The economic crisis has barely dented explosive global growth in mobile telephone communications, driven by surging demand in developing countries, new United Nations figures show.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN telecoms agency, said mobile phone subscriptions were set to rise to 4.6bn by the end of this year, a jump of 15 per cent from about 4bn at the end of 2008.
Mobile broadband is also showing spectacular growth after outstripping fixed broadband connections last year. Mobile broadband subscriptions will top 600m in 2009, the ITU says, compared with an estimated 500m subscribers to fixed broadband.
The 3.2bn mobile phone subscribers in poor countries are now double the 1.4bn subscribers in rich nations, though the figures are heavily skewed by China and India with 750m and 480m subscribers respectively.
“Mobile phones have penetrated poor countries faster than any technology in the past,” said Susan Teltscher, head of the ITU’s development statistics unit, who estimates that about half of the developing world’s population now has exclusive or shared access to mobile phones.
Though more than a quarter of the world’s population is using the internet, “there is a dramatic broadband divide”, the ITU notes. Fixed broadband subscriptions have trebled over the past five years but in Africa there is only one fixed broadband subscriber for every 1,000 people compared with 200 subscribers per 1,000 people in Europe.
In absolute terms, China now has the largest number of high-speed internet subscribers, having overtaken the US at the end of 2008, and it alone accounts for half all broadband users in developing nations.
“High-speed internet access remains out of reach for most people in the developing world,” Ms Teltscher said, pointing to its prohibitively high cost in many poor countries.
Separately, the World Bank announced on Tuesday the launch of a $215m 10-year initiative to help bring affordable broadband services to nations in central Africa, starting with Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic, with possible later extension to another eight countries including Nigeria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These countries have the worst and most expensive internet and telephone services in Africa, the Bank said.
The ITU, which is hosting a weeklong telecoms industry event in Geneva, earlier warned that despite the economic resilience of the sector during the global downturn, a lack of funding was slowing expansion of “next generation” mobile networks seen as essential to deliver global broadband access.
The financial crisis has “cut directly across many operators’ investment plans to upgrade existing networks and roll out various next-generation networks,” the ITU said.