I've always been scared around gadgets and software. And in awe of people who're good with them. After three years of science and tech reporting though, I think I'm starting to get the hang of things. Before this, I covered automobiles, health, careers and business, for seven years. Nice thing about technology is, it lets me poach into all those fields once in a while. I love this job. But I'm not sure how I managed to land it. I did my BA in Advertising from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce and MA in Journalism from Madurai Kamaraj University. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a guitar player and a footballer but sucked in all those fields. I can play the flute and harmonica though. And I have an interest in machines that move - it was cars and bikes earlier but considering there's nothing revolutionary happening there, it's military stuff now. I'm the sort who drools over figures. Not the 36-24-36 types. But top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption, drag co-efficient. I drive an Alto though. And usually take the Metro to work.
OK. For folks who didn't know, auctions for third generation telephone networks are currently on. Basically, a lot of smart people are together, planning to pay the government, a lot of money. Money, that if otherwise used, could have bought thirty thousand Indians, their own private Ferraris.
And what are they forking out all this money for? A lot of hot air. Actually, the technical word for it is SPECTRUM. See, when you and I use our cell phones, our voices are magically transformed into a stream of zeroes and ones, which then travel hundreds of kilometers over radio waves (The hot air, or spectrum we talked about), till they reach the ear of the chap we're talking to on the other end.
Now, there are some 550 million Indians with cell phones today. When all of them yak together, the air (or radio waves/spectrum) around us becomes as clogged and uncomfortable as a Delhi Blue line bus on a hot summer day. We never notice of course - it's uncomfortable only for our dis-embodied digital voices, jostling for space on the radio waves.
When it's so clogged for our voices, imagine how tough it is for the music files we download from the net, the photos we upload to Facebook and the word documents we attach to our emails, from our shiny new cell phones or our laptops skewered with those little thumb drive modems. That's why it takes forever to do any of those things on the phone. Doing it in office, with a broadband internet line is so much faster. (Not to speak of the guilty pleasure of ripping the boss off!!).
Those really smart people I talked about in the first Para? They know most of us Indians are unemployed. So no office PCs for most of us. But if we could work as easily as we do on PCs, on our cell phones, most of us would jump at the chance. And we wouldn't mind paying for it either.
But to do that, to carry all that data, they need more radio waves than what they already have. Something like a larger pipe, through which they can pour out more water. And that is a problem. See radio waves are strictly controlled by the government.
The microwaves in our kitchens send out radio waves. So the government set aside a few radio frequencies just for domestic purposes. The cops who patrol our streets use walkie talkies, they use another set of frequencies.
Doordarshan beams TV programmes over the air to every village in India - that's another set of frequencies. CNN IBN beams all its shows up to satellites on a special set of frequencies and they beam it down to your set top box on another frequency band. The planes we city hop on talk to the traffic controller on another frequency. So you see, slowly, we've run out of our radio frequencies that we can use. To talk and send pondy films over.
There is someone with a lot of spare frequency though. Just like some of the best and largest tracts of land in our cities are given to military cantonments, a huge chunk of our radio wave frequencies were dedicated for defense use. But now, they've been promised a separate satellite and underground cable network for all their needs. Result - a lot of radio waves will soon be left unused.
And that's what the smart folks who run our telephone networks are scrambling for. See, the government is selling rights to those radio waves for twenty years. In twenty years, perhaps everyone in our billion plus country would own cell phones. And they'd want the latest bells and whistles on them. Those bells and whistles are called the Third Generation of telephony services. (I could be wrong here, but was the first generation sending text over the air waves, like on pagers? And second generation was sending both voice and SMS messages over the air?)
Imagine seeing the next Katrina Kaif movie on your cell phone, on the way to work. Or actually seeing your parent's reactions, when you call and tell them you've married the cheerleader you made friends with at IPL. That sort of data could quickly flow to everyone's cell phones, if there were enough radio waves to send them over. And of course people would pay good money, to use such services.
If you're the serious sorts, I'd tell you that all those radio waves could also connect village school students with cell phones to all the knowledge on the world wide web. That doctors sitting in Delhi, could diagnose patients in rural Chhatisgarh, with medical data sent over cell phones.
The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations backed organisation, says even a 1% increase in fast internet connections, increases a country's Gross Domestic Production by 10%. And a 1% increase in mobile phone connections, increases GDP by 5%. My maths and economics is verifiably horrible, but if using a superfast internet connection on my phone means I'm helping my country become a superpower - hey, count me in!
Now you know what 3G is and what the fuss is all about. But while we're gloating over this, other countries are planning to move to fourth generation or 4G networks. That's when each and every electronic device we use will be connected to the world wide web. Your fridge will email saying there aren't enough beer cans for the party. Your microwave will SMS saying the chicken's red hot and piping. And you could call and tell your home AC to chill the room well before the guests arrive.
It sounds like science fiction. But I told you. Those smart people, they really think way ahead of our times. (Though it's only about two years away for countries like Korea and Japan). Next time, let's chat about why some people think that, though our 3G auctions are happening right now, it'll be a long, long time before we actually use all those services I told you about.