Mobile phones to the rescue

commentary Mobile phones have yet again proved their worth to society with the role they played in the Boxing Day Asian tsunami disaster.The most common use of mobiles, of course, is in tracking down tourists who have been stranded after the tidal waves.

commentary Mobile phones have yet again proved their worth to society with the role they played in the Boxing Day Asian tsunami disaster.

The most common use of mobiles, of course, is in tracking down tourists who have been stranded after the tidal waves. One story posted on Yahoo News said that 36 British tourists and 35 Hong Kong-based workers were rescued in Sri Lanka after their mobile phones, which had international roaming, were traced by the rescuers.

The story said 10,252 international roaming phones were working on Sri Lankan networks at the time of the tragedy. The Tidal Wave Rescue Centre sent text messages to all of the numbers and received more than 2,000 responses.

Even when the tourists did not know where they were after the tsunamis, rescuers were able to trace the signal and track them from where they were stranded.

Families and relatives were easily updated by loved ones in affected countries through mobile phones as they found landlines had been knocked out by the waves.

Australian telecommunications companies Optus and Telstra joined in the effort to help victims by giving rebates on mobile phone calls made by Australians trying to contact their family and friends in areas affected by the disaster.

Optus offered a mobile call charges rebate from December 26 to 31, while Telstra offered rebates to customers who were travelling to affected countries from Boxing Day until December 30.

Telstra is also giving organisations providing on-ground-support a one-month rebate of their fixed, mobile and Internet costs.

Aside from the obvious use of mobile phones, telecommunications companies all over the world have also set up text messaging programs which allow people to make donations.

In Italy, for instance, reports said mobile phone operators made a single number available for donations and sent text or voice messages to their customers appealing to them to send in one euro (US$1.35).

With the program being quicker, more spontaneous and less costly than a bank transfer, Italy was able to raise 14 million euros in the first 5 days after the tsunami tragedy. The special text messaging capability also allows users to send 1.5 euros to a special Asia fund by simply typing "give" and sending it to a specific number.

According to another report, France Telecom's mobile phone subsidiary Orange has also deployed a system which allows customers to send donations to the Red Cross.

In Germany, the organisers of New Year festivities asked users to send a text message that automatically transferred 2.65 euros (US$3.60) to the account of the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF.

According to another report, one journalist in Sri Lanka has found an even more creative use for text messaging. In order to bypass the filtered information released by the government, Sanjay Senanayake, a documentary producer in Sri Lanka, sent text messages accounting his daily findings in the site to a friend in Bombay, who then publishes it through his blogspot. Senanayake said he has sent almost 4,000 text messages to his friend. He found that landlines were down and mobile phone voice networks were jammed but strangely enough, SMS was working fine.

Senanayake believes that the government should use text messaging as an early warning system to people. He believes that like the warning drums of olden days, all the government needs is one person in the rural area to get the warning and to spread the message to everyone else in the region.

But for every positive use of the mobile phone, there are is a bad one. Mobiles have been used to disseminate cruel hoaxes, for example. The Singapore government recently brushed aside an SMS hoax being spread around the country about a "very dangerous virus" called Zulican that could allegedly be contracted from contaminated seafood. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority in Singapore said the alleged virus "does not even exist".

People will now have to be on guard against malicious users concocting such hoaxes, which can range from the merely annoying to the distressing or financially damaging. Some could even exploit the situation to use text messaging to spread rumours about the death of a loved one. I know, because it has happened to me before.

Hopefully, users are educated enough to verify the source of the message first before proceeding to donate or believe what the message is saying.

What would you like to see telcos do to extend more help to the victims and their families? Send your thoughts to


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