapfrog over old technology to the new.

By some estimates, 50 percent of the world's population has never even made a phone call. Demand for telephones remains huge.

The largest growth for Motorola, a prominent US manufacturer of wireless communication devices, is in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. ''People we talk to in the developing world tell us that they never expected to have phone service in their lifetime,'' says Martin Singer, Motorola's vice president for local loop products, in Arlington Heights, Ill.

Wireless phones, usually less controlled by government, can help spread democracy, says Peter Huber, a fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, in New York. ''Telephones are something the oppressors of individuals have always hated,'' he says.

''They've loved TV, but hated phones because they're private. Phone lines allow a huge flow of information that cannot be stopped. With them, you can cut across fiefdoms and regulatory barriers,'' Mr. Huber says.

Brazil: a teeming market

In most major Brazilian cities, cellular phones have become a business tool for taxi drivers and outdoor produce venders -- as well as drug traffickers.

''The cellular phone's greatest [attraction] is not its [mobility] as in the United States,'' says Ethevaldo Siqueira, editor of a Sao Paulo telecommunications trade magazine, but that it's cheap, accessible, and works better. ''People are using it instead of the conventional phone service.''

Many users have little choice. Brazil has the smallest number of telephones per capita of any major Latin American country. Conventional telephones can cost up to $9,000, and waiting lists are huge.

The cellular phone, on the other hand, costs only the price of the phone and a $230 installation fee. And installation time is much faster; six weeks as opposed to three to five years for land lines.

As a result, nearly 750,000 customers have bought cellular phones in the past three years and another 7 million are expected to by 1998, according to Telebras, the state telephone monopoly.

Africa: a 'lifeline'

Andrei Kisselev never leaves home without his cellular phone. But it is not a yuppie accessory for the Red Cross official -- it can be a matter of survival in his work in Zaire.

With aid workers menaced by armed men in Rwandan refugee camps, tensions over food distribution, and no working communications infrastructure, the small mobile telephone can mean averting disaster if danger strikes.

''This is my lifeline,'' he said recently, as he drove toward a particularly volatile scene.

For many people operating in the most inaccessible parts of Africa, cellular telephones are the only means of communication with the rest of the world, let alone the next village.

In Angola's capital, Luanda, where 20 years of war have wrecked the infrastructure, cellular phones are replacing the hand-held radios that were the mainstay of communications for aid workers, diplomats, and even guerrillas.

Wireless phones are rapidly becoming an institution in South Africa -- including in squalid black townships. Because regular land lines were never laid in many poor areas, the new government has made a priority of providing cellular communications in impoverished districts.

Before it came to power a year ago, the African National Congress insisted in democracy negotiations with the erstwhile white government that granting licenses to cellular-telephone companies be contingent on their providing subsidized services in areas where telephones were nonexistent for millions of blacks.

Over the past year, AT&T subsidiary Vodacom in partnership with the Pick 'n Pay supermarket chain has set up more than 2,000 cellular telephones and 750 franchises in black areas around South Africa.

Usually installed inside brightly painted shipping containers, the cellular public ''telephone shops'' are usually placed near taxis or food markets.

China: Still for the 'boss'

Beijing disco manager Wang Hong doesn't consider himself dressed unless his mobile telephone is in hand.

''I couldn't even think of running my business without this,'' Mr. Wang says, brandishing a state-of-the-art compact phone receiver. ''This is an every-day necessity of business.''

While beepers are the communication of choice for many low-income Chinese, the more affluent are opting for cellular phones. China has a primitively low density of only 2 conventional lines for every 100 people. While the government aspires to 10 lines per 100 people by 2000, that ambition is expected to cost billions of dollars.

The English-language China Daily says that currently there are more than 2 million cellular phones, and that number is expected to double by the end of 1995. China is projected to have 10 million cellular subscribers by 2000.

Mobile phones may be quicker to get here, but the charges limit usage to only the most affluent. Indeed, Chinese call mobile phones dageda, which literally translates as ''bigger than big brother'' and means that anyone who carries a mobile phone is regarded as a boss.

The future: digital phones

From Kansas City to Kuala Lumpur, people want mobile telephones. But determining the technology to use is, well, up in the air.

The most popular wireless technology today is also the most dated. Cellular telephones, which started a decade ago in Chicago, have spread worldwide.

Trouble is, developed nations such as the US are finding that many more people want to use cellular telephones in some areas than the service can accommodate. Three major technologies are vying to provide the solution.

The first is to make today's cellular service go digital. The system's network of land-based towers could be modified to handle digital packets of data rather than today's wave-like analog signals. The move would allow the towers to handle far more calls and computer transmissions, too.

Another ground-based solution is personal communications services. PCS is also digital and would allow consumers to carry around smaller, lighter phones. The drawback is that the service would require companies to build many more transmission towers. Some analysts say PCS is the next-generation mobile phone.

The third solution is air-based. Several satellite and communications companies are proposing to build satellite networks that would cover all or most of the world.

The vision is compelling. Anywhere on the globe, you could pull out your mobile telephone and make a call. Today's satellite phones are too bulky. You have to carry them in a suitcase.

Will a worldwide mobile service ever be built? Perhaps. But building the networks will require millions or even billions of dollars. And governments or some international body would have to agree on several standards so that a mobile phone in one area of the world could work in another.

The more likely near-term scenario is that people will get wired up -- or, rather, get unwired -- country by country long before the global mobile phone comes to pass.

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