The world now has more than 2 billion cell phone or mobile phone subscribers, according to the latest data from the International Communications Union. The number of subscribers climbed an average of 24 percent each year over the past five years. At the same time, the number of fixed telephone lines (known now as land lines) has almost stagnated, with an average growth rate of 5 percent over the past five years.
The number of cell phone users per 100 residents varies drastically by country. In Israel and the United Kingdom, there are more cell phone subscriptions than there are people. Japan, South Africa, and the United States have similar rates of cell phone subscribers—about 70 per 100 residents. The two most populous countries in the world have much lower rates, with 30 subscribers per 100 residents in China and 8 per 100 in India.
Cell phones are increasingly used in ways that have little to do with their original function. In Japan, people can now pay for food and train tickets with their cell phones. They can also scan barcodes on fresh produce packaging, instantly retrieving information about where the food was grown and whether pesticides were used.
Some creative uses are more crucial to basic survival. In Bangladesh, the Welltracker project helps villagers ensure the safety of their water supply by phone: after sending a series of messages to pinpoint their location, they receive information from a database about how deep they should dig their well in order to avoid arsenic contamination. And WeatherBug, a U.S. company, has announced a service that sends severe weather alerts based on a cell phone user’s location. Weather sites are the second most popular category of Web site, after e-mail, visited by people who get on the Internet via their phones in the United States.
There were an estimated 1.2 billion Internet users worldwide in 2006, up 13 percent over 2005. While the Internet is widely available and relatively cheap to use in some places, the percent of the population that goes online varies greatly between countries. Iceland has the highest concentration of Web users, at 87.8 percent, followed by Sweden (75.5 percent) and Australia (70.4 percent). But in 97 countries, fewer than 10 people per 100 residents use the Internet; this includes 29 countries where the figure is below 1 in 100.
The number of Internet host computers grew by 38 million to a total of 433 million computers in 2006, but this represented the slowest annual growth rate (9.7 percent) since surveys began in 1985.
Though computers have become an integral part of many lives, few people realize the toxic burden they carry. Nearly one kilogram of a typical laptop computer—about 23 percent of its weight—is composed of metals that can be harmful to humans in high concentrations, such as lead, cadmium, and copper. One ton of discarded computers has more gold than is produced from 17 tons of gold ore. While these metals may not be directly harmful to computer users, they have dire effects for the thousands of people worldwide who work as electronics recyclers, many without proper equipment or protection, to process the estimated 20–50 million tons of electronic waste generated each year.
Internet users often take unfettered Web access for granted. But some national regulation threatens the integrity of the globe-crossing technology. In China, government censors intermittently shut down access to selected Web sites. The popular search engine Google, known as Gu Ge or “harvest song” in Chinese, has come under fire for bowing to Chinese government pressure and restricting search results for sensitive topics such as human rights and political reform.
One founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, warned that a recent proposal could cause the Internet to enter “a dark period.” Large U.S. telecom businesses want to grant subscription-only access to parts of the Internet, with priority given to data transmitted by companies or institutions that pay higher rates.
– for WorldWatch –