Cellphones may bridge ‘digital divide’

by Setsuko Kamiya

While the past year may be remembered for the surge in use of the Internet-capable cellphone, it remains to be seen whether this technology will thrust Japan to the forefront of the digital revolution as policy and industry experts hope.

When mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo Inc.’s i-mode service debuted in February 1999, it was touted as a revolutionary portal for accessing the Internet despite the tiny size of cellphone screens.

But today, millions of cellphone owners are using mobile technology such as i-mode to get the latest news and weather information or to conduct banking transactions and ticket reservations while traveling from point A to point B.

Similar services have since been introduced by rival telecommunications firms KDDI and J-Phone.

Indeed, the rapidly growing use of digitalized data is making cellphones indispensable to some Japanese.

Cellphone subscribers, including those who use PHS units, numbered a whopping 62.8 million at the beginning of December, which amounts to roughly half the Japanese population. Of that number, more than 26.4 million were using Internet-accessible phones, according to statistics from the Telecommunications Carriers Association.

“Before i-mode, personal computers were practically the only way to access the Internet,” observed Shinya Sano, a researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute. “Now people who may never have had access to PCs are connected to the Net.”

While the rapid growth in cellular phone subscribers stems from factors including reduced call rates, improved technological infrastructure and the development of smaller, cheaper and lighter mobile phones, Sano primarily attributes their success to ease of access and the reduced need for personal computers.

“With Internet-accessible mobile phones, you can get any information you want in an instant,” he said. “And you can do so whenever and wherever you like.”

Unlike in the United States, telephone bills are still a concern here when going online, and modem-linked computers take too much time to set up and connect to get the desired information.

According to an MRI survey of some 3,000 i-mode users conducted in June, the total number of male and female users is about equal, but women and younger people tend to use the service more frequently.

This may partially support the theory held by Yuichi Washida of Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, who says Net-connectable phones are following a typically Japanese pattern of market entry that is unique.

Washida’s theory states that while electronic goods are usually introduced as business items and are initially bought by men, to become truly popular they must be made more attractive to younger people and women.

Washida cited the example of pagers in the early 1990s, which became popular after the younger generation embraced their use.

“Beepers were first introduced for business use,” he said. “But their popularity ballooned once younger people and women began to use them as a way to exchange simple messages with friends and as more companies began providing various services.

“But the scale and the speed (of the popularization of mobile phones) is probably greater than what cellphone providers ever imagined.”

Masahiro Yotsumoto of Dentsu Inc.’s Dentsu Institute of Human Studies also supports Net-accessible cellphones, saying they can partially help eradicate the digital divide that already exists in Japanese society.

The so-called digital divide refers to the gap in people’s computer literacy and their access to technology, as well as their ability to obtain information and understand and exchange it.

“The digital divide may widen if the gateway to Internet access is limited to computers,” Yotsumoto observed. “To reach out to more people on the weaker side of the divide, an easier access gate is essential and I believe mobile phones will be a key player (in this).”

He did, however, qualify his support by saying other Net-access measures are needed.

Shin Mizukoshi, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Tokyo, is not so certain that cellphones will solve all problems.

While understanding Yotsumoto’s point to a certain extent, Mizukoshi pointed out that the rapid technological changes in cellular phones could eventually create a new type of divide.

Comparing mobile phones to television sets, which most households own and through which more information is disseminated to the masses, he said cellular phones are used individually and only by those who feel the need to have one.

In addition, “The advances seen in television, for example, do not basically change their fundamental function, which is to display images. And it does not prevent the audience from seeing programs,” Mizukoshi said.

“But the continuing rapid advances in cellphone technology change or add new functions in so many ways that even those who began using cellphones at an early stage cannot keep up,” he said.

He pointed out that education to boost media literacy will become increasingly important in the years to come, adding that manufacturers must also find ways to make their products easily accessible, even for electronics novices.