4th November 2001

The Sunday Times on the Web















Indispensable tool or trendy accessory? Ruwanthi Herat Gunaratne and Randi Goonetilleke report on the mobile phone craze

Techno moves

Ringing change

Are cellular phones taking over the market? Latest figures from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission reveal that while the number of land phone subscribers stood at 795,309 as at June 2001, cellular phone subscribers numbered 556,882.

Just take a look around you, in the bus or at a public place, be it in a cinema or supermarket and the figures won't seem so surprising. For everywhere you turn, there's someone with a mobile phone. If they were originally touted as being indispensable to the busy businessman and young executive, they are now owned by students, shop-keepers and trishaw drivers as well. 

For some, the cellular phone has become an added part of their anatomy. It goes with them in the car, on the bus, to the grocery shop, to the restaurant and in some extreme cases even to the bathroom! 

But why are we so hooked on them?

Says the Head of Sales and Marketing at Dialog GSM, Mr. Nushad Perera, "Next to your spectacles, the phone has become the most important utility device. When the phones first hit the market - they were seen as a cosmetic device; you'd most probably have seen phones propped up on tables at restaurants for all the world to see. But now people simply purchase mobile phones because they want to be in contact."

"Communication is such an important factor," explains Mr. Aubrey Fonseka, General Manager at Metropolitan Communications Ltd., "and the cellular phones make it all the more convenient, especially as a business tool."

But it isn't everyone who feels the need to be contactable every minute of the day. There are many who feel that cellular phones are an intrusion of their privacy. They see it as a public disturbance too, especially given the musical rings and tendency to ring at the most inopportune moments. Who hasn't heard cell phones ringing in the middle of concerts, at funerals and in church too?

"Just knock off the phone, that's the advantage of a cellular phone. You don't have that option with a landline. You are also able to screen your calls and not answer them if you prefer not to. That's what has made the cellular phone so popular," says Mr. Fonseka. However, as telecom companies too have introduced CLI (Caller Line Identification) you really don't need a cellular phone to do that kind of work for you, "but you cannot take your landphone everywhere!" insists Mr. Fonseka.

With phones being available for even Rs. 3,500, cellular phone companies are now targeting a new sector - the youth. "Lifestyles have changed considerably during the past few years. Children now go out on a daily basis. The advantage in kids having a cellular phone is that they can be in constant contact with their parents, and nobody is likely to panic in case of an emergency," said Mr. Perera. 

True, lifestyles may have changed and society is in turmoil but does this mean that six and seven-year-olds need phones to be safe? "In a way," smiles Mr. Perera.

"Not so," said a mother of two who says emphatically that she does not believe in giving children phones. "I know exactly where my children are and have absolutely no need to be in touch with them during school hours. And when I send them out, I always make sure that there's a responsible adult around in case of an emergency. I myself don't have a phone and have never felt the need for one. In my opinion it's just very simply another cosmetic device and an excuse for irresponsible parents."

Some parents though find the phone a handy tool as was the case for both Isuru (16) and Duminda (19), both students whose mothers bought them phones since they wanted to keep a tab on their movements. In Isuru's case, his mother meets the cost, but Duminda has to pay the bill out of his own pocket. So while Isuru is more likely to exploit the phone, Duminda 'tries to be careful, because it is MY money'. 

At the end of the day though it all comes down to the fact that most young adults want phones because, as Isuru puts it, "it's an accessory. I love the fact that the phone is light, cute and hip." So have we reached a situation where kids change their cellular phones as often as they change their clothing? Different phone covers can be purchased in all the colours of the rainbow. 

But then, there are also those for whom the phone is a vital part of their businesses. Said Ajith Wijemanne, who owns a printing press, "It is very important for me to be contactable, since I'm not at my desk most of the time. The phone has become indispensable to me, it's the first thing I reach for on my way out."

Mum of two, Nita (50) who works as an Assistant Manager disagrees. "It's an absolute waste of money," she says emphatically, pointing out that she is either at home or at the office during the day and has landlines at both places. "I'm contactable throughout the day. So why should I get a cellular phone? I'm certainly not indispensable."

At the end of the day, cellular phones mean many things to many people. They're either useful tools, menacing distractions, potential lifesavers or status symbols. Take your pick.

Health risks
Meanwhile, the debate over the health effects of mobile phones continues with a recent World Health Organization statement issued in October 2001 stating that: "None of the recent reviews have concluded that exposure to the radiofrequency (RF) fields from mobile phones or their base stations causes any adverse health consequence. However, there are gaps in knowledge that have been identified for future research to better assess health risks. It will take about 3-4 years for the required RF research to be completed, evaluated and to publish the final results of any health risks." 

Techno moves

Cellular phone manufacturers have their marketing strategies mapped out to keep pace with our ever-evolving technological world. New facilities introduced include: 


Wireless Application Protocol, a method of connecting mobile operators to the Internet. With the W@P facilities available in Sri Lanka, one has the opportunity to reserve hotel rooms, order food, transfer money and check e-mail through your mobile phone. 


Short Message Services gives mobile users the opportunity to exchange short messages with fellow mobile phone users or even get cricket, horoscope, news and trade updates on a mobile phone. (You can even get SMS in Sinhala.)

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