Can developing countries skip the landline?

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow’s media environment will look very different from today’s, and will have little resemblance to yesterday’s.

Back in the late 1990s, a traveler from Lebanon to London would have noticed something interesting about telecommunications in the two countries: while many people in Lebanon owned a mobile, London was still accustomed to using red telephone boxes to make calls on the run.  During the Lebanese Civil War, all land-line infrastructure was destroyed, and the Lebanese leapfrogged to owning mobile phones. Fast-forward fifteen years to today, and one can see a similar pattern in many developing countries, where landlines and personal computers are bypassed for mobile internet.

In places with bad roads or unreliable land lines, mobile phones allow people to determine price data, reach wider markets, participate in mobile money, and obtain news and entertainment.  Since poverty is linked to isolation and a lack of access to education, health services, and government services in some places, mobile phones are already having a huge impact on how people manage their lives.

The graphs come from a recent Pew Research Center study on Communications Technology in Emerging and Developing Nations and show the percentage of people who have a working landline in their house and who own a cell phone.

Landline use worldwide Cell phone use worldwide

Nevertheless, there is some ‘unevenness’ to mobile phone leapfrogging. Residents of rural or isolated communities generally have less access to mobile phones.  Some ICT analysts argue that once a technology gains traction in an area, it will continue to expand.  In India access to mobile phones by the rural poor can be as low as 1%- the same rate urban residents were at in the early 1990s. Likewise, in sub-Saharan Africa, it is forecast that mobile subscriptions will rise to about 930m by late 2019. Mobile phones, moreover, do not require expensive infrastructure the same way that landlines did in the past.

Conversely, the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects 2008 report on technology diffusion in the developing world argued that it is the presence of a solid foundation of intermediate technology that determines whether or not new technologies become widely diffused. For example, mobile phones and broadband links are not much use without a reliable electrical supply. The report concludes the ability of a country to adopt new technology depends on the availability of more basic forms of infrastructure.

This article was first published by the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Roxanne Bauer is a consultant to the World Bank’s External and Corporate Relations, Operational Communications department (ECROC).

Image: Men are silhouetted against a video screen as they pose with Samsung Galaxy S3, Nokia Lumia 820 and iPhone 4 smartphones (R-L) in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic.

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