Wireless Advances Around the World

y Joe Mullich

We’ve all grown accustomed to the notion that a cellphone or smart phone is much more than a telephone. But could you imagine these devices serving as your television or wallet? In some parts of the world they already do. While the United States has moved from cellular backwater to industry trendsetter in the last few years, some mobile advances still have not yet made much headway in North America because of technical, business or cultural hurdles. To wit:

Follow That Taxi. If you’ve ever tried to pay for a taxi with only an ATM or credit card, you’ve probably found yourself out of luck – unless you’re in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Consumers there can buy “Q-Cash” cards at supermarkets or from taxi drivers. To pay the fare, the customer sends a text message with the taxi number and fare amount to a designated number. Could this someday spell the end to those little placards, “Driver only carries $20 in change”?

Catch That Train. In Japan, long considered ground zero for mobile technology, people purchase soda pop from vending machines and pay for train tickets with their cellphones. The so-called “wallet phones” use tiny computer chips named FeliCA that communicate with reader devices to deduct the payment. Recent trials of such devices in London subways, where people swiped their cellphones over a reader, were a huge success: Nine of 10 people expressed satisfaction with this NFC (near-field communication) technology. “The questions revolve around who will pay for the technology,” says Mark Beccue, an analyst with ABI Research. “It took off in Japan because the carriers bit the bullet and funded the technology with no clear return on investment.”

Tune In. While people in London use cellphones to pay for the tube, Japanese commuters also use their devices to watch the tube. “In Japan and South Korea, there is a stigma against talking on your cellphone on commuting vehicles – it’s rude,” said Jeff Orr, an analyst with ABI Research. “So, people watch mobile TV with Bluetooth headsets.” Indeed, one survey found wealthy Asians are more likely to have a mobile TV (89 percent) than a mobile laptop (87 percent) or phone (76 percent). Orr believes the switch to all-digital broadcasting could cause the technology to skyrocket in the United States over the next few years – on cellular handhelds, automotive infotainment systems and Mobile Internet Devices (MID), multimedia devices that are larger than smart phones.

Go 3-D. A Japanese company just released the first cellphone that presents 3-D images. When you press a button below the keyboard, the screen appears to protrude slightly from the 3.1-inch liquid crystal display, creating a three-dimensional effect, just like those 3-D movies (but without needing special glasses). How much 3-D material anyone wants to view on a cellphone is another question.

Avoid Late Payments. In the United Kingdom, people can request text reminders for their utility bills – and then pay the bills with a touch of a button. Customers elect when they want the reminder to come, from the day before their bills are due (which costs a buck) to several days before (which is free or twenty-five cents).

Buy Movie Tickets – and More. In India, more than a quarter million people use their mobile phones to pay bills, buy movie tickets and purchase other goods through JiGrahak Mobility Solutions. This “mobile mall” service was named one of 34 “tech pioneers” by the World Economic Forum in December, for introducing technologies or business models that could advance the global economy and positively affect people’s lives. JiGrahak makes e-commerce easy, by allowing people to avail themselves of hundreds of services with one click rather than using access codes and numbers for individual merchants.

Keep An Eye on Things. You might have set up a nanny cam over a wireless home network. In Australia, firms can stream live videos to police stations for security purposes and mining companies can monitor for environmental hazards in distant locations. The reason: The “Next G” network from Telstra, the former state-owned phone company, offers speeds up to seven times faster than those provided by third-generation (3G) networks in the United States. A recent study found the added speed – which allows businesses to better track vehicles and do video conferencing, among other things – will boost the economy by $4.7 billion, or $158 per household.

Follow the Sun. An Indian company just introduced a 100% solar-powered cellular base station that will allow cellular service to be offered in tiny towns in developing nations. “To keep cost and power use in check, the minimalist base stations use simpler 2G technologies, and are limited to just voice and SMS text messages,” says Derek Kerton, a wireless analyst in Pleasanton, CA. “But it will be a major advance to help micro-entrepreneurs, bring up the wealth of these towns, and bring the power of communication to remote and poor people that have thus far endured without.”

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