Cell Phone Campus

One day last October, up in the press box overlooking Garcelon Field, Tyler Paul ’06 was connected — really connected.

As the Bates and Tufts football teams duked it out, Paul was on the PA, feeding the crowd the usual down-and-distance information. He was also chatting with a friend down on the Garcelon track. And he was tracking a second football game some 700 miles away, thanks to another buddy in nearby Moody House who was text-messaging University of Michigan–Michigan State updates.

All thanks to his cell phone. “I managed to get through two years of Bates without a cell phone,” said Paul, “but now that I have one — and I think nearly every Bates student would tell you this — getting around without it would be difficult.”

Paul’s sporty multitasking, in fact, was exceptional, as Bates students use their cells primarily to arrange the most fundamental connection: meeting friends on campus. Students in a Bates Magazine canvass agreed that of the calls they traded with friends, most of the friends were at Bates and nearly all the calls were logistical in nature: “Meet me in the Den at 10.”

“It’s really very nice to find out where your friends are, what they’re doing,” said Zach Kernan ’06, a cell user for less than two years. “You know you’re never going to meals alone.”

Students choose the cell because of its portability and ease of use — that is, its speed. As they have booked up their time nearly to the bursting point, efficiency has become as important in the social realm as it is to studying and career development.

“This is a good thing,” said Kernan. “The more time I save and the more efficient I become, the better.”

Hence the cell users beelining toward Commons at noontime while their peers en route enjoy more leisurely face-to-face conversations. If cells inundated the urban landscape ages ago, “my own unscientific observation of the first-years entering in 2004 was that they [were the first who] all seemed to be carrying cell phones,” said Vice President for Information and Library Services Gene Wiemers.

Bates isn’t alone in this cellular multiplication, of course. In September 2005, according to the news agency Reuters, the number of cell phone subscribers worldwide topped two billion — roughly a third of Earth’s population. Moreover, according to the marketing firm Enpocket, 85 percent of Americans 18 to 24 years old own cells, making this the demographic segment with the highest ownership rate.

The cell phone has transformed students’ connections with family as well as with friends. Typical of many students, “I called my parents probably once a week,” said Quoc Tran ’95, now an executive at the investment firm Wallace Weitz & Co. in Omaha, Neb. High long-distance rates reinforced the natural tendency for maturing children and parents to go their own ways. Now daily chats with family aren’t uncommon.

But the friend-to-friend connection remains dominant, which begs the question: How did students ever manage to find each other without cells? “We certainly had no trouble,” said Leah Wiedmann Gailey ’97, associate director of alumni and parent programs. Back in the sepia-toned days of the late 20th century, there were whiteboards and room phones for primitive messaging.

There was even the primordial practice of learning the routines of one’s friends — their class schedules and favorite library haunts — to facilitate meet-ups. “It seems archaic in comparison to cell phones, but we always knew where all of our friends were,” said Gailey.

At Bates, such familiar knowledge had to serve well into the telephone age. In 1884, when The Bates Student wrote, “there is one sign of progress that we would like to see at Bates College, and that is the telephone,” who would have guessed that it would take a century for Bates and many other colleges to put a phone in each dorm room?

While students were for decades permitted to get their own phones from the telephone company, Bates was something of an innovator when it installed phones in every room, in 1991. The service included long-distance billing and voicemail, creating a cohort of alums nostalgic over the thrill of the blinking orange light that meant there was voicemail.

Bates discontinued the billing option in 2003 as cell phones and phone cards reduced demand below the point of cost-effectiveness, said Wiemers. The College continues to keep room phones, notably because of their role in the 911 emergency response system, which can pinpoint the location of a distress call right down to the room number.

But most students today don’t use the phones or, in fact, even know their extension numbers. “I don’t check it even if the light’s blinking,” said Mari Wright ’07.

“There is some frustration over students not using their room phones,” said Dean of Students Tedd Goundie. “However, I still find e-mail to be the most reliable means of reaching a student, so it’s not that big a deal.”

For its part, Information and Library Services is working to enlarge its role in student communications. “We’re looking at ways to improve cells’ integration [into campus communications], as well as ways to improve the service available for students,” such as seeking discount service plans or installing equipment to boost local signal strength, said Jim Bauer, director of network and infrastructure services.

The College is also looking into the Next Big Thing in telecommunications: Internet telephony, better known by its acronym VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). But a wholesale conversion won’t come anytime soon. One reason is electrical power: The current landline system is resistant to power outages, but the computer network isn’t. A power outage that would take down the computers would crash VOIP.

Cells, too, have their foibles. But nevertheless, for today’s students, the cell is the way the talking gets done. A Bates student without one, says Mari Wright, “is a pretty strange concept.”

Consider the two students we asked, in separate interviews, how they would feel about giving up their mobile phones. One said, “I would feel lost for a little while, at least, because I’m so dependent on it.”

And the other said, “I would feel a little lost for a while, not knowing where everyone is and what’s going on.”