Mobile broadband penetration 2012Two closely related items have appeared online that underline how important mobile comms can be to emerging and frontier economies – and how deep the digital divide still is. In a post in The Register, Tim Worstall claims that “Mobile phones are the greatest poverty-reducing tech EVER,” and backs this contention up with some serious statistical analysis, to the point where he postulates that mobile comms are “possibly Africa’s only real source of economic growth.” Alongside this, we have The State of Broadband 2015, from the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which declares that “affordable and effective broadband connectivity is a vital enabler of economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection.”

Tim Worstall calculates that “In a country without a landline network, as best we can tell, every 10 per cent of the population which has access to a mobile causes a 0.5 per cent rise in GDP. Each and every year. By the standards of development, that is a massive number.” And he uses some carefully worked-out figures from Kenya to argue that “all sub-Saharan growth is coming from the roll-out of mobile phone technology.”

Too bad, then, that this roll-out still seems painfully slow and partial. “The digital divide is proving stubbornly persistent in terms of access to broadband Internet, including the challenge of extending last-mile access to infrastructure to remote and rural communities,” according to the Broadband Commission report, with 57 percent, or some 4.2 billion of the world’s people, still without regular Internet access. Furthermore, in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), “only one out of every ten people is online. The gender digital divide is also proving incredibly difficult to overcome, reflecting broader social gender inequalities.”

Proponents of ebooks and online media will be specially glad to hear that the report also concludes that “It is increasingly vital to extend access to digital education services, new capabilities, culture, entertainment,” as well as “healthcare, financial and commercial services.” But all in all, it’s a sobering picture of a global opportunity still hanging fire, and a large and potentially productive slice of the world’s population still mired in economic, environmental, and educational degradation for want of connectivity. Planet Earth: Phone home.


  1. This article reminds me of the old argument about the glass being half empty or half full. The half full argument is that in the 21st century there has been a phenomenal increase in mobile phone use in the Third World. Internet penetration will piggyback on mobile networks, given the much lower landline penetration.

    Mobile cellular subscriptions (per 100 people) 1999 to 2013

    Sub-Saharan Africa (developing only) 1 to 66
    Latin America & Caribbean (developing only) 7 to 111
    India 0.18 to 71
    Least developed countries: UN classification 0.12 to 56
    East Asia & Pacific (developing only) 3 to 96
    Middle East & North Africa (developing only) 1 to 101

    There are a number of articles out there about how mobile phones are utilized in increasing commerce in the Third World.

    Source:World Bank: World Development Indicator.s

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail