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All equal in eyes of the mobile

Calcutta, Aug. 22: There is God, whom you don’t see. And there is the mobile phone, which you see everywhere. It’s for you to decide where the greater power lies.

Ten years ago, it was a clunky, portable handset designed to draw gawking crowds on roads and public places. Today, it has morphed into a sleek thingummy that fits snugly into a palm, unworthy of a second look.

The mobile phone is a great leveller ' and the tag of elitism that once clung to that old, wrist-wringing contraption has long fallen off.

Manab Mukherjee, Bengal’s minister for information technology, remembers the early days. “I was one of the few in our party to use a cellphone in the 1996 Assembly elections. Some of my seniors warned me against using it in public as it was a symbol of the upper classes. But today almost everyone has it,” he said at a celebration to commemorate that day a decade ago when Jyoti Basu made a call to then Union telecom minister Sukh Ram and created wireless history.

From functional candybar phones to chic clamshells, the mobile phone has broken all ' well, almost all ' class barriers in India, which now boasts 54 million subscribers.

The mobile phone industry now stands at the crossroads: which way will it go from here' There are no clear answers yet. But the industry mavens gathered at a five-star hotel here to celebrate the occasion realise that it will soon become more ubiquitous than the radio transistor sets of the sixties and the seventies, and more personalised and interactive than television.

“The industry is adding around 2.5 million customers a month,” said Rajan Bharti Mittal, joint managing director of Bharti Televentures.

It’s already doing that: it hopes to grow almost five times in the next two years and has set a target of 250 million connections by 2007.

Handset prices have dipped from Rs 45,000-60,000 to below Rs 5,000 and outgoing call rates from Rs 16 to as low as 30 paise a minute, creating a cellular diaspora that includes Punjab farmers and Kerala fishermen.

In one sense that is in sync with cellular history: the first-ever mobile call was on July 1, 1991, when Harry Holkieri, governor of the Bank of Finland, called the mayor of Helsinki to talk about the price of Baltic herring.

Shakeel Ahmad, Union minister of state for communications and IT, said the government was now aiming to bridge the rural-urban divide. Industry, too, is talking of taking the handset to rural areas.

“Networks cover 300 million people but 800 million are still untapped. Growth in the next 10 years will come from this untapped segment,” said Rajan Swaroop, of Bharti.

The industry will operate at two levels ' one will cater to the masses who buy handsets costing under Rs 1,000.

The other will be value-added services ' the next wave of the cellular revolution, 3G. It allows high-speed data transfer, handling multimedia content.

Even the cellular world is not all that egalitarian, is it'

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