Today we'll hear from two researchers and regular visitors to PNG, Amanda Watson from the Queensland University of Technology and Doctor Jonathan Ritchie from the Alfred Deakin Research Institute who've both noticed radical change.
Antony Funnell begins by asking Doctor Ritchie about his impressions about the take-up of mobile phones in Papua New Guinea, and how dramatic that take-up has been in the last couple of years.
Presenter: Antony Funnell
Doctor Jonathan Ritchie from the Alfred Deakin Research Institute; Amanda Watson from the Queensland University of Technology
RITCHIE: I've seen it, off and on over generally visits to PNG since about the middle of 2008. The expansion of the usage of mobile phones just seems to have sort of taken off, and I mean I've seen the statistics that talk about a 7-fold or 8-fold increase, and I think this year they're expecting to have something like 80 per cent of the country covered. This is all in a very, very short time, since the opening up of the mobile phone business in about 2007. So it just seems to have had the effect of anecdotally you see everybody now, or most people now, if they don't have a phone themselves, they certainly have access to a phone, and I have to say I've been concentrating mainly on the cities and towns, and I understand that one of the issues of Papua New Guinea is always this sense that it is such a rugged country and so many people live in rural areas, but I've again heard from other people some of the stories that it's almost a cliché that the man in his headdress and face paint or something, talking to his Nokia. That's really happened.
FUNNELL: And we have to remember that that enormous explosion, that doesn't come on the back of existing technology, because in a lot of parts, or most parts of Papua-New Guinea, there haven't been landlines and there's been very little transport infrastructure.
RITCHIE: That's exactly right.
FUNNELL: Amanda Watson, you've done a study of mobile telephony in two remote PNG villages. What's been interesting about the way in which the mobile phone has been taken up, and the way in which it's being used by people there?
WATSON: Yes. So I've done research in two villages in Sumkar District in Madang Province, and in both of those villages, the No.1 positive was that the people see that the mobile phone enables them to communicate with people in other parts of the country. And I hadn't realised until then, how many Papua New Guineans actually have close relatives in completely other parts of the country. So they might have a son who's away working in a city like Port Moresby, or they might have a child who's away attending High School or something like that. For these people it's almost magical to be able to hear the voice of their loved on, some of whom they might not have spoken to for years. So people are reconnecting with family members, including cousins, and people like that, that they simply have not spoken to for such a long time.
FUNNELL: Now Jonathan, I'll pick up with you in a second on that social cohesion aspect, but Amanda, just before I go back to Jonathan, the negatives, just briefly.
WATSON: Yes. There's three main negatives that people in both those villages are aware of. First of all, in relation to crime and their concerns about 'rascals' as they're called, the criminals, being able to use the phones in coordinating their activities. The second one is in relation to money and the sheer cost involved in operating these devices, buying them, and recharging them. And then the third one is in relation to the phone's impact in sexual relations and whether this means that people are using the phone to facilitate infidelity or things like that.
FUNNELL: Jonathan, a particular part of your research, or a particular interest that you have, research interest that you have, is on national identity, and social cohesion. Talk to us about that, about the potential that the mobile phone has for bringing greater unity to Papua New Guinea as a country.
RITCHIE: This is an area that I think is particularly interesting, and ever since Papua New Guinea and well and truly before Papua New Guinea achieved independence in 1975, one of the hardest questions being faced by both the Australian Administrators and also Papua New Guineans themselves, was how to portray themselves, and how to really unite the country. And of course the country is an artefact of the colonial era, I mean the borders that were drawn, were drawn thanks to decisions that were made on the other side of the world a century or more ago. And it brings together people who greater than 700 different language groups and people who follow a range of different patterns of living, and social organisation.
Then of course there's been this major disruption caused by the colonial era, and one aspect of that is Amanda touched on before, which was the spread of people form their home valleys and islands and various parts of the country, all around the country, so you find places like Port Moresby and Lae and Mount Hagen, lots of other parts of the country, there's large numbers of people who come from quite disparate parts of PNG.
This has been in some ways, it's been a good thing, but in a lot of ways people recognise that as being, they see that as being part of leading to a degree of social disjunction, and one of the big problems that people face now 30 years after independence, is how to create this idea that We are all Papua New Guinean, we are not Enga, and we're not Kui, etcetera etcetera.
So I guess that's one aspect of the story but what things like mobile technology can do is by allowing people to have that connect so that you can actually be living in Port Moresby and following, working there, in a small business or for government, you're now able to sort of have very regular and very frequent and almost immediate contact with your wantoks back in the home village, and that allows the breaking down of those enormous barriers of distance that PNG faces.
Up until now, you mentioned some of the infrastructure issues are probably known to most people, but flying is for many people the only way to get to where they want to go. Flying is prohibitively expensive for most people. So interesting, the cost factor of mobile technology of course is there, but by comparison to other forms of family communication and reuniting with members of your own cultural group, this is a real boon.
FUNNELL: And just a couple of quick questions before we finish up. I mean Jonathan, the ability to spread information via the mobile phone, if it's taking off the way both you and Amanda say in Papua New Guinea we know that there's an enormous problem up there with HIV and AIDS. Could this be beneficial in terms of getting that message out about disease?
RITCHIE: Well I think so, and I would base that on my understanding of PNG history and previous attempts to get messages out, where prior to this, people relied a lot on local radio for example, to get messages, and this is a much more immediate, more direct way, but obviously I'd defer to Amanda in terms of your own experience.
WATSON: Yes. There are a couple of hotlines that have been set up in Papua New Guinea where people can use their mobile phones to phone in. I think there might even be free hotlines. One of them is about HIVAIDS and that's sponsored by companies from around Papua New Guinea and there's another hotline which again I think may be free of charge for people to phone into, which is about breast-feeding and mother-child type health issues. So there are some aspects there.
But I think we need to also keep in mind not to get too overly excited, because the mobile phone is not going to change all the social problems in Papua New Guinea, certainly there are people like in the place where I've done my research, who don't have adequate water supply, who don't have adequate health services and so on. So the mobile phone's not going to be a cure-all, just as radio wasn't in the post-war period, and internet hasn't been and so on. So I think yes, there's some opportunities for people to get information but we need to realise that this is limited. It's not a revolution.
FUNNELL: And last questions, first to you, Amanda. We spoke on this program last year with US online political campaigner Joe Trippi, and he observed that in many parts of the developing world, people were skipping several generations of technology in one massive jump. That certainly seems to be the case with the villages that you visited in Papua New Guinea doesn't it?
WATSON: Yes. So in Orora village, which is on Karkar Island in Madang province, the people there have no television, no computers, no internet, no electricity. Only about a third of the people in the village have a working radio receiver, and yet now they have full reception throughout the village of mobile phone reception.
FUNNELL: And in one of the villages, and I'm not sure whether it was that one, people were still using drums to communicate.
WATSON: Yes, that's right. That is in that village. People use the traditional drum, called the garamut on an almost daily basis to convey a range of messages, such as inviting people to come to a working bee, or notifying people about some sort of gathering, or things like that. So yes, they're still using that drum, that traditional communication method.
FUNNELL: And Jonathan, finally to you. You're an historian, not a technology expert, I know that, but one of the trends that we've seen with the take-up of communications technology in the developing world is that what's of most use to people isn't the top-of-the-range products that we in Australia all desire. That's something that you've noticed, isn't it, that what the people want up there isn't the flash model, isn't the phone that's got every application on it.
RITCHIE: Well yes, I think that is right, although I still think that the same things that appeal to younger generations here, are exactly what appeals to younger generations in Papua New Guinea in terms of the latest gadgetry and gimmickry, if that's at all possible.
But I think that one of the interesting things about the way that the mobile phone roll-out has taken in PNG through the two main suppliers, has been the production of or the supply of, relatively low-cost, and yes they are still relatively expensive, but comparatively low-cost handsets that do what they are needed to do and no more. So as I said earlier, some of the applications that people need might be largely text-based, for example, and there may be some opportunities for using voice. But introduction of things like sending picture messages or phones as videos or so on, is perhaps further away for many people. People use them as utilitarian devices that are there for a purpose.