I recently had cause to buy a Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) mobile phone, which is not something I do terribly often and I found that the purchase process was surprisingly long-winded. As I was twiddling my thumbs, I found myself recalling a scene in the recent movie “The Bourne Ultimatum” in which our eponymous hero buys a PAYG phone on Waterloo station. This process took a matter of seconds and did not appear to involve any specialist spy-related skills.
Before you object and suggest my ability to separate fact and fiction has been eroded even further than usual, I should make clear that I do realise that The Bourne Ultimatum is a work of fiction and was not intended as a documentary or “how-to” guide. However, I had clearly not realised the degree of artistic licence that this small scene involved – had it occurred in the real world, I fear the film would have ended well before the first reel was over (though it would have been quite a long and tedious first reel).
The actual process takes nearly 15 minutes, including the laborious completion of paperwork by hand – not quite the bleeding edge of technology I might have anticipated. Part of this process required the written transposition of the serial number of the SIM card to paper.
I was amazed to discover that the serial number has 19 digits, this would mean that it could uniquely identify 10 to the power of 19 different SIM cards. This is an awful lot of SIMs – the world has a population of around 6 billion with forecasts that it might reach 14 billion by 2100 (that is – roughly – 10 to the power of 10 people). This means that there are enough SIM card serial numbers available for every man, woman or child on earth to get through some one billion SIM cards (each) during their lifetime. I know some people have several mobile phones, and others are terribly careless – but this still seems a lot of headroom to me.
Do the mobile phone companies have some expectation of an unprecedented population explosion, beyond even Malthus’s worst nightmares? Or are they about to start marketing their wares to a new audience? Termites perhaps? Or some similarly numerous species? I’m not sure I’m that happy for Phylum Athropoda to have access to modern telecommunications. To be honest, I’m far from convinced that the networks can handle it – especially, if our insect friends get into on-line social networking (Bee-bo anyone? Chitter perhaps?).