Talk to me anywhere, anytime

By Justin Mullins We’ve chosen this project as one of the great engineering milestones of the recent past. Tell us which engineering project you think will have the biggest impact on human life in the next 30 years and win the trip of a lifetime When Martin Cooper demonstrated the first mobile phone in 1973, the prototype handset gave him 35 minutes of talk time and weighed about as much as a pineapple – more than a kilogram. Within 10 years, however, he and his team of engineers at US electronics company Motorola had halved the weight and doubled the talk time. But even with this impressive rate of improvement, it would have been hard to predict then, the impact that the mobile phone has today. It has become ubiquitous and is much more than a medium for communication. The mobile phone is transforming every society on the planet, especially those in the poorest countries. Mobile phones are portable radios that allow two-way conversations between people connected to the global telephone network. That network is made up of a mostly fibre-optic backbone connected to base stations that make the final radio link to the phone. Each base station forms the centre of a ‘cell’ within which thousands of people can make a call even to a phone on the other side of the world. Base station transmitters use low power and different frequencies from their closest neighbours to minimise interference. This arrangement lets far more people use their phones at the same time than if there was a single transmitter serving a much larger area. But it also creates problems. For example, network engineers had to work out how to cope with calls as phones moved from one cell to another. Another necessity was keeping track of the vast number of devices connected to the network so that calls could be routed to them. Engineers solved these problems by creating protocols for how phones switch frequency when moving from one cell to the next and by devising special codes that the phones transmit to identify themselves. All this is very different from the ordinary phone system which relies on costly hardwiring to every phone. Removing that expense is one reason why mobile phones have spread so quickly. Another is the dramatic fall in price of phones themselves. Motorola’s first mobiles cost a staggering $4000. Today, phones are cheap enough to give away. The result is a planet bristling with mobiles, some 5 billion of them according to Peter Cochrane, the former head of BT’s research labs in Martlesham, UK, and now an entrepreneur and futurist. “There are 7 billion people on the planet and almost all of them have access to a mobile phone,” he says. That, of course, has changed the way people communicate. But Cochrane says the mobile phone’s real impact is much broader and more profound. In the developed world, these changes are easy to see. Mobile phones give access to news, maps and powerful cloud-based services, such as picture and video-editing, as well as almost everything else on the internet. Bigger changes are afoot in the developing world, where people who have traditionally had little access to information from outside their community now have “the world at their fingertips”. Cochrane points to farmers, who use their mobiles to get weather forecasts, buy seeds and fertilisers at the best prices and sell their crops to the highest bidder. In some parts of Africa, travelling workers get paid in talk time, which they can then barter for food, clothes and lodging. Here, communication has become a new kind of currency. This is just the beginning, says Cochrane. With the aid of accelerometers, cameras and global positioning system satellites, the phone is becoming a sensor that can track our position, behaviour, and even our health. Of course, critics argue that we’re in danger of becoming over-reliant on this network and that the potential for catastrophe is huge, should it fail. But when the powerful earthquake struck Haiti last year, the mobile phone network remained largely intact, playing a crucial role in coordinating disaster relief. It helped to mitigate the disaster,
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