Even the ancestors get mobiles in Hong Kong

Click to follow
THERE ARE 11 million mobile phone users in Britain, but communications companies predict they will have three times that number - half the population - signed up in the next two or three years. To find out what that will be like, come to Hong Kong.

Here half the six million inhabitants, and at least two-thirds of adults, already have mobiles. Thanks to the savage competition which has broken out among the tiny territory's six operators (two more than in Britain) even more people are likely to get them.

Mobile phones used to be relatively expensive in Hong Kong, but no market was more ready to embrace them than this impatient, "give it to me now" culture. Only in Hong Kong do people being interviewed live on television and radio pause to take calls on their mobiles; in few other places do employers supply their domestic servants with mobiles to keep tabs on them.

It is a rare cinemagoer who switches off his mobile when the movie starts. It is not uncommon, indeed, for the people around one to be making calls as well as receiving them. Teachers are increasingly angry at similar behaviour in the classroom, even among the youngest pupils. There are "Hello Kitty" mobiles and a whole range of other tiny phones in lurid colours specifically aimed at the children's market, although a distressing number are bought by adults.

The constant shrilling, beeping and general cacophony of mobile phones is already bad enough. It is set to grow louder as a result of a bitter mobile phone war triggered by a change in the law which allows users to move their phone numbers from one supplier to another. The battle for customers is fierce, and getting fiercer.

People's Phone handed out bananas to potential customers as a way of ensuring that they also accepted promotional literature. The former market leader, Hongkong Telecom, controlled by Britain's Cable and Wireless, promoted the idea that there is a free lunch, first by handing out free lunchboxes and then by offering free lunchtime calls.

However, these gimmicks seem to be no substitute for good, old-fashioned price cuts. Not untypical is the new Sunday phone service, which offers free handsets and a flat monthly charge of as little as pounds 7, including 100 free minutes of talk time. The infusion of competition has transformed Hong Kong from being one of the most expensive places to have a mobile phone into one of the cheapest.

Mobile phone usage in Hong Kong is not confined to the living. Representational offerings to the deceased now usually include paper versions of mobile phones in packages for ceremonial burnings at gravesides and shrines. The purpose of these offerings is to ensure that the deceased are well supplied with material comforts in the afterlife. In days gone by most offerings consisted of gold and cash.

Mobile phones are not merely used for the mundane purpose of making telephone calls. All mobile services pack their phones with the sort of data that Hong Kongers require instant access to. Callers can summon up essentials as stock market prices, cinema information - and, of course, the racing results.