Mobile telephony is without doubt one of the most explosive developments ever to have taken place in the telecommunications industry. By the end of 1990 there were just 11 million cellular subscribers world-wide; eight years later that figure had jumped to 320 million and is now forecast by the ITU to exceed 550 million by the end of next year. Penetration rates in the Nordic countries were close to 60% by September 1999, led by Finland (63%), Norway (58%), Iceland (56%) and Sweden (53%).
Mobile growth around the world has also been nothing short of astonishing. China posted an 87% combined annual subscriber growth rate from 1995 to 1998, with other major economies like Brazil (82%) and South Africa (67%) not far behind.
For the world's poorest countries, cellular telephony and wireless local loop systems represent the best chance yet of bringing the power of telecommunications to economically disadvantaged or isolated communities. Cambodia, for example, is one of only half a dozen countries in the world where cellular subscribers already outnumber fixed-line subscribers.
Without doubt, mobile telephony offers enormous advantages and added convenience, greater personal security, and the ability to take advantage of ‘dead' time to do business on the move. But the picture isn't all rosy. Like most young technologies, mobile telephony is experiencing its share of teething troubles, including concerns about environmental impact, health and safety, and, of course, the social changes being wrought by a technology which, by making us permanently contactable, is having a profound effect on our interpersonal interaction.
Many cities around the world are becoming blighted by a gaggle of ugly mobile antennae, which spoil once-pleasant views, detract from the authenticity of historical areas, and exacerbate the often already overwhelming presence of intrusive urban infrastructure such as electricity poles, telephone lines, traffic management equipment and signage.
Predictably, environmental complaints have been the loudest in developed countries, where zoning laws, property rights and environmental obligations are often more strictly enforced, and where reliable access to a range of communications services is, in any case, largely taken for granted. Communities in developing countries are, conversely, often so grateful for modern communications infrastructure that they are happy enough (for the moment at least) to turn a blind eye to environmental aesthetics.
In order to avoid problems with environmental groups and local communities — which can be potentially costly in terms of both legal fees and delays in network roll-out — many equipment manufacturers and operators are now working on ways to reduce the environmental impact of cellular antennas.
In the Central Business Districts of large, modern cities, the problem is relatively easily solved by simply integrating a large number of small antennas into the facades of tall buildings. In suburban and semi-rural areas, on the other hand, the large, steel-grey structures needed to support larger cells are harder to hide — yet some operators have nonetheless come up with innovative solutions.
In South Africa, for example, at least one operator has taken to camouflaging GSM towers in tropical palm trees, with surprisingly successful results. Elsewhere, the tall spires of churches and cathedrals are being used to hide antennas, representing a positive solution for both the general public and the religious organizations which suddenly find themselves with profitable antenna-site rental on their hands.