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STUDENT VOICE

Suddenly Cellular

When you're wireless in White Plaza, there are perks and pitfalls you never dreamed of.

Ben Fishman

By Ravi Chandrasekaran

My brother insisted. "I'm getting you this cell phone for your birthday, and you're going to like it," he told me last spring when I visited him in Washington, D.C. "After all, I use mine all the time."

I had to admit that Rajiv would be unreachable if it weren't for the wonder of wireless technology. But he's a Washington Post reporter. What conceivable use, I argued, would a college student like me have for a cell phone? It seemed pretentious and frivolous, a needless expense.

In the end, I relented and found myself with a new toy. And as I had predicted, it met with ridicule from all sides. The parents thought I was too young to have such a pricey gadget. My girlfriend didn't even bother to learn the number for the first few months. Friends kept asking why I really needed it. The phone seldom left my backpack during the first several weeks.

As time went on, however, I began giving the number out. I took calls from my editors at the Daily and from sources for stories. Professors called me, as did prospective summer employers. Once my friends and parents got used to the idea, they used it, too. (Perhaps my mother got a little too accustomed to it -- two or three calls a day seems excessive to me.) Even my girlfriend -- who was at first the phone's harshest critic because it invariably rang during inopportune moments -- broke down and memorized the number.

What's more, my phone has proved handy in a pinch. On a recent trip to Kentucky, I found myself, along with too many others, stranded by bad weather in Chicago's O'Hare Airport. With little hope of finding an unoccupied phone booth in the terminal, I grabbed my cell phone. It got me a cab in a matter of minutes, and within the hour, I was comfortably stretched out watching hotel pay-per-view.

Another boon of my brother's birthday present is what it has taught me. Having a cell phone, and paying the bill for it, has forced me to be more responsible for my expenditures. I'm now accountable to 120 minutes and $29.99 in a way I hadn't thought possible.

I've also figured out -- sometimes the hard way -- that there are special cell phone rules for students. It takes effort to avoid being labeled a snob: sometimes just using the phone or giving out the number can seem like flaunting. Conducting phone conversations while walking through White Plaza or strapping the apparatus to your belt are equally ill-advised. And letting it go off in the classroom can be even more embarrassing than it would be at the opera. One day when I was sitting in chemistry and heard a ringing nearby, I wondered who the idiot was with the cell phone ringing in class. People turned around and glared at me. Oops.

For a while I thought I was the only student on campus with a mobile phone. But no sooner did I start to use mine than I noticed others with theirs. Many were girls whose parents had bought the phones as a safety measure, but the trend is spreading -- at Stanford and beyond. AT&T predicts there will be a billion users worldwide within five years, while Pacific Bell's "Etiquette Guide for the Wireless Generation" -- which I read after my chem class fiasco -- says there are 69 million cell phones in America and half the U.S. population will be using them by 2003 -- one year after I graduate.

So, maybe my brother was right. What at first seems superfluous soon turns commonplace, and life quickly becomes impossible without it.

I know my mother would agree.


Ravi Chandrasekaran is a sophomore from Moraga, Calif., majoring in biological sciences.

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