Behind the scene – Huge benefits and harms of mobile phones

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

The appearance and development of mobile phone have changed the way of how people are living in the society, it eliminated distance and released people from the confines of space (Ehrenkrona, n.d.). Like the urbanites of this generation, we rarely worry about how to contact a person, because you can make a call or send a message by simply picking up your phone.

Mobile telephones and SMS are becoming integrated into virtually all aspects of society  (Miller, Marshall, & Fjeldsoe, 2009, p. 165).

The most importantly, the rise of the mobile phone has led to the proliferation of new industries. For example, software development, mobile phone services and sales, network carriers and telecommunications, mobile phone accessories and parts suppliers, mining, they are all benefiting from the popularity of mobile phones. However, in addition to bringing substantial business opportunities and conveniences to society and the economy, they have always been continually and cumulatively hurting people and the environment behind users as Dr Dylan Gwynn Jones said in BBC News (Kinver, 2006). This article is going to account genesis and history of the mobile phone, who controls the key business and who benefits from it, and who does not.

Selective focus photography of three-person looking on a phone on a train station


Genesis and History

With the changes of the times, communication equipment has become portable and fast instead of cumbersome and time-consuming. U.S. Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories produced the very first mobile (radio) phone in Fort Monmouth, NJ, it used for intercommunication during World War 2, although this mobile phone was portable, it weighed 25 pounds (Meyers & WonderHowTo, 2011).

Photo on Gadget Hacks – SCR-194 and 195, first portable AM Radio

In the 1940s, the Mobile Telephone Service (MTS) was launched by Bell Telephone Company (later by AT&T), users received and dialled telephone call in a car through the radio system, the coverage limited the service, and it was expensive (Docevski, 2016). Later, they improved MTS to Improved Mobile Telephone Service (IMTS), but they were still not portable at all.

Mobile Radio Phone by Brad Shey on YouTube:

Motorola Vice President Martin Cooper used the first portable and private mobile phone on April 3, 1973 (Seward, 2013). For that era, DynaTAC (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) portable phone was innovative and had a profound impact on the functionality of future mobile phones. In 1983, Motorola published a new cellular phone model DynaTAC 8000X that offered 30 minutes of talk time, but it took 10 hours to recharge (RedOrbit, 2014).

Photo on The Atlantic – The first mobile phone call made by Martin Cooper

After a series of evolutions, mobile phones began to become smaller and more versatile. In 1997, Nokia 9000 Communicator inspired the design of the smartphone. It had an LCD screen and a full QWERTY keyboard, and the mobile phone started entering to the second generation (2G).

Photo on Gadget Hacks – Nokia 9000

In 2007, Apple overturned the definition of mobile phones, became the first touch-sensitive mobile phone, and supported 3G technology, which led the development of mobile phones to the present.

Photo on The Telegraph – First iPhone in 2007

Who owns and controls the key business?


The brand companies of the mobile phone are not the only controller to the mobile phone market; it also includes manufacturer, network operator and carrier, and mining company. The manufacturer can separate into two parts which are sales and assembly. In the worldwide smartphone market in Q2 2018, the principal business leaders are Samsung, Huawei, Apple, Xiaomi and OPPO (Framinghan, 2018). At the top of the ranking, Samsung occupies 20.9% of the market share in the globe. On the other hand, Huawei continues to grow which has a 40.9% increase of year-over-year change, and its market share was keep growing from 2017 to 2018 (ibid.). For the smartphone assembly, the top performers in 2017 are Samsung, Foxconn, OPPO, Vivo and Pegatron according to IDC research (Shen, 2018).

Table from IDC – 2018Q2 Worldwide Smartphone Market

The telecommunication companies also can control the business in the mobile industry; it is servicing the rapid growth of telephone and wireless connection needs (Parietti, 2018). According to the ranking on Investopedia, the largest telecommunication company in the globe is China Mobile Ltd. which has approximately 849 million customers and a market value of $215.3 billion as of April 2017. It is following by Verizon Communication Inc. which has $191.72 billion market value, AT&T Inc., Vodafone Group plc, Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation.

On the other hand, the chemical elements of producing a mobile phone are the significant part of the mobile industry. Minerals are required from the outer casing to the screen, and internal structures (Compound interest, n.d.), and some of them are rare, called rare earth elements. As the demand for mobile phones has been increasing, the demand for minerals is the same, so the output of mining companies will also affect the production of mobile phones. China supplied 81% of rare-earth to the world in 2002 (Haxel, Hedrick, & Orris, 2002), and exported 39,800 tonnes of rare-earth materials in 2017 (Kay, 2018). Australia was the first runner-up with the output of 20,000 tonnes in the same year (ibid.).

Table from Compound interest – elements of a smartphone


Who benefits and Who does not

As mentioned above, the emergence of mobile phones does not only bring convenience and economic growth for the society, but it also creates many sacrifices behind the production.


People who benefit from the emergence of mobile phone


Mobile phone brings the unprecedented convenient to people’s lives. Users can communicate with others without the limitation of travel and time. Besides, the mobile phone enhances the cultural exchange on the internet to promote globalisation and the exchange of knowledge. Also, the mobile phone can replace many electronic products such as mp3 players, camera, and computer. Moreover, according to the article in Turbo Future, Paul Goodman suggested that mobile phone become one of the entertainments which can have anywhere and anytime in our daily life with downloading various applications and games in the store.

Photo on Digital Edge – Playing mobile game

Workers and Merchants

The mobile phone industry has driven the emergence of various emerging industries; it creates many new job positions at the same time such as software engineers, mobile phone customer service and sales, online and texting advertising, mobile phone accessories and parts. Moreover, the smartphone is becoming an essential tool for the economy; there is 51% of the U.S. adults use a smartphone to make the online purchase (Perrin, 2017), it creates another economic opportunity for shoppers to sell the products through the smartphone.

Photo on Azuanet – Online purchase



People who detriment from the emergence of mobile phone

Developing countries

The production of a mobile phone will use many different chemical elements, and the minerals under the ground in developing countries often become the target of competition, thus turning into war and exploitation of human rights, those organisations called those minerals that came from Congo, Sudan, Chad and elsewhere in Africa with illegal means of obtaining minerals as “Conflict Minerals”.

Photos by Lyndsey Gilpin on TechRepublic – Digger Ajeje Mode Mahenga

“Sometimes people worked 24 hours out of 24, night and day, using head-mounted lamps… At the time there were no rules, and sometimes miners died of fatigue. There were also deaths because the pits were deep and there was flooding,” said Axel Mutia Mburano in the article of TechRepublic.

Photos by Lyndsey Gilpin on TechRepublic – The washing station

To obtain minerals, the employer will exploit the workers. The workers will work in an impoverished environment, and work around the clock like slaves. Some workers die because of fatigue, infection, and flooding (Heath, 2015). The conflict minerals have killed 5.4 million in those regions since 1998 (ibid.), and it is non-stoppable because of the need for the mobile phone in developed countries.


Conflict Minerals 101: 2018 Update by Enough Project on YouTube:



People who are living near factories and landfills

The average number of months before users upgrade their smartphone in the U.S., China and Europe in 2016 were 22.7 months, 20.2 months, and 21.6 months respectively (Armstrong, 2017). The life cycle of a smartphone is shorter than other electronic products. Therefore, the large amount of e-waste is harming those people who are living near the landfill because e-waste pollutes the soil on the ground surface with heavy metal (Leung, Duzgoren-Aydin, Cheung, & Wong, 2008), owing to the sophisticated design of mobile phone, it is challenging to dismantle various metals and parts.

Photos on New Vision – E-waste

In southern China, lots of e-waste disposed on the land without any treatment, heavy metal in the dust, soil, and water poison the residents chronically, result in acute and chronic toxicity, such as damage to central and peripheral nervous systems, blood composition, lungs, kidneys, liver, and even death (ibid.).

Photos on South China Morning Post – E-waste pollution in China



Last but not least, this article focuses on the topic of the invisible infrastructure of mobile phone which accounts for the mobile phone history and trend and the people who involve in the mobile industry. The evolution of mobile phones has changed society, also it changed the way people living. However, society should reflect on the negative influences that brought by the mobile industry to maintain the balance of human development and the environment.

1498 words


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Katherine Wong
About Katherine Wong 3 Articles
A third-year MECO student at USYD who major in Digital Culture and Marketing. Currently studying Internet Transformation, Online Media, Researching Digital Culture and Issues in Global and Digital Media.

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