September 16, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Image: flickr / "Free Wi-Fi Zone" by superfem When nobody’s fussing about Wi-Fi in schools and when there’s a lull between reports on the injurious effects of mobile phones I suspect few of us give much thought to the fizzing ocean of radio waves crashing over us silently, invisibly, continuously, ceaselessly. We take it for granted that the phone in our hand can access any of a myriad of data services on demand. If we spare a thought at all for the ubiquity of the wireless carriers it’s when they’re suddenly absent and our phone becomes an oddly functionless device.

The jargon-strewn story of mobile data networks is one best told at bedtime. But most of us are anyway well aware of the essential plot points in this dynastic creep of technical standards: the original usurper 2G holding on to the crown far longer than people intended, handing sovereignty to siblings 2.5G and 2.75G before finally giving out to the true successor 3G, whose benificent reign made possible the rise and rise of the iPhone. Now we hear tell of the mighty 4G – capable of surpassing all that went before and awaiting coronation.

Looking back at an article in Scientific American from 10 years ago I was surprised to learn how the history of mobile data networks could have taken a very different – and far more community-spirited – course.

In the August 2001 piece on the future of mobile telephony “the cryptically named 802.11b” – less cryptically known as Wi-Fi – is heralded as a “dark-horse challenger” to the established dynasty. Sure, Wi-Fi has since become almost as ubiquitous as mobile data coverage in its way, but that’s the point: what this article was envisaging was Wi-Fi supplanting the XG alternatives.

In 2001 wireless internet was “still a geek thing, requiring fiddling, configuring and tolerance for imperfections”. But in those days of early adoption, idealistic collectives around the world, including from London, had a wonderful vision of a shared, openly-available wireless internet: “The dream is that if everyone sticks a base station in the window, anyone will be able to access the Net from anywhere in town”. In such a world, as long as you weren’t too far from some kindly person’s window, you’d never need that 3G connection.

Back at the turn of the millenium when phones were phones, WAP was wheeled out by network providers in a coordinated fit of hyberbole. WAP (wireless application protocol) was a technical standard for the provision of mobile data services – such as stripped-down, no-frills web pages – over slower network connections (mostly still 2G at the time). But it was pitched as a technology that would bring the full wonder of the web to a mobile handset. Inevitably, the reality of using a tiny, monochrome screen fell far short of the thrilling cybertopia apparently awaiting those who surfed the BT Cellnet. In this context readily available Wi-Fi for phones should have taken off in a flash.

But of course people never put base stations in their windows. Far from it: we keep access to our wireless internet well secured. What if the strangers next door clogged up our bandwidth watching reruns of The Apprentice on iPlayer? Today there’s even a strong legal incentive to keep swashbuckling piggybackers off our network in case they get up to some pirating in our name.

Sadly, that dream shared by is almost quaint by current standards. But such a vision would only have been practical in densely populated areas anyway – and areas that had access to broadband internet in the first place. In thinking about all of this I was led to coverage of the recent Activate “summit” in London. This event brings together innovators in mobile technology for a series of largely philanthropic talks. This year also saw the inaugural (H)activate, a rapid prototyping exercise in which intrepid participants are invited to develop in two days a mobile technology application that can change the world. The winning team built Safe Trip, an app to help people at risk of trafficking easily keep in contact with friends, family and support agencies.

But it was the talks that made me reflect on how much of our connected lives we take for granted. As South African entrepreneur Herman Heunis pointed out, “the reality is that the mobile phone will be for many people in Africa the only connection to the internet for many, many years” – the phone is “the remote control of their universe”. Heunis talked about how MXit – a messaging / social-media platform running on millions of phones – had to accomodate many of the old mobile technologies. “What you must remember is that 90+% of all phones in Africa are not smartphones and it will remain like that because phones are not just dumped into a dustbin – they are handed down from father to mother to child …”

Anna Kydd, director of the SHM Foundation, has similarly found that older mobile technologies can still be lifechanging in the emerging world. She described a pilot study carried out with a group of people in Mexico living with HIV/AIDS: “what we found was that there were very high levels of social isolation and stigma so, although HIV/AIDS medication is free for everyone in Mexico, the quality of life is very low because they have very little chance to ever exchange information with other people living with the condition”. Because of Mexico’s centralised health service some of the participants from rural areas were travelling 8 hours to a clinic and had little or no contact with others in a similar situation.

Kydd found that simply exchanging text messages was enough to improve the situation of most of her participants. During the study, 40 participants sent an amazing 250,000 text messages in 3 months. Levels of anxiety and depression were seen to decrease significantly and by sharing information the patients’ knowledge of their medical treatment improved. Many of those who took part in the study would not have attended a support group had it been face to face but the anonymity of the mobile network encouraged intimacy. Kydd quoted the promising words of one of her participants: “I felt very sad and depressed and did not want to take my medication but listening to my friends in a group I started to feel happier and excited about life.” Kydd is now set to run a pilot in the UK with up to 1000 people taking part.

We’re not as willing to share as had hoped, but our need to connect means we’ll find a way to do so whatever the technology.

(Image: Flickr / superfem)