Thu, 15 May 2003

'Flexibility that needs government's leverage'

Zatni Arbi, Contributor, Jakarta

Most urbanites in Indonesia take fixed wire-line telephones and mobile phones for granted. We carry our cells everywhere, and they have probably become more important to us than our wallets.

Many of us may find that we can no longer function without them even though sometimes in the same breath we also say: "I hate this thing! It robs me of my privacy".

The fact is the telephone is here to stay, and it has become a means of communication that we cannot live without. A six-hour blackout in a city would seem more bearable than finding ourselves without telephone service, fixed or mobile, for an hour.

Our generation may still recall the person recognized as being responsible for inventing the phone. The interesting thing is that this man, Alexander Graham Bell, was working on finding ways to help the deaf or those who had hearing impairments -- his wife Mable included -- to communicate. What he came up with back in 1876 was the telephone, which has become so indispensable to the world.

A lot has happened since 1876, needless to say. The installation of mechanical switchboards, the first of which was installed in New York City in 1923, helped ease the chaotic web of telephone cables strung to poles and provided employment to a lot of people. As the number of telephone subscribers increased, however, pairing them to each other in a manual way became impossible. Electro-mechanical switchboards were introduced, enabling people to make calls by dialing the number of the other party. Today, digital switching is used.

Mobile phones came along in the 1980s. It is amazing to see how quickly the size of mobile phones have shrunk over the years. From the size of a portable typewriter to the size of a key chain or a wristwatch. Even implanted cell phones have been developed, although we may not really see a commercial version of this highly miniaturized device.

Wireless to the Rescue?. Over the last two decades, wireless technologies have been responsible for the faster growth of telephone availability in the world, including rural areas where operators are not investing as heavily as they do in the more lucrative urban market.

For many years in this country, we have been devastated by an extremely slow growth in the number of telephone lines. The biggest challenge was, of course, the "last mile", the installation of wires from the nearest telephone exchange to subscribers' homes or offices. However, hope has come back again as operators begin to roll out their fixed wireless telephone networks.

The advantages are clear: First, there is no need to pull any wires, as signals can travel through air. The cost of installation should be reduced, and the service should become more affordable. Second, installation of a new phone line should take only hours instead of weeks as in the past.

Telkom, for example, has announced its CDMA-based product and service called TelkomFlexi. Using CDMA 2000 technology, the network will provide not only voice communication but also data communication capability of up to 144 Kbps.

The state-owned operator promises that it will charge TelkomFlexi users the same rate that it charges users of fixed wire-line telephones. Another advantage is that TelkomFlexi subscribers can have limited mobility without having to pay the airtime charge imposed by cell phone operators. Let's just hope that Telkom will not change these subscriber-friendly policies in the future.

Other operators will provide similar fixed wireless phone services, too. For data communications -- including digitized voice data -- the rapid proliferation of Wi Fi-based hot spots will make our communication easier and richer. Equipped with a Wi Fi-enabled notebook or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), we can work anywhere and at any time we need to or whenever we want. Wireless technologies have given us the flexibility that even Alexander Graham Bell would not have envisioned back in the 19th century.

This flexibility, however, is not without its downside. For example, in the past, when mobile phones were not available, people tended to be more organized in their activities. For instance, they would study the map carefully and note where to turn right or left along the way before going to a friend's place they had not visited before.

Today, we simply drive off, knowing that we can turn to our cell phones to get the directions needed to get us there. Even schoolchildren have fallen into the habit of using their cells to call home and tell their drivers to bring them the books they forgot to put into their backpacks.

Thus, the biggest question is what can this flexibility do for people? Will the increasingly affordable and widely available telecommunications services really empower people in their lives? Will it really enable our small farmers, for example, to set prices for their products, if their old tradition of relying on middlemen is not changed? Will it really help our children prepare for a better future if telecommunications only reduces their face-to-face interaction with the real world?

Ever since the days of the telegraph, telecommunications has been changing at a rapid pace. It has made our lives easier in many ways. But can it truly improve the quality of life for those who are not ready to use it for purposes other than just participating in multi-player games?

Clearly, telecommunications alone is not enough to take Indonesians to a higher level of achievement as a nation. All the flexibility that telecommunications affords us has to be accompanied by capacity development, by the creation of a social and cultural environment where people from all walks of life can adapt and change and take advantage of how technology -- including telecommunications -- can bring benefits to our lives.

Let's hope that our next administration will truly see the importance of developing people's capacity, introducing the right policies and taking the necessary steps to enable people to use the tools to create true progress.