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More on digital divide


November 10, 1999: This message was distributed by Papyrus News, a free e-mail distribution list on the global impact of information technology on language, literacy, and education. Feel free to forward this message to others, but please include this introductory paragraph. For information on subscribing or unsubscribing to Papyrus News see


I received a number of thoughtful replies on the digital divide issue. The common sentiment seemed to be

(a) it's extremely difficult to estimate how many people have ever used a telephone,

(b) that's not really the most relevant statistic anyway,

(c) what's really relevant is how many people have reliable and regular access to telecommunications, and

(d) in that light, the 80% (without access) estimate may not be far off.

Below is some information that was dug up by Patsy Price


In Patsy's words:

I don't know how reliable the source is, and I'm not sure how you make the jump from telephones to telephone use, but here's a source if you want to do the arithmetic. The CIA has an estimate of the number of phones in a long list of countries. See According to them, for the world's 11 biggest countries:

These countries account for 3,660,000,000 of the world's 6 billion people. They have 418,500,000 telephones. That's 11.4% of men, women & children with phones, one phone for every 8.7 people. There's lots of rounding of numbers, and very old estimates of phones for some countries, so the number of phones is probably higher.

You can keep going and add in all the other countries if it's meaningful.

For lots of reasons I don't think you can come up with usage by simply calculating an average or a ratio. These figures say nothing about the distribution of phones within a country or about how many people might use a single phone upon occasion.

I can remember that when I visited Haiti more than 30 years ago, the only phones for public use were in certain public buildings like the post office. But thousands of people lined up to use those phones.

It's possible to search the UN Web site for words like telecommunications. Here's a quote from the top article that came up (source not identified, URL too long to capture):

>There are only about 2 main telephone lines per 100
>persons in Africa, compared with 7 in Asia, 10 in Latin America and
>the Caribbean, 37 in Europe and 66 in the United States.

It would take some sleuthing to confirm these numbers.

I would guess that lots more than 20% of the people in the world have heard a dial tone at least once. But it wouldn't surprise me that 80% don't have regular access to a phone...



As for the situation in the US, Lee Abraham <> also reminds us of the following report, which is also cited on the BBC Web report:

Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide (U.S. Dept. of Commerce)

Mark Warschauer

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