Phoning Home Around The Globe

Tens of millions of people have little or no access to basic telephone services, but advances may make universal access possible, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) said on March 23.

Some 25 percent of the world's population of 5.9 billion lives in countries where there is less than 1 phone line for every 100 people, which the ITU defines as "minimum access."

More than 600 million households, including 6 million in the United States, did not have their own telephone largely because they could not afford to pay. A pact between 72 countries in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to liberalize the sector by injecting global competition should bring down prices, but complacency about its effects is a danger to improving access, the ITU said.

At the beginning of 1997, the report said, 62 percent of all main telephone lines were installed in just 23 advanced economies in Europe, North America, Australia, and Asia, accounting for less than 15 percent of the world's people.

There were also disparities in worldwide distribution of new types of networks and services often hailed as providing the answer to the problem, the report said. Some 84 percent of mobile-phone subscribers were in industrialized countries. While cellular phones have been too expensive up to now to help countries where laying land lines is unprofitable, ITU says the development of relatively cheap fixed basic cellular services could cut significantly into the cost of providing phone networks.

Industrialized countries also had 91 percent of all fax machines and 97 percent of all Internet host computers, it said. In these areas there were also large gaps among some developing countries and former communist transition economies.

Thailand, with a population of 60 million, had more cellular phones than the whole of Africa. In the former Soviet state of Estonia, which has a population of just under 1.5 million, there were more Internet host computers than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa.

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