Centre for Internet & Society

You can video chat, stream music and watch TV on your phone. Offering high-speed internet access, 3G would change the world of mobile computing. Nishant Shah's article was published in the Indian Express on 14 November 2010.

In the days of dial-up connections in the late 1990s, this was the procedure for downloading a picture from the Internet:
Step 1: Switch on the modem and make sure the phone line is working.
Step 2: Press connect on the dialog box and wait with bated breath to hear the sound of the “handshake” connecting the modem to the server.
Step 3: Try three-five times to finally get that connection. Increase your ability in creative swearing in the meantime.
Step 4: Hope that nobody calls on the landline while the connection is running. If somebody calls, go to Step 2. Type the URL, press Enter. Go to the kitchen. Brew a cup of coffee and come back.
Step 5: Click on the link of the picture you want to load. Go for a walk, take a long shower, eat your dinner and get back to the screen. Swear profusely because the connection went kaput in the middle of loading the picture and all you can see are pixellated patterns. Begin at Step 2, promise to be a better person who will be kind to puppies and smile at strangers. 

And this is only the truncated version. If your karma was on a particular bad spin, you might have other additional steps (including turning your modem or computer on and off, because it had hung) that would increase your faith in god. To all of us who grew up in those days, the arrival of broadband was an answer to the collective prayers sent by geeks across the (mother)board in the dark hours of internet despair. The world changed with broadband, as email, blogs, sharing of pictures and information, making voice-over IP calls and connecting with people from different parts of the world became a matter of clicks.

True, there were the irritations of buffering and the heartfelt angst of that slight lag between Send and Receive over IM and email, but the accelerated speeds changed our notions of time and space. Instead of Bulletin Boards, which were more like post-it notes on refrigerators, left and collected within 12-hour intervals, we moved to Instant Messaging, which was like passing notes in the classroom to see immediate reactions and responses. For us in India, the World Wide Web opened up, for the first time, not only as something we consume but we also contribute to, adding data, providing alternative perspectives and questioning the existing views. Since the arrival of broadband, geographies have shrunk, time zones have blurred, lifestyles have become homogeneous, the singular silence of solitary voices has been replaced by the cacophony of multiple presences and everybody knows just a little bit more about their neighbours than is beneficial to anybody.

What broadband did to the snail-paced but exciting world of text-based communication and slow information transfers, 3G promises to do to the burgeoning world of mobile data access. 3G, which stands for third generation, promises to change the face of mobile computing drastically. The interface of the computer has become increasingly mobile in the past few years. Smartphones and PDAs have already unanchored us from the tyranny of sitting in one position to use the Net. Mobile technologies combined with access to the internet have led to interesting ways in which digital natives have straddled physical and virtual worlds. It has also led to new forms of participation where first-hand witnesses, citizen journalism and new interaction channels have resulted in structures of good governance and democracy. Wireless networks of mobile phones also mean that remote areas with poor infrastructure are now able to get on the Infobahn to access information.

The opening up of the 3G spectrum and the easy availability of high-speed data access on devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops, netbooks, e-book readers, etc, promises to accelerate these advantages. With extremely high-speed internet available on mobile devices with rich browsing capacities, one of the paradigm shifts will be in how we visually relate to the internet. We often forget that cyberspace, even though it is a visual medium, is also a text-heavy medium. This emphasis on text means that it excludes a lot of people who might not be conversant with English, the de facto language for most international discussions. It also excludes people who might be visually or print-challenged. 3G is hopefully going to change the way in which we interact with information online and bring in more multimedia, audio and video elements into it. And this means that video chatting on phones is now just a dial away.

In countries like Japan, North Korea, Syria, Singapore and the US, where 3G has been rolled out, there have been dramatic changes. Content generation and cultural production have gone up tremendously. As more inexpensive devices offer internet gateway through 3G, people think of themselves as not mere consumers but also producers of online content. Citizen journalism has flourished and events that are often glossed over by mainstream media find visibility and space in an international dialogue. 3G promises easy, affordable and extensive networking possibilities to communities and people who often exist in remote and isolated areas.

Technologies in themselves do not change the world. However, there is no denying that ease of access, scope of expanse and affordability that the 3G spectrum brings is going to create populations, and eventually generations, who are one step closer to Singularity — the vision of creating perfect networks where human memories, thoughts and ideas work in synchrony with technology networks. This Diwali, when Tata Docomo offered 3G services in 20 cities, the biggest bang was in the noisy silence of data travelling at huge speeds in the ether. New service providers will transform your digital device into a magic box, combining entertainment, interaction, communication and information access to stitch you in better into the fabric of a world that is quickly becoming digital.

The ABC of 3G...
How will 3G change the way I use my phone?

3G enables you to access internet on your phone at extremely high speeds. Which means, you can play a YouTube clip on your phone without buffering; check PDF files and attachments on your BlackBerry with ease; download music and transfer files faster. Video calls from one network to another will become easier, and more popular. You can also watch television on your cellphone. 

Will CDMA and GSM phones support 3G?

3G will be available to both GSM and CDMA customers, if you are on a 3G network. 

Can I use my existing handset to get 3G speeds?

Only if your handset (whether a smart-phone or not) is 3G or 3.5G-ready. 

How can I make video calls?

You will need a 3G-enabled handset and a front-facing camera. The person you are calling should have a 3G handset and be on a 3G network. If you don't have a front-facing camera, you will be able to watch the person you are speaking to, but he/she won’t be able to see you. If your phone supports Skype, you will be able to make free calls to another Skype user. 

Is a front-facing camera a must on all 3G phones?

It is if you want to make video calls. If you are only going to use 3G speeds to access email, check Facebook, and share documents, you won’t need it. 

How does 3G change entertainment options?

Worldwide, the biggest consumption on 3G networks is of television. And not without reason: there is plenty of bandwidth available and phones with 3” to 4” screens make watching TV on the go a pleasure. Most mobile TV users in 3G countries are people who use public transport. But with many urban Indians still driving to work, I don’t know if mobile TV will catch on. You can, though, check the latest news or catch one over of a Test match between meetings.

How does 3G affect the way I interact with my environment?

A friend in Singapore saves approximately $100 every month on parking fees, as his 3G connection tells him about the cheapest parking options in and around his geographical location, at the press of a qwerty key. Similarly, you can find out about places to dine out, the deals the nearest mall is offering or the location of the nearest ATM. In India, such location-based services have not taken off, though some malls and shopping centres send you information about their deals of the day on Bluetooth. 

Will I need to pay separately for 3G?

Yes, there will be a subscription charge for data access, above your current voice plan. Though the operators have not revealed price plans, you should typically look at plans in the range of Rs 300 per month and upwards for 3G usage. 

Will I be able to use 3G on my PC?

If your phone allows using you to tether its internet connection to your personal computer (or Mac), you can access internet at 3G speeds on your PC. Some laptops now also include a SIM card slot, in which you can slide a 3G SIM to get 3G connectivity. Devices like Apple’s iPad with a 9.7” screen, the Samsung Galaxy Tab (7”) and the Olivepad (7”) can also connect to 3G networks, letting you surf, stream music or videos, or work on the move. 

Do I need 3G?

Like with each technology, there will be late movers and early adopters. I know of a lot of people like me who would like to have high-speed internet access on the move. And I also know of people who don’t want to check email more than once a day. It will depend on where and when you want to get connected. 

What kind of speeds can I expect?

Depends on your service provider, but you can expect an average of 1 megabits per second download speed, allowing you to stream videos and music without buffering, as well as do high-speed file transfers. There might be a limit of 300 Kbps on upload speeds. So sending large files may still take more time, but downloading will be faster. 

What tariff plan should I choose?

If you are going to use 3G mostly for video calls, choose a service provider with a good tariff plan for video calls. If you are going to use 3G to access internet services such as Flickr, YouTube and Facebook, and are a heavy Web user, unlimited data transfer plans make more sense. 

What are the 3G plans available now?

Currently, MTNL provides 3G services in Delhi and Mumbai; BSNL offers it across the country. Tata and Reliance have high-speed USB data cards, which work on the 3G platform but provide data access to PCs, not phones. Tata Docomo launched its 3G services in select circles this month. Aircel, Airtel and Vodafone also plan to start 3G services by early next year. 

Read the original article in the Indian Express here

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