Mobile Phones Do Much More Than Make Calls Around the world, mobile phones help rural farmers gather information about crop prices and bargain shoppers download coupons on the fly. If you live outside the U.S., in what innovative ways to you use your cellular phone?

Mobile Phones Do Much More Than Make Calls

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This is Talk of the World from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, D.C. We in the United States live in the second world of mobile-phone technology. In Asia, Africa, in Europe, cell phones can do more than those we use in North America, and, of course, people have come up with innovative and creative applications for those devices. Rural farmers gather information about crop prices. Bargain shoppers find coupons. Marketing companies lure participants into viral campaigns.

Today, we ask our U.S. audience to put down their phones as we continue our series where we invite listeners from around the world to talk about issues that affect us all.

How do you use your mobile phone in new and interesting ways? Well, one way is to give us a phone call. Our number is country code 1, 202-513-2008. Again: 1-202-513-2008. You can also use that mobile to send us an email. That address is

We begin with Natasha Elkington. She's a journalist with Reuters who owns a farm in her native Kenya, where she happens to be right now. Thanks very much for being with us this evening.

Natasha? You there?

And, well, I guess one of the problems with mobile phones is every once in a while, they drop out. And let's introduce another guest now, and this is Amy Webb, who tracks digital technology in the United States and overseas. She runs the digital consulting agency Webbmedia Group, and she joins us here in the more reliable communication circumstances of Studio 3A in Washington. Nice to have you with us here.

Ms. AMY WEBB (Principal, Webbmedia Group): Thanks a lot.

CONAN: And one of the things that we don't use phones for in this country is banking.

Ms. WEBB: Right. You're absolutely right. And the amount of transactions, including money, overseas, especially in countries like Africa, is really staggering compared to what we see in the United States. In fact, in Kenya, there is a really interesting payment method that's pretty ubiquitous now called M-PESA, and that's the way that people are paying their employees. They're sending money that way. And nobody even questions the security of it or the validity of the transactions. And that's - you know, that's in Africa. We're also seeing a lot of…

CONAN: And I think we have an example of that.

Ms. WEBB: Oh, great.

CONAN: Natasha Elkington is back with us on the line. Natasha, are you there now?

Ms. NATASHA ELKINGTON (Journalist, Reuters): Yes, I am. I'm here.

CONAN: Okay, we wanted to tell you - you live, your farm is in a remote area of Kenya. You also live in Britain, where normally you work. You're in Kenya right now, but you have a caretaker on your farm there in Kenya, and you had a problem because you didn't know how to pay him.

Ms. ELKINGTON: Yes. And I had that problem in December. In particular, his wife was pregnant, eight months pregnant, and she was fainting. She (unintelligible) and she hadn't (unintelligible)…

CONAN: And Natasha, I'm afraid the phone line is just not good enough for us to use it right now, and I suspect the problem is more on our end than yours. But thank you. We thank you very much for your time this evening.

What she was talking about using that system, Amy Webb, that you were talking about, M-PESA. Pesa means money in Kenya.

Ms. WEBB: You're absolutely right, and I think that Americans probably find most interesting is that we don't think of places like Kenya as a bastion for real mobile and technological development. But the reason that we're starting to see these changes in places like Africa is because computers are expensive, and previously in order to make online transactions or to do some of these communications digitally, it would require both a computer and also a land line.

Interestingly enough, in the Congo, there are only - the last day that I looked at, there were only 10,000 land lines. So even if you did have a computer, there were only 10,000 opportunities to use it. So mobile use has really leapfrogged PC adoption.

CONAN: And people like Samuel, who's the caretaker at Natasha Elkington's farm, he lives 50 miles away from a bank. This is a person who wouldn't ordinarily even have a bank account, couldn't get there to make a deposit or a withdrawal, to do any transactions whatsoever. With a mobile phone, he could do all of that.

Ms. WEBB: Right. And the other interesting thing is that mobile phone adoption rate has just been skyrocketing, especially in the developing world. The last time that I looked at the numbers, across 50 percent of the poorest countries in the world, mobile ownership has actually increased an average of 70 percent each year since 2000.

So people in a lot of these countries are very likely already to have a phone. And so just, you know, companies like M-PESA had made it easier for them to use it in a very practical way.

CONAN: So this is a device that, well, poor people can use.

Ms. WEBB: Absolutely. And it's become a critical device for people, especially those who are living in regions where it's difficult to get information, like, you know, in parts of Africa, HIV-AIDS information, etcetera. It's hard to disseminate that. But if you have people with a mobile device and you have the ability to send a text message, which is a very simple way to get them information, you know, you're starting to solve some public health issues, as well, you know, in addition to helping them out.

CONAN: We want you listening around the world to call and tell us about the interesting and innovative ways you're using your mobile telephone devices. Our number here in Washington, D.C. is country code 1, area code 202, 513-2008. You can send us an email. That address is

And let's see if we can get Paula on the line. Paula's calling us from Ann Arbor in Michigan.

PAULA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead please.

PAULA: Thank you. The reason I'm calling is I actually live in Ann Arbor. I've lived here for 12 years. I had occasion to go back to South Africa a few months ago, and I opened a bank account while I was there. And the bank manager took my details, asked me for my cell phone number. I gave it to him, and within a matter of seconds, he had texted me all my banking information. He then leaned over into his desk and passed me a cash card, gave me a cash card. I mean, it was extraordinary.

I've never encountered efficiency like that. I think, you know, if we adopted those kinds of methods here, it would improve our banking. I also think that cell phones are just an extraordinary thing for Africans to have. Every South African has a cell phone. I mean, people may not own homes, they may live in shanty towns, but they all have cell phones. It's quite incredible. It's been able to - it gives people access to things.

CONAN: And Paula, do you still maintain that bank account in Durban via your cell phone?

PAULA: I do.

CONAN: And what do you use it for?

PAULA: To pay for things in South Africa, to make transfers to different accounts. It's just, it's a great advantage.

CONAN: And, obviously, there are a lot of people - this would be difficult, at best, just by telephone or, well, even land line and computer from Ann Arbor in Michigan.

PAULA: It would be. It would be. And I think cell phones - cell phones are amazing. It's an incredible technology, and, obviously, if you have a more sophisticated cell phone, you can do a number of things.

CONAN: Well Paula, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

PAULA: And thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Amy Webb, you mentioned this is enabling a lot of countries in places like Africa and other places around the world to skip a generation. They don't need to install the infrastructure, the copper lines, even the optical fibers that people use for telephones.

Ms. WEBB: Absolutely. It's much, much easier to set up a cell network than it is to set up the kinds of infrastructure that we have here in the United States. And the anecdote that I always like to use is my husband, whose business was trying to get FiOS installed in a relatively, you know, new area of the city, he's been fighting with them for, you know, I don't know how long. I don't know how many years. And once we finally got on the grid, it took him another several weeks to get the right kind of installer out to do the install to get this, to get the certain wires.

You know, with a mobile phone, you go to the carrier, you purchase your phone, and then that's it. It's not such a complicated process.

Africa does have, however - as do other, you know, some Eastern Bloc countries, and it could be argued also in East Asia, the added complication of, you know, well, who owns the infrastructure? We don't see those kinds of arguments here in the United States. On the other hand, we have a limited number of carriers who are, in some ways, putting a stranglehold on what we can and can't do with our mobile phones.

CONAN: There is a technology - of course, we're familiar with bar codes in terms of universal pricing codes on boxes of cereal at the grocery store. But bar codes are something else, again, in other parts of the world.

Ms. WEBB: Absolutely, and you've touched on my latest obsession. Two-dimensional bar codes have actually been around in Asia for many, many years. And there are two basic standards that I will explain very, very briefly, and I had sent - you can Google these both, or I had sent some resources to TALK OF THE NATION. You might see it there.

Anyhow, one is called a QR code, and that looks like - you know, these are squares, right? So it's a little square that looks like a dot matrix. There are two squares at the top of the square and one on the bottom left-hand side. The other one is a dot matrix, and actually, if you happen to be sitting at your desk and you've got a, you know, something from the post office, take a look in the corner. You might see something that also looks like a dot-matrix code that has a solid line on the left and a solid line on the bottom.

Basically, what happens is these two-dimensional codes can be embedded with various kinds of information: a Web site, a phone number, a text message, whatever. And to scan it, all you need is your mobile phone, as long as it has a camera and the right technology, the right software, which is widely available and is free.

You take a picture of this code, and then some kind of action happens. So you'll automatically make a phone call. In Japan, there's a women's magazine. I love this thing. They have this huge plastic-surgery ad in the back every single month talking about all the wonderful things that you can do. If you decide, you know, you're not looking so wonderful, you've got a hot date, you've got a Juvederm emergency, you know, you can read about it, you can scan the code to get a coupon for the injections, I guess.

And then, since in Japan the phone knows where you are, it'll give you a play-by-play subway map explaining how you get from where you are to the doctor's office to have the procedure done immediately.

CONAN: Or there can be a billboard, a giant billboard, that is one of these codes, and you just point your cell phone at it, take a picture, and you've got - well, you feel like you're the insider. You've got some sort of secret message.

Ms. WEBB: You're absolutely right. In the U.K., the "28 Weeks Later" movie, DVD release, as part of that campaign, they put some posters up around London without anything besides what looked like a giant, two-dimensional bar code and a little biohazard stamp in the middle of it.

They didn't say anything about it. People, if they - you know, in the know, would take the picture, they would get additional information about the movie. This is not something we could do in the United States. Everybody would assume it's some kind of terrorist attack, and that would be the end of bar codes here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEBB: But yeah, they're having widespread use in Asia for a variety of reasons. I mean, we're also now seeing them in the United States. American Airlines is going to start having, and I think also Northwestern, some of its tickets - you scan the code, and you just show your phone and walk onto the airplane.

CONAN: Stay with us, Amy Webb. We're talking about some of the ways mobile phones are changing people's lives, their business, their politics, they way they market their products, the way they contact their friends.

We'll be hearing more about this, specifically about what's happening in the Congo and in Cuba. But we want to know how you use your mobile phone in new and interesting ways. Again, our American audience, please put your phones down today. We want to hear from listeners around the world. Our country code 1, 202-513-2008. You can drop us an email. The address is I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the World from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the World. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, D.C. Our mobile phones do a lot more than make calls. One company created an app for the iPhone that helps kids with autism or stroke patients communicate. The phone speaks for them when they can't.

Today, we're talking with our worldwide audience. How do you use your mobile phone in new and interesting ways? Again, just for today, we ask listeners in the U.S. to put down their phones so we can hear from those of you overseas. Our telephone number is country code 1, 202-513-2008. Again, that's 1-202-513-2008. You can also use that mobile to send us an email. That address is

Amy Webb is our guide to all the things people can do with their mobile phones. She heads the Webbmedia Group, a digital consulting agency. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Tiffany, Tiffany with us from Oakland, California - though calling about a situation in Tibet, as I understand.

TIFFANY (Caller): Yes, yes, actually. It's a real pleasure to be able to tell you more about this work that Touching Hearts in Tibet is doing. That's the name of the organization. I was actually in Tibet just in February, spent about two weeks there. And what I did was I was traveling out with a team to reach rural doctors, doctors that are working anywhere between 40 to 50 kilometers from a major road. And what we were doing was distributing this diagnostic equipment that would then test, you know, oxygen levels in children's blood and their heart rates. That's actually the number one area that children are most at risk for congenital heart disease.

And so what we were doing as well was setting up this network using mobile technology so that doctors could actually text us in Lhasa, which is the capital of Tibet, where they have all of the treatments going towards and could actually submit information about the children's heart rates, their oxygen levels. And then if they were at risk, we could then start to target, you know, interventions and bring these children to actually Lhasa proper and then eventually to Beijing to get treatment.

CONAN: And where were these doctors who were providing this information?

Ms. WEBB: The doctors were all over southern Tibet. I mean, it's a network reaching about 500,000 people in southern Tibet. And the organization has a lot of plans to actually do this in the northern parts, as well. They basically reach all of the villages, the prefecture hospitals, all of the ways that these people can get networked into the Lhasa, you know, the Lhasa structure in Tibet, as well as the rest of China. So that's where the doctors were at.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Tiffany.

TIFFANY: Yeah, you're very welcome. Have a great day. Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Appreciate it, and health coverage like that and health is a big application.

Ms. WEBB: Absolutely. So Tiffany had mentioned doctors using short message codes, and many of us in the United States are familiar with SMS texting, but actually in places like India, that's one of the primary ways that people communicate.

So a lot of health care professionals are now using SMS as a way, for example, in AIDS-stricken regions of Africa, to let their patients know that they need to take their medicine, to come in for their visits. It's being used as a very effective communications tool.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Ronald, Ronald with us from Toronto in Canada.

RONALD (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RONALD: Yes, just a brief question, and then I'll listen off the air. I'm just curious about the technology for cell phones regarding waterproofing. This is something I've seen around the world, and it doesn't seem to be available in the States at all. These phones get used in extreme environments, and they seem to be quite advantageous. And that's all I have, thank you.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. WEBB: I would say water is the least of your concerns in Canada. Canada has a really tight market, and there's not a lot of competition, and therefore the mobiles phones are very, very - have historically been very expensive to use there.

Assuming that you've got a data plan and that you're able to use your phone okay, in terms of waterproofing, I will tell you a company to look at - but before I do that, let me say that I'm vendor-neutral, and so is my company. So if I make a recommendation for something during the show, it's because we've taken it. We've tested it. We broke it, put it back together - not because we're getting a kickback.

So with that said, there's a company called OtterBox, O-T-T-E-R-B-O-X, which may be something that you can take a look into.

CONAN: And here's an email we have, Dan, writing also from Canada: The Canadian government is using two-dimensional bar codes now on passport applications. You fill out all your information on a PDF file, and a bar code is generated with all that ready to be scanned by the passport office. I'm sure it makes the process quicker and a little more foolproof in regards to typos.

And that raises a question. With, for example, these banking systems that are being used that we were talking about earlier in Kenya, are these foolproof? We're so spoofed by people, you know, trying to hack into our banking systems. Are people hacking into these mobile systems to get into bank accounts?

Ms. WEBB: Yeah, absolutely. One of clients that I will not name, we were talking about a very famous person whose mobile account had recently been hacked into. You know, it's not difficult, primarily because of the way that we use our own technology, to get access to somebody's information. Usually the technology is not what's at fault. It's the way that we've encoded it, the passwords that we use, etcetera.

So, yeah, there's certain concern with, you know, people being able to get to your information. But I would argue that the broader concern or the bigger concern is that, you know, mobile phones are small. They fall out of our pockets. We forget about them. We don't safeguard them with encryption and passwords. And at least in this country, I think one of our, you know, issues in terms of data is our own forgetfulness.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to Abdul, and Abdul's with us from Milwaukee, though calling about a situation in Senegal.

ABDUL (Caller): Yes, how are you doing? Yeah, I'm from Senegal, but I remember last time when I went back to Africa, and I (unintelligible). Where I go, everybody, they was laughing me. And I see people text-message one another. I don't really understand at that time what they was doing. I (unintelligible). I'm text-messaging right now a friend of mine. And I was kind of surprised how that time they was far away from us. And for me, (unintelligible) I came here, I think I've got the best (unintelligible) down here. But when I go down there, people really far from us about cell phone. Down there, anybody with a cell phone, you own it. Over here, when you have your cell phone, the company you got the service own that cell phone. I'm kind of surprised about that.

CONAN: Oh, so he's talking about the different ways the cell phone companies earn their money from cell phones, which is very different in the United States. You get that service contract, which everybody's so fond of.

Ms. WEBB: Ah, the service contract. We are so backwards when it comes to the way that we do our pricing here in the United States, not as bad as some countries. You know, one thing that's different about us versus what happens overseas in places like Senegal is that you're purchasing something called a SIM card, and that's the card that stores all of - it's sort of like a Social Security number, if you will, for your phone.

It contains all of the important information about it. And what you're doing is you're purchasing a card, and then you're sort of sticking that into a handset. And there's a whole interesting grey-market situation now in parts of Eastern Europe and in Africa where people are trading their SIM cards for various economic reasons.

CONAN: Joining us now is Alieu Conteh, the founder of Vodacom mobile company in the Congo, and he joins us now from his home in Kinshasa. And it's good of you to be with us today.

Mr. ALIEU CONTEH (Founder, Vodacom): Thank you.

CONAN: And can you tell us some of the ways that people in Congo are using your mobile phones?

Mr. CONTEH: Well, the mobile is used for almost everything in (unintelligible), Congo, by calling each other, using mobile Internet -which is not big yet, but it's coming along, and a lot of data on SMS.

CONAN: And a lot of data on SMS, which is text messages.

Mr. CONTEH: Text message. And also being developed here are money transfers from different regions to pay your bills or go eat at restaurants, and you can debit your account directly through mobile Internet banking.

CONAN: Mobile Internet banking also in Congo, as well as we were talking about earlier in South Africa and Kenya.

Mr. CONTEH: That's right.

CONAN: And how many people in Congo have mobile phones? What percentage of the population?

Mr. CONTEH: It's about 10 to 11 million people now.

CONAN: That's many, many more than have land lines.

Mr. CONTEH: Yeah. When we started eight years ago, it was only 10,000 people when I launched the (unintelligible) network here. And from there on, it grew up to where it is today, about 10, 11 million people.

CONAN: And are these primarily in the city, or are they in the rural areas, as well?

Mr. CONTEH: Yes, well, we cover the whole country and the rural areas as well and most of the area that we are concentrating to get communication to the - down to the rural areas.

CONAN: And I assume…

Mr. CONTEH: (unintelligible), but it creates also entrepreneurial system in those areas, because people buy generators and they charge, helping other people pay, to charge their mobiles so that they better communication, they can make a call. So where you don't have regular electricity there. So mainly, most of these rural areas are used, the way they use their mobile.

CONAN: So an entrepreneur can get a generator, rent it out to his neighbors to charge their mobile phones.

Mr. CONTEH: Charge their batteries. If you can help a guy in this area, maybe help somebody who's there, they'll come over to charge their mobile phone there on the generator's (unintelligible).

CONAN: So for more of these people, the mobile phone is the first phone that they've ever had?

Mr. CONTEH: Yeah. Ten years ago, mobile in Congo was mainly for high-end users, government - top government officials and top business people because the handset used to cost about $5,500. This is analog phone. It cannot send a text message. It's a huge, big Motorola handset. Today, you GSM-900 and the 1800. And mobile is available almost everywhere.

CONAN: Alieu Conteh…

Mr. CONTEH: Everywhere in the country, you can send text messages. You can communicate everywhere in Congo today.

CONAN: Alieu Conteh, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. CONTEH: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Alieu Conteh is the founder of Vodacom mobile company in Congo, and he joined us today from his home in Kinshasa.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Adley(ph), Adley with us from Tokyo.

ADLEY (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, there. Go ahead.

ADLEY: I just wanted to touch on the barcode you were talking about earlier. I know that here, they're incredibly useful, because I can't read a sign. But you can take a picture of them on certain cab stands. And then the cab company will dispatch a cab right to that location. And I saw in the USA Today the other day, it looks like there's a couple that are making their way to their States. I think one of them was JAGTAG, and there was another one that were featured in an article the other week.

CONAN: And what are the kinds of things - I'm sorry. Amy, you wanted to comment?

Ms. WEBB: Oh, I was going to say, yeah, there are - and this is - so this is a great point to make. One of the issues that we continually struggle with in the United States is that we have a totally - a very deregulated situation, which is different from Japan. In Japan, you know, the codes that you're looking at a layer are either - they're most likely QR codes. And since there's one standard that basically everybody uses, there's all of different kinds of ways that people are now using them.

In the United States, USA Today, you know, finally did a story on these things. And they tended - they focused on two brand new companies, JAGTAG and something called ScanLife, which have invented their own new standards, because that's how they think that they can monetize this. So we really do things backward in this country.

It would have been much smarter for us to adopt a standard that's already being used in Japan and China and Asia and Europe, so that we can then, you know, move past the process and do all kinds of other things, you know, with these codes and really start using them. Instead, we're now grappling with which standard we're going to use.

So - and, Adley, I lived in Tokyo for a long time and in Japan for a long time, and I remember the days back when I was having a hard time reading signs. So I'm sure that you're finding the codes really helpful.

Do you have a mobile phone that you can swipe in front of, like, a Coca-Cola machine to get a soda?

ADLEY: I don't have one of those just because I'm not spending too much on it because I'm coming back kind of soon, but a lot of other people do. And I've got - there are cards that do similar things. But, yeah, a lot of other people are doing that to get on subways and things like that.

Ms. WEBB: Can you describe what one of those looks like so that people here and elsewhere outside of Japan know about them?

ADLEY: I'm sorry?

Ms. WEBB: Can you describe what that looks like? Have you seen one of the vending machines with the - have you seen people using the phones?

ADLEY: Well, I mean, I've seen them get on trains. And basically, they -their phones is kind of basically like the any other card and they - I guess it sends a message to it somehow, and then it'll open up the booth for them.

Ms. WEBB: Can I ask Adley one more question? Do we have time?

CONAN: Quickly.

Ms. WEBB: Have you seen the new mobile phones that actually receive over-the-air broadcast television, so people can watch like NHK on their mobile phones while they're riding the subway?

ADLEY: Oh, yes, everybody is watching TV. They're either texting or watching television while they're on the train. It's pretty ridiculous.

CONAN: Adley, thank you very much for your call.

We're talking today about how people around the world use their cell phones.

This is Talk of the World from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to Daniel, Daniel, calling us from Hamburg in Germany.

DANIEL (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

DANIEL: It's great to be on the show.

CONAN: Good. Go ahead, please.

DANIEL: Well, I mean, primarily, you know, I run a contracting business, and they've just made networking so much easier. Just communicating with all of the different facts in my business has just become - computers are almost obsolete at this point. It just made everything so streamlined. And whereas before, I would need to make a half-hour or 40-minute drive to various job sites. Now, I can just communicate instantaneously with anyone.

CONAN: And so, you're in the construction business, that sort of thing?

DANIEL: Yeah, that's right.

CONAN: And this is - we have Push-To-Talk technology here. This is a little bit more advanced?

DANIEL: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It's - one other feature is the new and improved vibrating strength of the cell phone. It's so good. I mean, you can just, you know, while you're driving around, you know, you can just put it right in your scheisse hole, and it'll stimulate the prostate just so nicely.

CONAN: Okay, Daniel. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

And these business uses - the cell phone technology, it's interesting that Daniel would say the computer is almost obsolete.

Ms. WEBB: It is. And we're starting to actually hear fragments of that in the United States. There's been a lot of talk about these next generation things called netbooks, which are much, much smaller, you know, slightly larger iPhones, slightly smaller computers that have some phone capability, that also have the ability to, you know, make transactions online, search the Net. And they're using Wi-Fi and cellular.

You know, so we're looking at being tied less and less to these laptop computers and clunky desktop computers, and more and more using mobile devices that enable us to do computing regardless of where we are in the world.

CONAN: And are the innovators businesses like Daniel, or are the innovators individuals?

Ms. WEBB: It - that's a hard question to answer. It slightly depends on where in the world you are. I had mentioned earlier that in places like Japan and Korea, where there's one standard, everybody's sort of driving towards - driving the train towards the same direction for the same outcome, and that's increased productivity and safety and, you know, business uses.

Here in the U.S., a lot of that innovation is being driven by younger people who are wanting to explore ways to communicate. To some extent, it's being driven by the constant, ongoing ridiculous discussion about the death of newspapers because while they're not actually making any strides in this direction, all news organizations that we work with are using, you know, mobile as the next harbinger of, you know, whatever's going to save the business.

So I think to some extent, it's consumers. To some extent, it's also the providers, the handset makers who are driving that innovation. And then it's also demand.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Webb, the principal of the Webbmedia Group, a digital consulting agency.

When we come back from a short break, we're going to be talking about what's next for digital mobile technology, and we'll preview some of the ways you may use your phone in the future. We'll also talk about how it's being used in Central and Latin America, including in Cuba. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to Talk of the World from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE WORLD. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, D.C.

Six in 10 of us around the world now subscribe to a mobile phone plan. The United States is still on the stone ages compared to with what many other countries can do with their phones to sell products, pay bills, write novels. How do you use your mobile phone in new and interesting ways? Again, we're looking for callers from around the world today.

Our phone number is country code 1-202-513-2008. Again, 1-202-513-2008. You can also use that mobile to send us an email. The address is

Our guest is Amy Webb, who runs the digital consulting agency, the Webbmedia Group. And joining us now is Hiram Enriquez, an independent consultant focusing on mobile technologies and digital media strategy, with us today from member station WLRN in Miami, Florida. And it's nice to have you with us, Hiram.

Mr. HIRAM ENRIQUEZ (Independent Consultant on Mobile Technologies): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And we've been hearing about mobile technology in Africa, Europe and Asia. What about Latin America?

Mr. ENRIQUEZ: Well, Latin American tends to lag behind in terms of adoption. And that was certainly the true situation before 2004, where due to certain - basically, deregulation in general in the markets, Latin America would start see a jump ahead in the adoption of mobile technologies. And one of the things that I - if I have to highlight something, I would say is text messaging adoption, basically, through SMS, which is expected to increase 400 percent this year in comparison with 2004. And that's obviously after some of these barriers had been taken away.

So it's just similar things to what Amy was talking about in the U.S. in terms of different standards and interpretability situations within different carriers in their regions and different handsets producers, and so on. But the needs of the market has made the situation change, too, because particularly younger generations are adopting the text messaging and the SMS technology as - bare in mind, if you're a young person or you're using a prepaid cell phone and when your minutes run out, then you have to recourse to texting your friends, which is basically what they do.


Mr. ENRIQUEZ: They're connected all the time.

CONAN: Has technology like the barcodes that we were talking about, has that reached Latin America?

Mr. ENRIQUEZ: In some instances, it has. But I don't think it's a widely adopted thing, particularly because only now we're seeing a wide-scale deployment of 3G networks, the more robust data networks. And even though many people in Latin America come to the U.S. and bought the iPhone from the get-go, even if all the functions weren't available in their countries.

But that's something that is also supposed to change in this - I mean, in the period between 2008 and 2012, they're expecting that the wide-scale deployment and expansion of 3G networks will help all these technologies flourished. And particularly because people - particularly younger generations, like I said, they're using that for media consumption like music and share videos and so on. So that's a wide demand that is coming in the market.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Christopher, Christopher calling us from Nairobi.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER: Hi, how are you? Thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRISTOPHER: So I'm a student - American student studying in Kenya. And I actually spent some time living with a family in rural Masai land, just kind of north of Mount Kilimanjaro. What was so incredible is we are living in a home without any electricity, without any water. The home is constructed from traditional (unintelligible) construction from cow dung. And my host mother had a cell phone that, you know, they charge with the battery charger out in the sun and she used to communicate with her daughter who had been, you know, displaced because there's no jobs in the region.

So it was just too funny to be sitting inside their (unintelligible) at night, my mother will be making dinner with no lights on because we didn't have any lights, and all of a sudden, the cell phone would ring and would be, you know, connecting her with her daughter who was a 120 or so kilometers away and a little bit further north in Kenya.

CONAN: A bit like, well, yeah, a little bit of a contrast in technologies there.

CHRISTOPHER: Yes, exactly. And - but what was so incredible for me is that the cell phone she was using was just as advanced as the cell phone that I use at home in America.

CONAN: Maybe more so.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, and maybe more so in many ways. You know, you see a lot of people with similar phones, with BlackBerries. BlackBerries haven't caught on, but Motorola has a similar product that they're using. You know, the Internet capacity is pretty slow, but people use SMS and texting, you know, as if it's been around for 150 years.

CONAN: Christopher, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CHRISTOPHER: Thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Pushpa(ph). Pushpa with us from Lawrence, Kansas, talking about a situation in India.

PUSHPA (Caller): Yes. Yeah. In India they have fishermen who used to go out in the sea and fish - bring a large catch. And if - sometimes they would get a good catch and sometimes none, so the buyers from the shore wouldn't know if they are getting a - going to get any fish or not for the restaurant and stuff. So now, what they have - what they're doing is, like, they would send back messages - text messages or call them and let them know that, hey, we got a good catch. And so, the buyers would come on the shore and get fresh fish for their - for to sell back to the public.

CONAN: And presumably, those fishermen could find that they might get a better price in one port rather than another.

PUSHPA: Exactly. And that way they'd, you know, even if they get a good catch, sometimes it would happen that they would come to the shore and find nobody there and the fish would stay, you know, stay with them and will go stale, and they would lose a good catch. But now, it's helping them make money and not really risk anything, too.

CONAN: Pushpa, thank you very much for the call. And, Amy, an ability for these people to make more money, the same thing with rural farmers, they might go to one market town as opposed to another because they can find out what the prices are without having to drive there in the first place.

Ms. WEBB: Right. Absolutely. It's - not only is this technology empowering people to be more productive in, you know, whatever their normal daily life routine entailed before the mobile phone. But in places like India, where not every single person has other access to other kinds of technology like computers, you know, suddenly indoctrinating somebody in how to text message, you know, by default increases literacy rates and enables people to, you know, if you've learned how to use a mobile phone, you're probably going to have an easier time of sitting down to a computer to use that when that finally happens.

So there are some really interesting unintended benefits to all of these, you know, mobile phones suddenly being available. And those aren't just economic, but those are certainly important.

CONAN: And we've been talking about how relatively backward the situation here is in the United States. Well, Hiram Enriquez, let's go back to you. And there's one country where it's even more backward and that is Cuba.

Mr. ENRIQUEZ: Certainly. Well, and the situation in Cuba is particular because of the political situation in the island and the closed market economy. But I'm sure that all the listeners have heard in the past few months about ordinary Cubans having the ability now to have cell phones. And this is - certainly, some of that has changed the situation in terms of people having access to those technologies.

And in the past, the capabilities of the cellular network in country, in the island, existed basically because if you were a foreigner and you have the money to do so, you could get a contract down on the cellular phone line. And now, that (unintelligible) to all Cubans and - but I understand the prices are still a bit steep, so it's up - it's not like it's a widely expanded network now with everybody having the opportunity to have a cell phone. But still…

CONAN: And are those phones able to connect to the Web?

Mr. ENRIQUEZ: No. The connections to the Web within Cuba is different. They - pipeline coming out of Cuba to connect with the World Wide Web is limited and goes to essential notes that are controlled by the government. And there are issues also with - which the government pins on the embargo, in the U.S. embargo and which meant that, basically all communications have been costly out of Cuba. So, there are different technical and political issues involved in the connections to the Internet.

But what is happening in Cuba too, as like Amy was saying before, the infrastructure. It's - as in most places in Latin America, it's very difficult to get more lines and access remote areas, so they're used in the wrongly - the mobile phones as we know it, we know them but also a fixed mobile phones. Basically, phones are - act like your regular household phone but are - it's not connected to a wire. It's just wireless. And that's happening also in other places like in Nicaragua, for instance, where Amy and I partnered for a program there. And that's the case as they're doing different combinations. And as a result, fixed lines, for instance, in Nicaragua would now - they have 12 mobile lines for each fixed lines. So it's making a difference.

CONAN: Exploding too. Let's see if we get another caller on. Amir(ph) is calling from Tehran, a faithful caller. Amir, nice to have you with us again.

AMIR (Caller): Hi Neal, nice to be on the show.

CONAN: And how are you using your cell phone there in Tehran.

AMIR: Well, I use my cell phone in a wide array of ways. But, to just name a couple of them, I have to install a piece of software on my cell phone, and this program allows me to read different applications on Windows, and I can transfer my books and e-books and magazines to the cell phone, and connect the cell phone to a stereo Bluetooth headset and then listen to them on the go.

CONAN: And this is helpful particularly for you because you have problems with your sight.

AMIR: Yeah, yeah. That's because I am visually impaired. And the application is as screen reader for a Symbian-powered operating system.

CONAN: And I wonder, there's elections coming up there in Iran. Are mobile phones being used by any of the political parties?

AMIR: Yes. The cell phones have become a great and powerful campaign device for many candidates. And people send SMS messages to one another about how cell phones should be used and how, for example, a candidate should be avoided or how a candidate should be selected. And SMS messages are preferred these days, because they are quite cheap and they can reach villages and many far areas in Iran.

CONAN: And the technology, widespread in Iran?

AMIR: Yeah, approximately, more than 60 percent of Iranians have cell phones, and in big cities, more than 70 percent of people own cell phones these days.

CONAN: Amir, thanks very much for the call.

AMIR: It's a pleasure, take care.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about uses of mobile cell phone technology around the world.

You're listening to the TALK OF THE WORLD from NPR News. And we have this email from Steven in Copenhagen. In Copenhagen, we now use easily SMS for bus schedules and arrivals. We just have to SMS our stop, that's texting again, and it'll tell us when the next bus or train will arrive. We can also SMS for a ticket which we can show as we enter a bus or our ticket to check on the train.

The public transport here is very sophisticated and this makes it run so much more smoothly. Now even without cash, we can always catch a ride to where we need to go. Here, kids under 10 can be found using cell phones. SMS is quite popular. Television is often watched by phone. Reception is also really nice. I can be underwater on the train between Denmark and Sweden and still keep a connection. Can't do that between subway stops here in Washington, D.C.

Ms. WEBB: Certainly not in Washington, D.C. Yes, there's no question that SMS is the easiest entry point and the fastest way to send and receive information. You know, and we've really been talking about a lack of innovation here in the United States.

One thing that we are seeing that hasn't been mentioned yet is something called location-based services. You know, and newer smartphones all have the ability to sort of track where you are at that moment.

And if you're working with a clever content provider - and there are several - or if you're plugged into a social network like Loopt or Where(ph), and there's a brand-new platform that literally launched last week called WHIRL, this enables you to get information that you need right now that's relevant to you based on your physical location. And that's something that we definitely are seeing overseas and we are starting to see here in the United States. And that's going to be an absolute game changer.

CONAN: Let's get Juan(ph) on the line. Juan's calling us from Tallahassee in Florida, though calling about a situation in Spain.

JUAN (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for having me. Yesterday I arrived from Spain where I was showing the Global Poetic System or GPS. This was developed by CAVIIAR, a nonprofit scientific corporation here in Florida, and the University of Barcelona.

This system uses geolocation to deliver information and also the interaction of the people who is using a cellular phone. The interaction is tracked, the location is tracked, and a centralized database using an artificial intelligence engine delivers literary information. And that's one of the catches of the system.

We're trying to get people to read narrative, which has been one of the victims of the Internet. In order to do that, we provide people with application that's going on cellular phones, for example with an iPhone or a Windows-based phone, et cetera, et cetera. They install this application and they select what type of interaction they want to have.

So for example in Barcelona we have this selection of moods. You can encode(ph) the city with some specific mood. You could be happy or sad, and you could be interested in the literary routes, for example.


JUAN: Or taking culinary routes or different types of cultural offers.

CONAN: And guided around by cell phone.

JUAN: Mostly walking. That city is wonderful for walking. And one of the applications that we could not try to show in this moment but would be ready next April is for the Sant Jordi Festival in Barcelona. This is a beautiful festival in which lovers or boyfriend-girlfriend exchange books and roses.


JUAN: So next year we will allow people to exchange a little piece of narrative by location. So the girl or the boy will send a text message or a message to the system to the other person to pick up a piece of narrative at a certain specific location of the city.

CONAN: And when they get there, they'll find - they'll get the text message, a poem, or a piece of prose.

JUAN: It will load in an application because we're talking about rich phones, an iPhone or Windows-based phone that allow very rich functionalities, like having a computer on your hand. And so these different types of interfaces can be created very attractive. And the main goal again is to show narrative on these devices.

CONAN: Juan, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

JUAN: Well, thank you for having me. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Okay. And Amy, we just have a minute or so left.

Ms. WEBB: Sure.

CONAN: But beyond catching up, what can we look forward to in terms of what's coming in the future?

Ms. WEBB: Well, it's actually great. The last caller made a great segue. The GeoWeb which he had mentioned is this notion that we can be located using our mobile phones. And as a result, we can get a variety of different applications and content delivered. We can - there's an application where you can let somebody follow you as you drive to work and they'll know before you will if you're going to be five minutes late.

I just mentioned a couple of Whirl and Loopt and, you know, social networks to help you find and connect with people. We're going to start to see much more content delivered primarily to our mobile devices, and our social networks and the way that we interact with our friends and relatives really being tied to that mobile device and not just in terms of text or voice, but in terms of following people throughout their day and, you know, seeing what they're up to, literally, on a map as they're doing it. So there is some really interesting innovation happening in the mobile space and I'm excited about it.

CONAN: Amy Webb is a principal at Webbmedia Group, a digital consulting agency with us here today in studio 38. Thanks very much for your time.

Ms. WEBB: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'd also like to thank Hiram Enriquez, an independent consultant focusing on mobile technologies and digital media strategy, with us from member station WLRN in Miami. Appreciate your time today too.

Mr. ENRIQUEZ: Thank you.

CONAN: TALK OF THE WORLD is going to be at hiatus for this summer. We'll be back in the fall. If you've got an idea for a program that we should do, send us an email: I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE WORLD from NPR News.

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