The deadly SARS virus plaguing China appears to have been a god-send for the nation’s mobile message and Internet service providers. As people reduce their face-to-face contacts with others, or hide at home from the disease, e-communications are booming. Many people are surfing the Net for information about the mysterious, and highly contagious virus and using e-mail to keep in touch with friends and family. “TV and the Internet have become the major sources of information for me during the SARS epidemic,” said Gu Nan, an employee with a multinational’s Beijing branch.
The contagious severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has in recent weeks claimed hundreds of lives worldwide and left thousands in hospitals. Gu and his colleagues have been forced to work in shifts from home to try to prevent SARS’ spread. “I prefer the Internet, which provides wider and timely SARS coverage,” Gu said. “Besides, I’m writing a lot of e-mail to communicate with friends, swap information and handle some of my work. ” Gu is not alone. Many Internet users are downloading medical advice to relieve their SARS-caused anxieties. They are using e-mail to share the information. Sina.
com’s news channels have received an increasing number of hits in recent days, due in part to the epidemic, said Daniel Mao, Sina. com’s chief executive officer. Sina. com is the country’s largest Web portal. “As many people choose to stay at home, the demand for timely news is surging, which is boosting the number of hits at our website,” Mao said. “The rise will be more apparent in the coming two months, as SARS headlines have replaced news of the just-concluded war in Iraq. ” China had 59. 1 million Internet users at the end of last year, indicates the quasi-governmental China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC).
CNNIC’s statistics indicate 53. 1 per cent of netizens used the Internet mainly to locate information. CNNIC predicts the number of netizens is expected to jump 46 per cent, to 86. 3 million, by year’s end. Mobile messaging has also benefited from SARS. NetEase. com, another major domestic portal, has launched – in response to surging demands – a special channel to provide timely SARS updates to its mobile phone subscribers. Short-messaging services have greatly contributed to major Web portals’ much-sooner-than-expected, first-ever profits. Sohu.
com, Sina. com and NetEase – all listed on the NASDAQ – have reported brisk first-quarter profits, due largely to surging demand for short messages. Besides, person-to-person (P2P) messaging, not affiliated with Internet companies, is experiencing robust growth. “I swap a lot of information about SARS with my friends and send and receive numerous digital greetings these days,” said college teacher Xiao Mei. China Mobile and China Unicom, two of the nation’s mobile operators, respectively carried 79 billion and 15 billion short-text messages last year.
P2P messages accounted for nearly 80 per cent of the messages carried by China Mobile. China had 221 million mobile users at the end of March. The remote office, which allows people to work via the Internet when they are out of their offices, has become increasingly popular since the SARS outbreak. “Due to fears a concentration of people could help spread the SARS virus, a lot of news conferences have been cancelled,” said Cao Dan, a reporter with a Beijing-based financial magazine. “We have chosen to work at home.
We conduct interviews by e-mail and telephone, write the stories at home and send them via the Internet to our office, where a small number of editors are working,” she said. “I have never felt more dependent on the Internet. ” Videoconferencing systems – which have been slow to catch on even though providers have heavily promoted them – are becoming more popular. “All of our employees in Beijing still work in the office. But due to cancellations of their trips, we are taking advantage of videoconferencing systems via the Internet to communicate with our clients,” said Wang Ge, an official with Matsushita’s Beijing office.
“We installed the systems a long time ago, but seldom used them. Now we find them very convenient. After the SARS epidemic bates, we will increase our usage of such systems to improve efficiency and cut costs. ” Huawei Technologies, China’s top telecoms equipment maker, said it provided videoconferencing systems to Shanxi Mobile, which will use the gear to provide remote online communications between SARS patients and their families in Shanxi Province.