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China's Communications Future
Alex Steffen, 9 May 05

On this morning's Yi-tan call, UBS analyst Qi Wang presented some startling information about Chinese demographics:

As China continues to urbanize (its urban population having exploded from 19% in 1979 to 40% in 2003), huge numbers of workers are being drawn from the comparatively poor countryside to booming urban job markets. Wang and his colleague Jonathan Anderson calculated that at least 100 million people now work away from their primary residence, and that number will swell to 200 million by 2010.

Traditionally, Wang explained, Chinese people have very strong ties with their families and hometowns. The family home is a spiritual center. So maintaining ties with one's roots is a very big deal to the almost 10% of the population which is working away. And providing communication services for that mobile population is in turn a very big deal.

50% already have access to mobile technologies, with low-cost options spreading and the total number of mobile phone minutes used in China going up 20% a year. But, Wang said, while the urban market is exploding, rural areas lag behind, PC penetration in the hinterlands is "essentially none," and there are few if any efforts to develop village technologies like the simputer, Jhai or hole in the wall approaches.

But that may change as more and more young Chinese go mobile in search of better livelihoods: technology and innovation may trickle back, certainly, but the new generation of well-educated engineers and scientists also includes a great many who grew up in village contexts, and who have both the technical skills and cultural contexts to design for the poorest sectors of Chinese society.

Let's hope they take on the challenge: it's not just China's cities that could use a healthy spurt of leapfrogging.

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