Cell phones ubiquitous globally, but 1 in 8 now have mobile Internet

Cell phones in hands of more than 5 billion people, United Nations says. But mobile Internet growing much faster than cell phones: 160 percent last year alone.

Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters/File
Apple Inc's iPhone 4 is displayed for visitors at a registration desk at KT's headquarters in Seoul last month. Globally, 1 in 8 people have mobile Internet access, according to a new UN report. More than 5 billion people have cell phones.

About one in eight people around the world can now connect to the Internet wherever, and whenever, they want to.

A U.N. report released Thursday has found that active mobile broadband subscriptions surged last year, reaching 872 million worldwide last year, up from 531 million in 2009.

In rich countries almost every second person has a high-speed mobile subscription, while in poor countries it's still just one in every 20 people.

But poor countries showed the sharpest rise — about 160 percent year-on-year — as customers passed up costly fixed-line broadband connections in favor of affordable cell phone plans that allow them to access the Web, email and other online services on the go.

The report by the International Telecommunication Union concluded cell phones in general are now "de facto ubiquitous" with more than 5 billion people having some kind of cellular subscription.

The survey of 152 countries also found a growing divide between countries with super-fast broadband — like Sweden, South Korea and Japan — and those where high-speed access is lagging, particularly in Africa.

Investment in broadband capacity means the average European theoretically has 77 Megabits/second of Internet bandwidth to their name, compared with 27 Mb/s in the Americas and about 11 Mb/s in Asia and the Arab world, though the figures mask strong variations among countries within regions.

Overall, South Korea remained the top ranked country worldwide for information and communications technology, followed by northern European nations Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland. The U.S. remained in 17th place overall, but dropped three places when it came to access.

"This is mainly due to penetration rates for mobile cellular subscriptions and households with computer and Internet, where the U.S. has lower figures compared to the countries ranked above the U.S.," the Geneva-based ITU said.

Other conclusions of the annual report were that dial-up Internet access is likely to disappear within a few years, and a warning that frequently cited user statistics for popular sites like Facebook are unreliable indicators of actual Internet use.

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