TECH SPECIAL

Wireless Nation

Welcome to Finland, where nearly everyone has a cellphone

Barry Came December 4 2000
TECH SPECIAL

Wireless Nation

Welcome to Finland, where nearly everyone has a cellphone

Barry Came December 4 2000

Wireless Nation

Welcome to Finland, where nearly everyone has a cellphone

Barry Came

From his rooftop terrace, Jarkko Virtanen can see the future. It is, he claims, laid out right below, in what seems to be no more than a muddy parking lot on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, where a vast bank of saltwater reeds rusde in the stiff Baltic breeze. “You are looking down at what will be the worlds first virtual village,” says the bespectacled 28-year-old vice-president and co-founder of a pioneeering software company called Digital Information Architects, or Digia. “The place will be largely wireless,” he continues as he digs a cellular telephone out of his breast pocket. “You will able to do almost everything with a device much like this. Press a button and you can order the groceries, turn on the oven, open your front door, start the car, check out bus departures, find out exactly where the kids are and exacdy what kind of trouble they’re getting into.”

Welcome to Finland’s “mobile information society,” where there is a revolution under way, one that may put the Internet in just about everyone’s pocket. Virtanen’s virtual community on the Helsinki shoreline, not far from the spot where the

Finnish capital was founded 450 years ago, is merely one among dozens of cutting-edge projects that are transforming a sparsely populated northern land into a global laboratory for the development, manufacture and use of cellular telephone technology. Finland is, of course, home to world-beating Nokia, the company that sold close to one in every three of the 400 million cellphones purchased around the planet this year. It is also the country where the mobile phone has penetrated most deeply into the fabric of everyday life. In fact, there are more mobiles in Finnish homes than there are traditional fixed-line telephones. About four in five households—and more than 70 per cent of the country’s 5.1 million people— now boast at least one cellphone. “Unlike Canada, everyone here has a mobile,” says Canadian Damian Stathonikos, a recent Nokia recruit. “They’re so ubiquitous that they’ve become almost invisible, like electricity. And that has turned the place into the world’s test-bed for cellphone technology.” Virtanen’s project—known as the Helsinki Virtual Village—is a case in point. Seed money for the billion-dollar de-

velopment came from the Finnish authorities, but the scheme itself is a joint endeavour of a platoon of global leaders in information and communications technology. Digia is providing the software applications, IBM the hardware base, Nokia the wireless terminals and Sonera—Finland’s largest telephone operator—the wireless links. The underlying software platform will be supplied by " the relatively new Symbian alliance, itself 1 a consortium owned jointly by Nokia,

Ericsson of Sweden, Matsushita of Japan, Motorola of the United States and Psion of Britain. Headquartered in London, Symbian was formed in 1998 to create common standards for global markets that will allow the coming third generation of mobile phone networks to talk to—and work with—each other.

Over the next few years, the fruit of all this co-operation is scheduled to rise from the mud in that parking lot below Virtanen’s terrace. There are already 300 companies in the area, providing 3,500 jobs, as well as a talent pool of 2,500 students attending the nearby University of Industrial Design. By the time the project is completed in 2010, there should be 25,000 people living, working and going to school in Helsinki’s Virtual Village. All will have access to an array of leading-edge technology. “Everything we can think of will be there,” says Virtanen, lapsing for a mo-

ment into the acronym-peppered jargon so beloved by techies everywhere. “There’s already a broadband fibreoptic net in place. And WAP-enabled GSM, of course. Soon we’ll have GPRS, then the full 3G, LAN, Bluetooth and navigational mapping systems utilizing existing GPS networks.”

What all of this translates into is a place where the Internet and the mobile phone finally converge. Everything will be online—doctors, hospitals, schools, libraries, restaurants, cinemas, transport, shops, even the local barber. And most of it will be accessed by what the technologically oriented like to call WIDs, or Wireless Information Devices. Essentially, they are the next generation of mobile phones, capable of transmitting not only voice and data but also moving images at lightning speed and pinpointing the user’s location. “The Virtual Village,” vows Virtanen, “will exist as a model where we can see what kind of services people want to use and what

effect they will have on peoples’ lives.”

All of which presupposes a population with both the skills and the inclination to manipulate the new phones. In that sense, the vast majority of Finland s inhabitants are already there. “They have,” says Nokia’s Stathonikos, “taken to mobiles like those proverbial ducks to water.” The Calgary native, a 27-year-old political science graduate of the University of Alberta and the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, was plucked from a lobbying job in Brussels earlier this year to handle communications for the Nokia Ventures Organization, a branch of the company set up to develop new products and businesses.

He is typical of Nokia’s worldwide recruitment drive, a process that has seen the 165-year-old company grow from a local manufacturer of rubber boots and such for the neighbouring Soviet market during the Cold War into today’s globe-spanning conglomerate with 60,000 employees and facilities in 11 countries, including three in Canada. On his arrival in Helsinki, Stathonikos confesses that he was struck by the Finns’ easy familiarity with their mobiles. “They don’t even call them phones,” he points out. “To a Finn, a mobile is a kännykkä. The word is difficult to translate but it derives from the Finnish word for hand. The mobile is, in short, an extension of the hand, almost as if it was a part of every Finn’s body.”

Sure enough, on the streets of Helsinki, almost every other inhabitant seems to have a mobile jammed to his ear. And they are doing more than simply talking or, increasingly, sending SMSs—brief Short Message Service texts. Kaari Salminen, vice-president of Sonera’s Information Society Unit, takes it upon himself to personally conduct a guided tour around Finland’s elegant seaside capital to demonstrate what can be done with his own trusty kännykkä. Wielding the phone, he punches up a shoeshine on a curbside buffing device, buys a Pepsi from a nearby vending machine, a candy bar from another, a bag of peanuts from a third, an instant photograph from a fourth and, finally, uses his mobile to rinse the Baltic grime from his car by activating a frilly automated car wash. “And that’s really only the beginning,” says Salminen. “We have dozens of pilot projects under way at the moment that will allow a customer to use his mobile to buy a ticket to the movies, pay for a restaurant meal or check with his doctor on his latest blood pressure readings. Pretty soon, we’ll have a service in place that not only allows you to find and book an airline flight but also lets you know if the plane is on time and even beeps you to tell you the boarding gate is open.”

‘It is bringing changes to society

as profound as those from the automobile’

There’s no great mystery about the underlying motivation. “It all goes on your phone bill, of course,” grins Salminen. Mobile communications are already a money spinner for Sonera, providing just over half of the company’s $2.5 billion in total revenues last fiscal year. From January to June of this year, mobile turnover amounted to 56 per cent of total revenues. In contrast, income from fixed-line telephone services, both voice and data, continued to decline, amounting to just 18 per cent of revenues. “Look at the figures,” says Salminen, “and you can see which way events are trending.”

Mobile phone use in Finland is so pervasive that it is beginning to spawn academic studies. Timo Kopomaa, a sociologist at the Helsinki University of Technology, published The City in Your Pocket earlier this year, a short treatise on the subject funded jointly by Nokia and Sonera. “We’re still only beginning to understand the phenomenon,” he explains, sitting in his office just down the road from Nokia’s headquarters—all glass, steel and blond wood—in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo. “My guess, however, is that the mobile phone is bringing about changes to society as profound as those introduced by the automobile.” Finland’s young, in particular, have taken to the mobile. Penetration among Finnish teenagers and young adults is nearly 100 per cent. For them, exchanging text messages is as popular as voice contact. They have embraced email’s traditional sideways-punctuation shorthand (such as :-) for happy and for kiss). Off-colour depictions, including male and female genitals, proliferate. “Young people are very creative,” says Kopomaa, “They have internalized the whole idea of belonging to a mobile telephone network.” Which probably means that success is assured for that virtual village beneath Jarkko Virtanen’s terrace. In Finland, at least as far as mobile phones are concerned, the future is already here. ESI