Why the recession can’t stop wireless

February 27, 2009, 5:08 PM UTC
Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of the Americas and India for Qualcomm, got a lesson on wireless from a Masai warrior. Photo: Qualcomm

While on safari in Kenya recently, Qualcomm executive Peggy Johnson got a fresh sense of how cell phones are changing every corner of the world.

Johnson’s guide, a Masai warrior, explained that he grew up in a family of nomads and attended a boarding school during his high school years – so he inevitably spent much of his vacation breaks trying to track down his highly mobile parents. That changed when he and his parents got cell phones. He could simply call them to find out where they were, transforming his breaks from detective work into family time.

I heard this story during a recent visit to Qualcomm headquarters in San Diego, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Put aside for a moment the odd mental image of the statuesque Masai carrying cell phones – yet more evidence that these days, everyone’s got one – and the fact that mobile chipmaker Qualcomm has a vested interest in promoting the idea of a wireless world. The story is a shining example of why, even during these tough economic times, wireless growth isn’t stopping.

That’s true both in developing economies – India broke its new-subscriber record in January, with 15.4 million new signups – and in developed ones. AT&T executives said this week that they’re going to spend $1 billion this year expanding its global network capabilities, and a chunk of that money will go towards improving wireless service in the U.S.

Why? Because people are still spending money on wireless. Yes, the industry is taking a hit – handset leader Nokia is trimming its workforce, and equipment makers like Cisco are getting pinched as well. But unlike premium cable and fancy dinners, cell phones (even the data plans) are staking their claims in our lives as necessities, not mere luxuries.

If you’re that Masai warrior, your cell phone isn’t just another communication device. It’s your way home. (AAPL) (INTC) (VZ) (S)