Over the past few years I have noticed a significant increase in the number of my relatives in Ukraine getting plugged into the internet. Even five years ago, the number of my cousins that were on Facebook or Skype could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Today I get several Facebook “friend” requests every week. The number of my Facebook friends, already high, is now starting to grow exponentially.
The reasons for this are not hard to understand. The primary cause has been the rapid evolution of cell phone technology to the point where today’s “smart phones” can do virtually everything a desktop computer can do. Cell phones are no longer just used for making phone calls. You can do everything with them from sending e-mail, surfing the web, video chats, google searches, GPS route planning, taking photos, shooting videos, listening to music and even controlling the electrical outlets in your home. With the prices of these devices becoming more affordable even in developing countries, everyone can now plug into the wired world at minimal cost.
In Ukraine, this trend has been aided by the fact that the country has a well developed and comprehensive cellular network that ranks amongst the best in the world. Current statistics show that 92% of the Ukrainian population have cell phones, and 41% have “smart phones” that are Internet capable. Surprisingly these same statistics show that though the population of Ukraine is only some 45 million, there are over 57 million cell phones in active use. Many people have two phones with different service providers, to enable them to minimize costs, since most rate plans offer free phone calls to subscribers with the same provider.
Even more impressive is the fact that cellular phone rates are amongst the lowest in the world. While we here in Canada have to put up with cell phone rates typically of $50 to $100 per month, in Ukraine they are, incredibly, in the $2 to $5 range. Even taking into account that typical wages in Ukraine today are just over the equivalent of $400 a month, the cost of cell phone service that includes data usage is surprisingly cheap.
It is therefore little wonder that Ukrainians are starting to become as addicted to the Internet as we are here in Canada. The most recent statistics show that 44% of Ukrainians are regular users of the internet, and that almost 10 Million, or about 22% of the population, have Facebook accounts. The comparable statistics for Canada show 90% of Canadians using the Internet and 23 Million, or 63%, have Facebook accounts. Ukraine is catching up fast to the rest of the world.
This has proven to be a boon for me in keeping touch with and finding out more about the large family as well as numerous friends that I have in Ukraine. Prior to this explosion of connectivity, I primarily kept in regular touch with only a handful of people with whom I had made strong bonds when I lived and worked in Ukraine a decade or more ago. News about the extended family was primarily second hand and sparse. Now, I have trouble keeping up with news and information flowing in from all corners of Ukraine and even other countries of Europe where some of my cousins have migrated to for work and other reasons.
The flow of information, of course, flows both ways. My family over there now also has access to my regular newspaper columns and articles. Even the majority of them who do not speak or read English are able to “read” my articles by using tools such as Google translate. Although the translations can lack somewhat in quality or accuracy, the gist of what I write usually comes through reasonably well.
The other great boon in communication has been the development of video chat applications, wherein we can not only converse in real time, but also be able to see each other face to face. SKYPE, Google Hangouts and Facebook all offer video calling capabilities, that though not perfect or consistent, nonetheless offer a quantum leap in being able to interact with people anywhere in the world on a very personal basis.
It is absolutely incredible how the evolution of the Internet and cell phone technology has changed the way we communicate and relate to each other, making distance and physical separation almost irrelevant. Now, the next thing we need to worry about, is how addicted we are becoming to this technology and its negative impact on how we spend our time.