Celling India: Exploring a society's embrace of the mobile phone

Robin Jeffrey, Assa Doron

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    The mobile phone has been one of the most disruptive factors to come to India in modern times. This article aims to chalk out a framework for understanding the cell phone's all-encompassing social impact. The extent of the change is huge. In 1987, India had 2.3 million phone connections (0.3% of its population). By January 2010, that number had gone up to 688 million phone connections (about 60% of the population if phones had been evenly distributed). More than 90% of the phones by 2010 were mobile phones. Charting the vast universe of India's mobile telephony, this article identifies three categories of people: controllers, servants and users - those who control radio frequency spectrum; those who perform the host of tasks required to package and sell the spectrum; and those Indians, now numbering hundreds of millions, who use mobile phones every day. The theme is the profound transformation that mobile phones bring to individual lives, perhaps more fundamental in India than in other parts of the world. The mobile phone can be an equalizer: it has the potential to open to low-status people possibilities that they have never had before. The mushroom growth of the cell phone raises questions about effects on society, politics and economy. At the top of India's class pyramid, how does one understand the great political-economic contests generated by struggles to control the cell phone market? At the base of the pyramid, to what extent does the mass availability of cheap cell phones and services alter the lives of poor, low-status people? And what of those in between? Is the cell phone destined to change human activity as profoundly as the printing press? This exploratory article begins to identify key questions related to mobile phones and sketches how a holistic account of the device and its implications might be composed.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)397-416
    JournalSouth Asian History and Culture
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2011


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