Nations go wireless, but for varied reasons

The United States boasts the most wireless users in the world, with more than 100 million Americans now carrying cellphones.

But in some other countries, cellphones are far more widespread and, in some cases, mark the only resource available to make a call.

As a percentage of overall population using cellphones, the US trails many nations. For example, nearly 80 percent of Norway's 4.5 million people own cellphones, compared to about a third of Americans. In Italy, 78 percent of people have them; Sweden, 70 percent, according to market research from Strategis Group in Washington.

Elsewhere, wireless customers account for about 60 percent of phone users in Paraguay. In Venezuela, it's about 57 percent, according to the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union.

The reasons for the industry's worldwide growth are both cultural and economic, says John Sherlock, head of the Personal Communication Industry Association in Alexandria, Va. While Americans appreciate the convenience offered by handsets, the Swedes, for example, simply crave modern gadgets and technology.

In Japan, where half of the population goes wireless, the technology has almost become a necessity. Because few families own desktop computers, they rely on cellphones for e-mail, instant messaging, and Web surfing. The handsets are vital tools of quiet communication for a culture that prioritizes public discretion, Mr. Sherlock suggests.

In the third world, cellphones are not so much a perk as a public need. Many countries - in Africa and South America in particular - have insufficient money or too much bureaucracy to install and manage a national network of phone lines. In many cases, the waiting period for the installation of a regular service is interminable. Private wireless networks are filling that void. Mobile customers often pay more than land-line users, but avoid the wait.

It's one reason the growth rate of wireless subscribers in Africa climbed 118 percent in 1999. Such statistics, says Sherlock, show that cellphones are becoming a global necessity.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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