Okay, so cell phones are a big deal, have been a big deal, and will continue to be a big deal. But what differentiates how the Chinese use them and how Americans use them? Here are my observations:
I have observed that nearly everybody on the Shantou University campus, except for the older foreign (American or otherwise) teachers, have cell phones. That means the old and the young alike. In the U.S., sure, a cell phone tops the list of “wants” of any person under the age of twenty. However, here they seem ubiquitous and are much more of a “need.” While on campus there are still landlines, much of China is growing without landlines, often skipping a generation of technology in rural areas.
Most cell phones work like this in China: you buy a phone and you buy a plan, seperately. Actually, the plan all has to do with a tiny SIM card that you place in your phone. That way you can change phones at will and keep the same service/number. For instance, currently I am using a phone that my uncle gave me in Hong Kong with a China Mobile prepaid number. I could go out to buy a new phone or a new number at any time.
Currently, the U.S. has three to four major, established, competing networks of technology. That is what makes Verizon’s service incompatible with Cingular phones and vice versa. Most of China exists on the GSM technology (which uses the SIM chips) so it easy to switch and swap. All phones are considered “unlocked” in China as opposed to American companies that “lock” their phones so competitor’s SIM cards don’t work.
This increased competition in two seperate markets is fantastic because prices come down so that everyone from a five year old school kid to a eighty year old peasant can afford a cell phone of some kind. There is a lady that sits in the canteen stairway during lunch and sells SIM cards. Good for her because she does dang good business.