Last week Clay Shirky produced an interesting essay on the well-used phrase "Half the world has never made a phone call." He reminds us that the rate at which increasing numbers are making their first phone call is the statistic we should be most interested in. Particularly astounding are the rates at which cell phone use is increasing. He draws on Interntaional Telecommunications Union statistics, which show there were 689 million land lines in 1995 and over 1 billion in 2001.
And mobile telephony makes the change in land lines look tectonic. In 1995, there were roughly 91 million cellular subscribers. By 2001, the number had risen to 946 million, a ten-fold increase. Thirty countries had growth rates of over 100% annually, meaning that, at a minimum, they doubled and doubled again, 7 times, achieving better than hundred-fold cumulative growth. Senegal went from around 100 subscribers (not 100 thousand subscribers, 100 subscribers) to 390 thousand. Egypt went from 7 thousand to almost 3 million. Romania went from 9 thousand to almost 4 million.
Furthermore, cell phone growth rates in the developing world far outstrip those of OECD countries, as populations skip the centrally controlled and expensive land line infrastructures for cell phone networks.