Telephony Substitutes for Transportation

One oddity of visiting my family in Virginia is that there’s little to no cellular phone coverage in Highland County. This is partially due to the landscape, and partially to the lack of antennae, though some claim it is because of the proximity to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia and another listening post in Sugar Grove. Normally, this is not such a problem, as most residences in the county do have landlines, thanks to the Universal Service Fund. It is a problem if, for example, you’re late to meet your sister three mountains and 30 minutes away just to exchange kids, but then your dad will pass the meeting point at the time you originally planned. But since there’s no cellular coverage, you can’t call to ask him to stop, so you’ll make what would be a duplicate trip.

Robert Jensen, in The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector (Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2007) [via The Economist], notes that a significant limitation to fish marketing is that while at sea, fishermen are unable to observe prices at any of the numerous markets spread out along the coast. Further, fishermen can typically visit only one market per day because of high transportation costs and the limited duration of the market. As a result, fishermen sell their catch almost exclusively in their local market. This led to inconsistent supplies along the coast. Some markets would have an abundance of fish, while others none at all. That all changed after the introduction of cell phones. Now the fishermen call ahead to find the most profitable market before they head to shore, and can make course corrections in transit. Supply meets demand, and everyone’s happy.