Mobile phones and the Internet are increasingly seen as essential requirements for the exchange of information. Data from World Development Indicators 2013 illustrates the dramatic change in access across the world in the last decade: mobile phone subscriptions have roughly doubled every two years since 2002, now exceeding the number of fixed line subscriptions in 2002. By the end of 2011 there were 5.9 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide, almost one for every person if distributed equally. And almost a third of the world’s population had online access to the Internet.
But behind these global figures are important differences between countries and regions. For instance, developing economies have lagged behind in the number of mobile subscriptions, but they are catching up. One of the most rapidly changing regions is South Asia, where there were 69 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people in 2011, up from 8 in 2005. In 2011, the region had the same subscription rate as high-income economies did 8 years previously. Sri Lanka and India experienced an increase in mobile subscriptions of over 50 percent and are the biggest contributors to the region’s growth rate. In recent years South Asia has had the largest growth in mobile subscription coverage compared with all other regions, but mobile subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa remain lower than others, where 53 of 100 people had mobile phone subscriptions in 2011. But rates are rapidly growing: while the region started far behind, it now has the same subscription rate as high-income economies did 11 years previously. The chart below illustrates these regional trends – but you can analyze the data for yourself by adding a country.
Do these growth trends hold true for internet access as well? The number of Internet users worldwide has been increasing steadily, to around 33 users per 100 people in 2011, from around 12 per 100 in 2003. Internet access rates show a greater “digital divide” between developing and high-income economies than mobile subscriptions; and even among developing regions there are large differences. In 2011, developing economies in Europe and Central Asia (including the Russian Federation, which was classified as upper-middle income in 2011) had the highest penetration rates among all developing regions in 2011, where 42 of 100 people had access to the Internet - still 9 years behind high-income economies. In contrast, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have the lowest penetration rates, with 9 and 13 people out of 100 having Internet access respectively.
However, developing regions are quickly catching up to high-income economies by increasing internet access using mobile phones. The number of mobile-broadband subscriptions in developing countries increased more than ten times between 2007 and 2011, from 43 million to 472 million. In fact, the Africa region had the highest growth rate, where mobile-broadband subscriptions increased from 14 million in 2010 to 38 million in 2011. It appears that many developing economies may be “leapfrogging” developed economies, combining the growing access to mobile technology with mobile-broadband Internet access to improve access to communication and information.
Data are provided by the ITU World Telecommunications/ICT indicators database, and published in the World Development Indicators database. Key elements of this blog post were first published in WDI 2013, page 81.