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BRAZIL: Cell Phones – Democratising Communications

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 8 2007 (IPS) - Rapid expansion in the poorer sectors of society, especially among the large number of informal workers, has taken the number of mobile phones in Brazil to over 100 million, equivalent to more than 53 percent of the population.

Cell phones were introduced in this country in 1990, when they cost 22,000 dollars each, due to the exorbitant cost of a line and a number. Prices gradually fell, and by 1998, when the telephone companies were privatised, seven million cell phones were in circulation.

Prices of mobile phones have plunged, to the extent that in recent weeks some telephone companies were offering free handsets to gain new clients. This marketing offensive in the run-up to Christmas tripled sales, which had previously reached an average of one million new cell phones a month.

Official figures for December will be known in a few weeks’ time, but are expected to indicate a cell phone density of 53 per 100 population in this country, whose total population is estimated at 188 million.

This means of communication has proved to be accessible and democratic. In just 16 years, the number of cell phones has outstripped that of traditional fixed phones two and a half times. In Brazil, land lines remain at a constant 40 million

The pre-paid system for mobile phones, enabling limits to be set on monthly expenses, has offered the poor greater access to telecommunications.

Nearly 81 percent of cell phones in Brazil use the pre-paid calls systems, and a large proportion are used only to receive incoming calls, because their owners never, or hardly ever, purchase phone cards. Therefore the cost of these cell phones was limited to the initial outlay when they were bought.

Fixed telephones became uncompetitive because companies insisted on a monthly payment of 20 dollars, equivalent to 12 percent of the national minimum monthly wage – out of the reach of poor people. Mobility is also a decisive factor.

Francisco Alves Dias, who has been self-employed as an electrician and plumber for 25 years, said his income increased by “150 percent” since he got a cell phone.

Before he got it, he served just one large middle-class building in Rio de Janeiro, staying on the premises and waiting for jobs to come up, for hours or days at a time.

Now he works in several neighbourhoods, his inactive hours have practically disappeared, and he sometimes works “even on Sundays,” he told IPS. He publicised his cell phone number on cards distributed in several places, and it has become his mobile office..

Mobile telephones have given a leg up to many informal sector workers, who make up more than half of the economically active labour force in Brazil.

Another story is that of a former cleaning lady in Sao Paulo, who preferred not to be named. Using her cell phone, she branched out into organising and catering for birthday parties on weekends, and now runs an informal small business, employing several people.

Countless workers who cannot afford an office or workshop for their trades, like manicurists, street vendors, taxi drivers and people providing various services, also benefit from mobile telephones.

In addition, cell phones have “greatly improved communication” for the deaf, thanks to text messaging, Eduardo Monte, an engineer who lost his hearing at the age of 12, but can converse because he lip-reads, told IPS.

The vibration setting, instead of a ring tone, to advise that someone is calling (“vibracall”) is another advantage for the hearing impaired that fixed telephones do not provide. Other visual resources, like videos, are important as well, while the Braille keyboard is a real victory for blind people, Monte said.

A Brazilian company has also developed a system for transmitting messages translated into the official Brazilian Sign Language (Libras). The technology is called Rybená, which means “communication” in a Brazilian indigenous language.

The problem is that the technology is proprietary, and the telephone company owning it would have to share it with other operators in the market to enable deaf people to converse, Monte pointed out.

At the upscale end of the market, cell phones are used very differently. In addition to offering a means of person-to-person communication, mobile phones are an entertainment medium growing more sophisticated and resourceful every day, providing cameras, music, electronic games, video and Internet access.

They can also be used as a security device. Three weeks ago there was a much-publicised incident in which a businessman travelling in Germany managed to foil a burglary at his home at a beach near Sao Paulo.

An alarm system in his home signalled his cell phone, indicating that a stranger had entered the house. He was immediately able to see, via Internet, what was happening at the house and advised the police, who arrested the burglar.

Violence in Brazil is a powerful motive for using cell phones, particularly for teenagers and young people. Parents give their kids mobile phones so they can track their movements, especially when they go out at night.

In the near future, “convergence is inevitable” and cell phones will also become mobile televisions, Gustavo Gindre, an activist with the National Forum for the Democratisation of Communication and coordinator of the Institute for Studies and Projects on Communication and Culture, told IPS.

Soon, television programmes will be watched on the larger television screens, on computer screens and on cell phones, but there will be major disputes over the introduction of digital television, which is to begin this year in Brazil, Gindre predicted.

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