My mother-in-law has revealed to me that I have 3G. We were driving her to the airport, behind time and hurtling along at near-3G speeds, when she yelled that she had left her laptop behind and had to go back. We pulled over to call the airline and prevent them from no-showing her, but words failed us. There, on my phone, right there was the magic legend: 3G. For the very first time.
Next morning, I discovered a tiny wavelet of 3G in a corner of my living room. I started darting about, phone in hand, hunting more 3G signal with the alacrity of a sleuth on the trail of A Raja’s stash of 2G cash. This is because my flat in Delhi is at an electronic crossroads and my phone switches towers if you go from the bedroom to the bathroom. Boss, I am excited to report that even my bathroom is awash with 3G. It’s like a deluge in the shower stall.
But why am I excited about this? The new technology will do very little for me right now, and not much more in the long-term. It will keep me connected when I travel, but it is too expensive to replace the broadband at home and in the office. But the Indian mobile market is very competitive and prices will fall. And as phones become smarter, at some time my mother-in-law will be able to replace her laptop with a phone connected to a keyboard and a screen. A phone which she will probably not leave behind on the way to the airport. But that’s all that 3G will do for people like us. However, 3G — and 4G, which lies ahead — will make a huge difference outside the big cities. In the long-term, mobile internet could usher in information democracy, bringing on board areas where connectivity is poor, the power supply is unreliable, and it is difficult to run computers.
‘Wireless’ CDMA phones with slow data connections have already put small towns on the communications map, though they do not reliably provide the bandwidth we need these days. With mobile broadband, these towns will become brighter points of light on that map and, more importantly, villages will become visible. Remember how the ubiquitous PCO changed our lives 15 years ago? I think that 3G is about to work that magic again.
This time, the very mindspace of the nation will change. Fast internet has everyday practical benefits that we take for granted but villagers are denied, but the social, cultural and political implications are much more interesting. Because fast internet lets ordinary people communicate, organise, publish and express themselves as forcefully as the mainstream. The Arab countries are now painfully aware of this.
I don’t anticipate revolution here, in our democracy. But I do look forward to hearing the real voice of rural India, speaking in its myriad tongues, unmediated by political mouthpieces, unfiltered by the media. The image of India that emerges may not be as pretty as the tourism advertisements, but it could be even more incredible. And it will certainly be more faithful to real life. Meanwhile, I have to go. I have to take my mother-in-law to the airport. Again.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal.