The impact on work of next-generation mobile phones

The next generation of mobile communications, becoming available between 2002 and 2007, is expected to increase working time autonomy, self-employment, and work stress, according to an Austrian study published in November 1998. It is also expected to contribute to employment growth.

According to Mobilkom, the largest Austrian provider of mobile telecommunications services, the Universal Mobile Telephone Standard (UMTS) will become operational in Austria in 2002. Its full implementation, including multimedia capabilities based on very high rates of information transmission, is expected to occur by about 2007. By then, transmission rates are expected to be at least two megabits per second - 32 times faster than the fastest current fixed telephone lines are now. Even by 2002, the UMTS mobile phone will be able to compete on a par with the fixed-line phone, both in terms of quality and security. The important aspect of UMTS is that what is now merely a telephone will have been transformed into a gadget able to communicate in real time with all other electronic apparatus.

The implications of UMTS have been examined in a recently published report - "Die Zukunft der mobile Kommunikation" ("The future of mobile communications"), N Knoll, Mobilkom, Vienna, November 1998. For the research, a Delphi study - a kind of focus group of relevant experts - was conducted in order to learn more about the impact that UMTS is likely to have on business, work and daily life. Some 45 experts from around the world were asked a set of questions about the developments that they believe possible or likely over the next 10 years. At the same time, a survey of about 200 Austrian businesses was carried out, with a sample consisting equally of companies with over 100 employees and companies with between 20 and 99 employees. Managers or owners were given basic information on UMTS and asked a series of questions on what this might mean for their enterprise. Full information on the project (in German) can be found at http://www.visions.at.

Work implications

UMTS is chiefly expected to permit a vast increase in the feasible volume of data flowing between employer, employee and customer. This will allow telework to proliferate from its current small base. This is thought to be true for both employees always engaged in telework when at work and for employees working sometimes on, and sometimes off, company premises. Furthermore, the term "company premises" may expand its meaning. "Satellite offices" are no longer a novelty, but UMTS will make them a lot more feasible than they are now.

The distinction between telework and simply performing tasks off-premises will blur. This is because employees will increasingly stay in permanent electronic contact with company computers whilst performing tasks during which they now are in intermittent contact by means of mobile phone with an on-premises employee. Ten years ago, these employees would have been almost completely cut off from the company whilst performing those same tasks.

The distinction between work and private life may also blur. More than 80% of the experts expect this to happen. This is because work will, in principle, be much less tied to a particular location. Employers will have to become less preoccupied with working time and more focused on task completion. Some 60% of the experts think that "public" and "private" will become less and less clearly separated, due to the automatic interaction between the UMTS communicator that employees will carry at more or less all times and other UMTS devices, in a quest for permanently updated information. A small majority (57%) expects working time autonomy to increase, whilst a larger one (76%) expects work stress to increase. This is because employees will be easier to reach wherever they are, and because they may be asked to be more mobile.

Business implications

On average, large companies expect to run one sixth of their communications on UMTS as soon as it becomes available commercially, 56% on fixed lines and 28% on GSM mobile phones. By about 2007, they think that the UMTS share may double, mostly at the expense of fixed lines. At the same time, though, the level of information is low. Only 9% of the large enterprises felt very well informed about UMTS and 32% somewhat informed, whilst 42% had heard of it but 16% had not. Since 64% of the large and 52% of the medium-sized enterprises felt that UMTS was either of interest or of great interest, the information deficit is likely to be eroded over the next few years. Of greater importance, perhaps, is that managers are neither persuaded that UMTS will be as secure as fixed lines nor are they soothed by promises that quality will be as good as on the fixed line. The reason is that only 40% of them have no problems with their current phone systems: 34% claimed that there were problems with the lines; 15% perceived software problems; and 17% recorded handling problems.

Employment implications

UMTS is expected to expand employment primarily in companies that provide electronic content. Telecommunications companies themselves are thought to grow little in the process. The experts do not see any real potential for rationalisation in any industry. Some mention transport as a possible loser. Whilst this prediction may seem plausible - even if in reality unlikely - for the transport of people, it is directly contradicted with respect specifically to goods by Wall Street analysts, who have recently begun to appreciate the fact that anything ordered electronically still has to be delivered physically. Therefore, if UMTS is expected to contribute to the growth of electronic commerce (or e-commerce), it may hurt high-street shops. Even then, however, it may amount only to a redistribution of retail staff from shops to call-centres on the one hand and to delivery channels on the other. In as far as "things" will become electronically transferable - for instance films or music will no longer need a physical carrier - some employment in retailing will be lost for good. This will also be true of some services. Retail banking, for instance, may very well shed employment in response to UMTS.

According to 64% of the experts, telecommunications applications will remain male-dominated.

Commentary

There are a number of issues connected with an increase in the quantity and permanence of the data flows between employee and company. These are chiefly related to control and freedom, while leaving concerns with infrastructure cost - which the employer may be tempted to offload onto the employee - untouched.

There is no reason to expect a utopia from UMTS where everybody works when and where they please. Instead, the most likely consequence is that more people will work away from a fixed site with a given infrastructure and social cohesion, and will instead work at customers' premises most of the time, from home some of the time, and at their company's offices for the remainder. However, in the longer run it is also conceivable that information technology will reduce the need for physical closeness to the customer, making many customer-related tasks amenable to electronic intervention from a fixed location, perhaps often from the home.

The most important consequences, perhaps, could arise from an increased task-orientation among employers. This would in all likelihood make them purchasers of services rather than of working time - in other words, self-employment would be likely to increase in direct relation to the rate at which UMTS is embraced and successfully implemented by employers. (August Gächter, IHS)

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