Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Masses communication

The world’s largest mobile operator connects 518 million people to the communications revolution

By Tania Branigan  /  THE GUARDIAN , BEIJING

Until just over a year ago, Gong Kangshun spent much of his life trekking over the mountains around his remote village in southwest China. It isn’t easy making a living in Xiuxi, a tiny settlement of 58 families deep in Aba County, Sichuan Province. Gong grows crops on a small plot and sells rare fungi found on the steep slopes nearby. Many young people, including his brother, leave to find work in the factories and shops of eastern China.

But a single purchase has shortened his working hours and sent his income soaring — by helping him to find buyers for his fungi. It has even improved his relationships with family and friends.

“I’d panic without my mobile phone,” the 35-year-old admits.

Across China, tens of millions have similar tales to tell. Many had never enjoyed phone access until recently. Now, for a small outlay, they can buy a handset, slot in a pre-paid sim card, start calling — and change their lives.

Most, like Gong, can thank one firm: China Mobile. With more than 70 percent of the domestic market it has 518 million subscribers, more than any other mobile carrier on the planet.

It is the world’s largest phone operator by market value and the largest Chinese company listed overseas. Its work on 4G technology and its interest in foreign acquisitions suggest its international profile may soon grow.

Already the company’s influence is rippling out across the world, almost unnoticed. The rapid spread of mobiles, facilitated by the company’s high-speed network roll-out, is both a product of China’s aggressive development and a contributor to it — accelerating the pace of life and business, and shrinking distances.

Some activists are enthusiastic about the potential for mobiles and the Internet to expand the flow of information in a country with heavy censorship. They point to cases where camera phones have captured and shared images of unrest or official abuse.

The authorities certainly seem to be aware of the potential — Chinese social networking sites are strictly controlled and overseas services such as YouTube are blocked. In restive Xinjiang, text messaging was turned off after vicious ethnic violence. The authorities also use mobiles for everything from political education to monitoring individuals.

A PART OF LIFE

The social and political effects of new technology are rarely straightforward, but for most people, mobiles are simply a part of life.

Whether a highly paid Shanghai executive or an independent farmer-cum-trader such as Gong, no one can afford to be without a phone — or a signal. China Mobile’s 500,000 base stations now cover 98 percent of the population. You can call home from city subway trains, distant fields or the peak of Mount Everest.

“If you have a requirement, we will have coverage,” pledged Wang Jianzhou (王建宙), the firm’s chairman and chief executive, who has more than three decades of experience in the sector.

“When we started this business we thought very few people would use mobile phones — only the rich,” he said.

Now he is dissatisfied with a penetration rate of 57 percent: “I think every adult should have at least one mobile ... they are an extension of human ears, eyes and mouths.”

Before the network reached Xiuxi in late 2008, Gong used the phone perhaps twice a month. Each time he would walk for an hour to the nearest landline to call traders interested in buying the valuable “caterpillar” and “sheep stomach” fungi used in Chinese medicine.

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