Two-thirds of the planet's people have never made a telephone call. Steve Homer on efforts to bridge the information gap
Consider a few facts. GSM digital mobile phones first went on sale in mid-1993. Earlier this month, the ten millionth was sold. By the end of next year, 20 million will have been sold; by 2000, there are likely to be 100 million in use. In developed nations such as Germany, the UK and France, they are selling like hotcakes.

Now some other facts. Around two-thirds of the world's population have never made any type of telephone call. There are more telephones in Manhattan than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

Such contrasts floated to the surface at a 10-day telecoms jamboree, which closes on Wednesday. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), established 130 years ago, holds its telecoms show every four years in Geneva. The gap gives participants pause for reflection.

Visitors from the more developed countries marvelled at how new factors such as multimedia phone services, emergence of huge new telecoms groupings and development of the Internet's many flavours had changed their worlds. But for many visitors from the developing countries, it was a profoundly depressing experience. The pace of change is slow, and signs for the future anything but reassuring.

Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa, summed it up at the opening ceremony. While welcoming the "potential for open communications across all geographical and cultural divides" that the emerging global information society offered, he worried how the future would treat less-developed communities.

"One gulf will not be easily bridged - that is the division between information- rich and information-poor. Justice and equity demand that we find ways of overcoming it. If more than half the world is denied access to the means of communication, the people of developing countries will not be fully part of the modern world. In the 21st century, the capacity to communicate will almost certainly be a fundamental human right," Mr Mandela said.

"Eliminating the distinction between information-rich and information- poor countries is also critical to eliminating economic and other inequalities between North and South, and to improving the quality of life of all humanity."

He added that "the present reality is that the technology gap between the developed and developing nations is actually widening. Most of the world has no experience of what readily accessible communications can do for society and economy.

"Given the fundamental impact of telecommunications on society and the immense historical imbalances, these issues must become part of general public debate on development policies," Mr Mandela continued. "Telecommunications cannot be simply treated as one commercial sector of the economy, to be left to the forces of the free market."

In Africa, there is a huge colonial legacy to address. Phone calls between neighbouring countries are often transmitted halfway around the globe via the former colonial power because no regional telephone trunk network exists.

But modernisation is under way and could bring significant change if the will is present. Networks can be rapidly developed using a simple radio connection into the home instead of the laborious process of stringing wires. Satellite phone systems will play their part, too.

For suppliers of wireless technology, it's a boon: good profits while remaining on the side of the angels. And you can build an infrastructure cheaper and faster than with wire, said Sello Matsabu, chairman of Motorola Southern Africa. "The ANC has promised universal access to telephone services as a political direction. We can build coverage in three months that would have taken three years with wire."

And technologies to bring communications to the remotest parts of the world are also coming. Before the end of the century, at least three satellite systems for hand-held telephones should be operational. One, Globalstar, plans to do half of its business with fixed village phone boxes. Call costs may range from $0.50 to $3.50 per minute for different types of usage, so these phones will not be for all.

However, mobile telephony is bringing communications to less-developed countries and less-developed areas within them. South Africa proves this point. The fastest growth of GSM phone usage is not in the former white- only areas, but in the townships, where one fixed line might have to serve 1,000 inhabitants. Similarly, China and other developing countries have seen an explosion of mobile phone usage, mostly by a new generation of young entrepreneurs for whom the call charges represent a reasonable business expense.

But in the long term, access to the emerging global information society is seen as crucial. With digital mobile systems already capable of carrying data at 9,600 baud (bits per second), they represent a means of participating in the increasingly important online world.

But as Mr Mandela pointed out, left to their own devices, the world's telecoms imbalances mean the information markets could end up every bit as exploitative as the older forms of colonialism. The prospects of a solution being hammered out before Wednesday - or even 1999, for the next conference - still look desperately remote.

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