May 2008

When Fiction Turns Into Reality

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Today’s world is driven by technology. Every new day, a new mobile device is announced, packed with new features. What is most remarkable about mobile phones has been its easy acceptance by common and even poor man.

The celebrated science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, (most famous for the film – 2001: A Space Odyssey) was a true visionary. In 1945, he propagated the theory that in future, satellites will orbit the earth to facilitate communication. No one believed him then. But later, Clarke was proved correct and the space technology made it possible, what he had predicted years before. His work won him several awards, and the geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the equator was named Clarke Orbit. It is through this orbit that our cellular and other communication networks work today and TV programmes reach our homes. Even earlier, in the 1940s, he predicted that man would reach the Moon by the year 2000 – an idea experts at first dismissed. When Neil Armstrong landed on Moon in July 1969, the United States of America acknowledged that Clarke provided the essential intellectual drive that led us to the Moon.

Clarke conjured up several not-too-distant horizons. In 1992, he addressed a seminar on the impact of technology on tourism, while sitting at his home in his villa Serendip in his adopted country Sri Lanka. He addressed this seminar in Hong Kong using a satellite link– a technology he had predicted 47 years ago. In this seminar, Clarke envisioned tele-resorts and arm-chair-travellers. Clarke cast his trump card in this conference when he said that the armchair traveller of tomorrow could, with the use of electronic equipment which monitored impulses to various parts of the brain, recreate in his sitting room the virtual reality of standing on the brink of the Grand Canyon, or walking around the Taj Mahal by moonlight. Describing it as one of the greatest horizon expanding inventions of all time, Clarke asserted that virtual reality would not replace TV. It will eat it alive! He believed that virtual reality will not substitute for real travel, but will supplement the experience of actual exploration. “People in the future will no longer travel because they feel they have to, but because they want to. Travel will again become an adventure, not a chore”, said Clarke.

Thirty years back no one would have thought we would be using mobile phones today that offer a variety of services, all integrated into a tiny hand-held device. Not even Clarke. Today’s world is driven by technology. Every new day a new mobile device is announced, packed with new features. What is most remarkable about mobile phones has been its easy acceptance by common and even poor man which is demonstrated by the fact that the largest cell phone penetration is not in US or UK but in China. India is just behind China in this growth of mobile penetration.

Remember digital diaries and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)? Digital diaries went out of fashion about ten years back and PDAs followed suit a little later. Why should one carry a digital diary, camera, calculator, radio, music player, a laptop computer wi-fied to Internet and a mobile phone when you get all these services in your mobile phone? The age of high transience has come. We no longer need those separately packed devices that we used a decade earlier. What would be next in the list of the devices that we will no longer need in future? Most likely the i-Pods will come into disuse. Already mobile phones with capability of storing large amount of music as MP3 files are being announced. You already have Internet connectivity in your mobile phone. The IP-TV intrusion into mobile phones has already happened. On 20th March 2008, Time Broadband Services Pvt. Ltd. with its joint venture partner – Stanton Technologies, Malaysia, announced the launch of The World’s First IPTV over 2.5G Mobile Platform to target the estimated USD 4 billion mobile IPTV market.

Imagine the repercussions of this innovation! Subscribers can view the latest entertainment news, educational content, music, sports and special mobisodes from the top studios of Bollywood while on the move. Customers will have in their existing hand held 2.5G devices, the ultimate mobile entertainment experience through their handheld devices.

Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM), General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), Second Generation (2G) – Fourth Generation (4G), what are they?
The mobile phone you hold in your hand conforms to a certain standard. With everyone inventing their own wheel there has been a surfeit of standards. We take a review of some of the more popular ones. In this connection one must have also come across terms like GSM, GPRS and CDMA.

GSM is the most popular standard for mobile phones in the world. In 1982, thirteen European countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to develop a standard for a mobile telephone system that could be used across Europe. It is estimated that 82% of the global mobile market uses this standard – by over two billion people across more than 212 countries and territories. Its ubiquity makes international roaming very common between mobile phone operators, enabling subscribers to use their phones in many parts of the world. In GSM, both signaling and speech channels are digital call quality and is thus considered a 2G mobile phone system. This also means that data communication is easy to build into the system. GSM providers also pioneered a low-cost alternative to voice calls, the Short Message Service (SMS, also called text messaging), which is now supported on other mobile standards as well.

The term 2G to 4G represents evolving trends in wireless technology. Each generation provides a higher data rate and additional capabilities. GPRS and Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE) are further extensions of the same standard and belong to 2.5G category. The term second and a half generation (2.5G) is used to describe 2G systems that have implemented a packet switched domain in addition to the circuit switched domain. The major impetus for 2.5G is the always-on capability. Being packet based, 2.5G technologies allow for the use of infrastructure and facilities only when a transaction is required, rather than maintaining facilities in a session-like manner. This provides tremendous infrastructure efficiency and service delivery improvements.

Third generation (3G) networks were conceived from the Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service (UMTS) concept for high speed networks for enabling a variety of data intensive applications. 3G systems consist of two main standards, CDMA2000 and W-CDMA, as well as other 3G variants such as NTT DoCoMo’s Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access (FOMA) and Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access (TD-SCDMA), used primarily in China.

CDMA stands for either CDMAONE or CDMA2000. It is a 2G Mobile Telecommunications Standard that uses CDMA, a multiple access scheme for digital radio, to send voice, data and signaling data (such as a dialed telephone number) between mobile telephones and cell sites.

CDMA is a digital radio system. CDMA permits several radios to share the same frequencies unlike other services (TDMA) because network capacity does not directly limit the number of active radios. Since larger numbers of phones can be served by smaller numbers of cell-sites, CDMA-based standards have a significant economic advantage over TDMA-based standards, or the oldest cellular standards that used frequency-division multiplexing. It is used in the USA, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, India, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Brazil, China and Vietnam. In 2007, around 30% of the global subscribers used CDMA, while about 70% used GSM or 3GSM (a large amount of users mainly come from the USA, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Brazil and Peoples Republic of China).

Shape of things to come

Bio-Sensing mobile phones may not be far off. A company in Japan with the name NTT DoCoMo announced recently that some future mobile phones will contain DNA chips, devices capable of analysing molecules from the user’s body. This announcement came on the back of demonstration by researchers of a molecular level system that might one day enable mobile phones to keep a regular watch on their owners’ health. By analysing molecules from the user’s body such phones will provide warnings about a possible virus, high-levels of stress or other factors that might affect health. The bio-sensing will be totally non-intrusive. For the DNA chips to get the samples required, the molecules to be analysed must be transported into the phone from the user’s body. If that be so, how would the bio-chip get the sample of a person’s DNA? Through molecular communications, if you please. Molecules from the user’s sweat would be carried using chemically-engineered ‘motor proteins’ to the sensors in the mobile phone for analysis. Since this entire process requires no electrical or mechanical input or controls so it is expected to work on its own.

Work is already going on for future alternatives to GSM. One such service that is being planned by majors of the mobile industry is Mobile Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

It is no surprise that 2.5G rules the roost at the moment over the 3G systems in numbers. There are ten million 3G phones in the world as against three billion 2.5G phones. The answer to this puzzle is simple. The trade-off between advantages and cost to the user.

On the anvil is the 4G System, the next step in wireless communications. A 4G system will be able to provide a comprehensive IP solution where voice, data and streamed multimedia can be given to users on an anytime, anywhere basis, and at higher data rates than previous generations. Though there is no formal definition of 4G; however, certain objectives have been set. Firstly, it will be a fully IP-based integrated system. This will be achieved after wired and wireless technologies converge and will be capable of providing between 100 Mbit/s and 1 Gbit/s speeds, both indoors and outdoors, with premium quality and high security.

Since we have seen integration of various electronic devices into mobile phone, in future Video on Demand and live TV would become a reality at affordable costs.

e-Governance and Mobile phones

e-Governance has emerged as the new catchword amongst the bureaucratic and government circles. Internet network and computers are the prime tools for this task. With 98% Indians not having access to computers, such a thing appears as a remote possibility. The redeeming feature is the wide coverage provided by the mobile networks in our city and rural areas and the ease with which rural-folks use mobile phones. Two stories below, go on to show that e-Governance is possible the mobile-way.

It’s happening already

In a blog posted by Ranjit Kumar Maiti, a senior functionary of Panchayat and Rural Development Department, Government of West Bengal, Kolkata (India), shares his experience of using mobile phones in the Panchayat environment. “We have taken a number of initiatives to empower Panchayats at the grassroot level to make them responsive to the needs of the common citizens. To supplement our e-Governance efforts in the Panchayat and Rural Development Department, we are going to experiment with mobile technology in remote and inaccessible areas for dissemination of various types of information that could be useful to the people – like alerts for important fund releases; organisation of health camps and polio vaccination camps; disaster alerts etc. using push technology (by which the web server pushes information to the user rather than waiting for the user to request for information). Mobile technology and computer networks have been used in the past for G2G (Government-to-Government) transactions. I have in mind examples like Lokvani in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh (India) and similar initiatives. The question we are now facing is how to upscale these experiences.”

Recently, an e-Governance initiative called ASHWA (Anant Sampark by Harnessing Wireless Access) was launched in Faizabad (Uttar Pradesh), based on mobile service. It aims at establishing a practicable e-Governance infrastructure which will connect rural areas with the district headquarter. With ASHWA, villagers will be able to access their family register, different certificates including death, birth, income, domicile and land records, with the dial button of the mobile phone. A member who is associated with ASHWA is known as Ashwarohi.

The mobile phone you hold in your hand conforms to a certain standard. With everyone inventing their own wheel there has been a surfeit of standards

A villager who needs a copy of land records of any government certificate or assistance, has to approach  the Ashwarohi, and pay him a sum of Rs. 20. A master computer, monitored personally at Vikas Bhawan in the district headquarter will receive the message. After identifying the mobile phone, the computer will print the required document. Each village will have one Ashwarohi, who will be trained to use GPRS mobile phones.

These stories suggest the vast potential of mobile phone in governance. They offer great potential to reach out to the poor placed at remote areas

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