JULY 15, 2023 | Colombo Urban Lab
Circuits of Semiconductors and Affiliation: a Shallow Dive into the Small-Scale Mobile Phone Repair Sector

Back in 1995, a special supplement of the Economist ran an article titled The Death of Distance (Cairncross, 1995) which conjected that the data traffic on US telephone lines on Mothers’ Day was the heaviest in the world and could only grow further until “… every day may well be Mothers’ Day, everywhere”. The article was predicting that the friction of distance was in the process of being overcome by the growing telecommunication sector.

In Sri Lanka, the way telecommunication technologies have embedded themselves into people’s lives cannot be ignored. Over the past two decades, mobile telephone voice subscriptions have gradually increased. Furthermore, at the end of 2021, the total cellular mobile telephone subscriptions were 135% of the population (TRCSL, 2021).

These facts and figures describe the public’s need for mobile phone connectivity services in order to connect to people and things. However, within this sector, the roles played by states and larger enterprises tend to overshadow the ancillary roles played by people organised at smaller scales.

Role of Repair Technicians

Mobile phone repair entails restoring the performance of a telecommunication device that has failed due to daily wear and tear, sudden damages or changes in the technology (Houston, 2019).

An exploration into the small-scale mobile phone repair economy suggests that one’s interest in pursuing a career in this sector is a collective project, as much as it is an individual quest, as technicians seek support from their community to both gain skills and overcome shortcomings.

For those interested in starting a career in this sector, apprentice relations between an experienced technician and a novice is a popular path of knowledge transfer. For example, Ganesh, who runs a repair shop for electrical equipment (including mobile phones) in Wellawatte and Ravi, who works as a technician in a phone shop in Pettah, entered the sector by working as apprentices at a number of mobile phone repair shops before they identified themselves as technicians.

Suren, who identifies as a tea buyer and a part-time phone technician, and Hasen, who repairs electrical items, including phones from his apartment in a low income highrise housing scheme in Dematagoda, made use of peer-to-peer relationships between friends to gain their skills and knowledge.

However, a formal training programme for “mobile phone repair technicians” is available at the National Youth Services Council. Kumar, who was formerly a mobile phone repair technician, had the dual experience of working both as an apprentice at his brother’s shop in Kiribathgoda and following a National Vocational Qualification standard repair technician programme. Even though his brother encouraged him to get formally trained, Kumar says that in this sector, it is the experience which counts. At a different phone shop where he was entrusted with interviewing new technicians, rather than asking about training programmes, Kumar would take a more holistic approach to test the limits of a candidate’s capabilities. This included assigning progressively harder tasks, careful observation of tool handling, and having informal chats. He jokingly added, “Come to think of it, I do not understand why my brother made me follow that programme”. The internet, and specifically YouTube, are sources of information which all technicians use to gain knowledge and find solutions.

The practice of working as collectives to share technical knowledge, resources, and assistance is a common practice among them as well. Individual technicians may work closely with one particular clique while also maintaining contact with individuals of other cliques, increasing the pool of resources an individual has access to. Ganesh describes the network he works closely with as colleagues he learnt the trade with, along with a few others whom he met along the way. However, some relationships are more utilitarian than others, such as his contacts in Pettah whom he outsources software-related jobs to. Suren described working as collectives as a sustainable practice. I can always tell my friends, “I have an issue like this, or I am looking for a specific part… and likewise, I return the favour”. He also talked about how he and his brother-in-law have introduced people to each other’s collectives, which shows how permeable the boundaries between collectives can be. Hasen being a more under-resourced technician, relies on his contacts in Pettah to share their specialised tools if the need arises. He also relies on another friend in Dematagoda to help him with software-related issues. Kumar included shop floor workers at phone part shops as members of certain networks, for they have their own networks through which parts can be located. Kumar also described how these overlapping networks can communicate information about job openings and cross check references of technicians. He also hinted at the subversive nature of some of these networks by stressing that the networks of technicians and shop floor workers are often more extensive than those of their bosses.

The profile of services provided by mobile phone technicians is, according to some technicians, more extensive than those provided by “larger” companies. When it comes to replacing parts, the former can offer a range of grades depending on the spending capacity of the client. Some technicians can also provide services such as replacing chips and processors or bridging disconnected or damaged connections on the circuit board (jumper solutions). Kumar says the savings for the client could be thousands of rupees, if instead of replacing a composite part, the technician chooses to close an open circuit with a piece of copper wire.

Showing the battery compartment of a phone belonging to another working-class resident at his apartment complex, Hasen described how the client requested a cheap fix to get the phone just to turn on. The only solution he could provide at the time was to provide a smaller battery from another model and cut a piece of Styrofoam to make the battery snuggly fit the larger compartment. The pins of the phone may align with the terminals on the battery, but the charge will not hold for as long. It is not a perfect solution. However, the “repair” will not cost the client anything because Hasen used a battery from his salvaged collection of parts. He says pro bono work pays off because people whom he has helped in the past have shared discarded electronic items, which he can use to complete other paying jobs. Suren also salvages parts like speakers, charging pins and condensers from unrepairable phones, which the clients do not want back, and uses them for pro bono work. However, he says that for paying jobs, it is easier for him to use brand-new parts. Clearly, there is a demand for risky yet affordable means of bridging the digital divide. However, not all technicians provide such services.

Risk, Trust, and Theft

According to Suren and Ganesh, there is an erosion of trust between cell phone technicians and the public, which both agreed was a valid criticism. Suren pointed out that the public always views the technician with suspicion because they have the capability to steal parts. This precommitment to suspicion can be precarious for the technician. He described a possible scenario where a phone gets wet, and the moisture continues to slowly seep deeper into the phone’s circuitry while it is with the technician. If the moisture reaches the core, the phone may not turn on, and the client may ask to return the phone to the state it was handed over, at which point it will be like attempting to “resurrect the dead”. Echoing their self-critique, while showing a compartment on a front panel of a phone, Hasen showed where the “in-display fingerprint sensor” should have been located and said that it seemed as if his client’s previous technician had stolen it.

The act of repair itself carries a degree of inherent risk. Suren says, “One may wonder why we would charge LKR 1,200 to replace a part which may cost us LKR 200 to buy from Pettah; it is because, in the process, we risk damaging a part which may cost us LKR 12,000”.

However, in this sector, where one’s name is an asset and enables technicians to come to verbal agreements with clients, risking a client’s trust could cost more than just the price of replacing the relevant part. It could also mean the loss of one’s reputation. This is why Hasen does not do quick repairs for everyone. “They might say they want a quick fix, but if things fall apart, I get a bad name”, so he stresses that the client needs to “understand” and not just “know” what the technician is about to do.

The Role of Repair in Society

From a global perspective, the nature of the operations of small-scale cell phone repair technicians does not appear to be unique. Doron (2012)’s description of the repair economy in North India as being innovative, subversive and flexible enough to cater to local needs rings familiar when looking at the local context. However, understandably the profile of services offered in different regions may be different to better reflect the local needs.

From a policy perspective, the “right to repair” related legislature has been adopted in Europe and the United States (Blanc, 2022; Jin et al., 2023). Closer to home, in India, the Department of Consumer Affairs has set up a committee to develop a framework on the right-to-repair (PIB, n.d.). Advocates of such legislation describe how such interventions could make it easier for consumers to extend the lifespan of products and reduce e-waste. However, market forces may have a backfire effect if such interventions trigger manufacturers to reduce prices and increase production, and provide value enhancements (eg. free repair services), making the purchase of a new product a more attractive option (Yang et al., 2023).

Yang et al., (2023) provide a cautionary tale about having faith in society’s capacity to legislate our way out of social and environmental issues. However, the way cell phone technicians turn private capital into a shared-commons, be it in the form of knowledge or resources shared among collectives, or to simply help someone in need, demonstrates the moral dimension of everyday economic activities, which each one of us could relate to in one way or another. This moral economy exposes how claims are made about what responsibilities we as a society have towards each other and the environment, and then forced to reflect on what motivations we have to acknowledge them or not.

Be that as it may, it must be appreciated that the mobile phone repair sector does help mobile phones to last a while longer away from landfills and allow vulnerable consumers to overcome the logic of inbuilt obsolescence and access communication infrastructure and participate in the global economy (Doron, 2012).


Blanc, M. de 2022. Right to Repair Legislation and Advocacy: 2022 in Review. Electronic Frontier Foundation. [Online]. [Accessed 13 July 2023]. Available from:

Click here.

Cairncross, F. 1995. The death of distance. The Economist. 336(7934), pp.5–28.

Doron, A. 2012. Consumption, technology and adaptation: care and repair economies of mobile phones in North India. Pacific Affairs. 85(3), pp.563–585.

Houston, L. 2019. Mobile Phone Repair Knowledge in Downtown Kampala: Local and Trans-Local Circulations Lara Houston In: Repair Work Ethnographies: Revisiting Breakdown, Relocating Materiality., pp.129–160.

Jin, C., Yang, L. and Zhu, C. 2023. Right to repair: Pricing, welfare, and environmental implications. Management Science. 69(2), pp.1017–1036.

PIB n.d. Department of Consumer Affairs sets up committee to develop comprehensive framework on the Right to Repair. [Accessed 13 July 2023]. Available from: Click here.

TRCSL 2021. Annual Report 2021. Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka.

TRCSL 2023. Statistics 2023 March [Online]. Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka. Available from: Click here.

Yang, L., Jin, C. and Zhu, C. 2023. Research: The Unintended Consequences of Right-to-Repair Laws. Harvard Business Review.

Tags: Technology and Innovation in Development, Colombo Urban Lab.


In Sri Lanka, the way telecommunication technologies have embedded themselves into people’s lives cannot be ignored. Over the past two decades, mobile telephone voice subscriptions have gradually increased. Furthermore, at the end of 2021, the total cellular mobile telephone subscriptions were 135% of the population. These facts and figures describe the public’s need for mobile phone connectivity services in order to connect to people and things. However, within this sector, the roles played by states and larger enterprises tend to overshadow the ancillary roles played by people organised at smaller scales.

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