lies & spin
This page considers teledensity: a measure (or basket
of measures) of national and regional connectivity.
It covers -
of those measures are found here,
in the Digital Divides
profile and in the discussion of audience
measurement elsewhere on this site.
Teledensity is a metric that has been used to provide
international comparisons (including some of the rankings
discussed in the following page of this note) and to contrast
regions within a specific country. The metric has been
used as an indicator of economic development or governance.
It has also been used as a predictor of economic growth
and an illustration in debates about declinism.
The definition of teledensity has expanded over the past
forty years. Teledensity initially referred to a count
of 'main telephone lines' within a particular area, typically
main lines per one hundred inhabitants. Those lines were
provided by the PSTN operator; the figure thus included
extensions within residences and numbers within corporate
networks (eg numbers off the PABX used by a government
agency or business).
Teledensity is sometimes now used more broadly, referring
to several measures of connectivity (eg number of mobile
lines, number of internet subscribers) and accompanied
by counts of devices (eg number of radios, televisions,
Some writers, adopting the 1984 Independent Commission
for World-Wide Telecommunications Development study (Maitland
refer to a 'teledensity gap' to characterise the -
difference in teledensity in advanced versus developing
economies (eg 0.1 lines per 100 people in Afghanistan
and 67 lines per 100 in Canada)
of connectivity in advanced and developing economies
(in terms of percentage of personal income)
in service in those economies (with for example delays
of months or yours in provisioning and repairing lines).
figures are generally provided by government agencies,
whether as regulators or as operators of telecommunication
networks, and may be aggregated by international bodies
such as the ITU and OECD.
They typically identify infrastructure rather than use,
for example that x percentage of a population
can be inferred to have access to a phone rather than
how long those people spend on the phone, who they call
and how they use the phone.
In practice they are thus distinct from much of the data
provided by market research
specialists in the public and private sector, for example
how many people listened to a particular broadcast (rather
than owned a radio) or visited a specific site (rather
than had access to a personal computer and fixed line).
basis and questions
Traditional teledensity has measured infrastructure, on
the basis that -
data' collection was not difficult (a network operator
would know how many lines had been deployed over time
and how many were in use, particularly use by paying
customers rather than by official bodies with free access)
of that data (eg expressing it on a per capita basis)
and publication was trivial
was little disagreement about the definition of the
data (eg little scope for complaints that apples were
being compared with oranges) as distinct from interpretation
of the data.
publication by the ITU reflected the UPU's
publication of data about national and cross-border postal
traffic. It also increasingly reflected national aggrandizement,
with countries associating teledensity with modernity
and boasting that they were more 'wired' than their peers,
boasts evident in contemporary anxieties about e-readiness
rankings and 'broadband gaps'. It has illustrated substantial
(although changing) dissimilarities between regions, apparent
in the 1985 claim that there were more telephones in Tokyo
than in the whole of Africa.
Traditional measures have faced a range of criticisms.
Some critics argued, often persuasively, that data provided
by some governments was inaccurate (with for example suggestions
that numbers were deliberately inflated to keep up with
growth in other countries or that much of the "installed
base" of lines was not in fact operational on a day
by day basis). Other critics noted that many figures were
insufficiently granular, obscuring significant disparities
in the distribution of lines (eg low levels of connectivity
in remote/regional areas and high levels in metropolitan
areas, particularly in government offices).
More recently, critics have highlighted inadequacies in
terms of 'universal access' ('everyone has acess to telecommunications')
versus 'universal service' ('a phone in every home'),
noting that the 'fixed line per capita' metric
individual (rather than community) access
ignores other access mechanisms
problematical in economies (such as the US, Canada and
Australia) where consumers are increasingly relying
on mobiles or VOIP for personal communication and 'main
line' numbers are declining
have expressed concern about confusion between causation
and correlation, arguing that that increased teledensity
in Third World nations is a function of economic growth
(or of education) rather than the primary cause of that
growth, with governments and international aid donors
accordingly being urged to concentrate on public health
and education spending rather than connectivity investment.
Such arguments are evident in criticism of hyperbole about
the $100 Laptop.
The ITU, OECD and other organisations have accordingly
come to emphasise a suite of measures, often integrated
with other information such as literacy rates, child mortality
and GDP. Some of that information is supplied as part
of regional tabulations in the Digital Divides profile
elsewhere on this site.
Such information has of course been used - and misused
- by nations since the 1880s as indications of national
capacity, with policymaking in fin de siecle
European states being influenced by metrics such as literacy,
home ownership and the body weight of military recruits
(the latter spawning official endorsement of Baden-Powell's
Some of the more subtle contemporary infrastructure metrics
include variables such as -
personnel per line
length of time waiting to acquire a landline
of time while landline is out of order
to acquire a line or device
of ongoing access (eg line rental charges).
In 2007 the ITU released a report (PDF)
on proposed "core indicators" for consistent
global identification of teledensity. The suggested indicators
are as follows.
Basic core infrastructure and access -
telephone lines per 100 inhabitants
mobile cellular subscribers per 100 inhabitants
computers per 100 inhabitants
internet subscribers per 100 inhabitants
broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants
international internet bandwidth per inhabitant
percentage of population covered by mobile telephony
internet access tariffs (20 hours per month), in US$,
and as a percentage of per capita income
mobile cellular tariffs (100 minutes of use per month),
in US$, and as a percentage of per capita income
percentage of localities with public internet access
centres (PIACs) by
number of inhabitants (rural/urban).
infrastructure and access measures might be supplemented
by an 'extended core' -
receivers per 100 inhabitants
television receivers per 100 inhabitants
measures for access by households and individuals are
proportion of households with a radio
proportion of households with a television
proportion of households with a fixed line phone
proportion of households with a mobile phone
proportion of households with a computer
proportion of individuals who used a computer (from
any location) in the past year
proportion of households with net access at home
of individuals who used the net (from any location)
in the past year
location of individual use of the net in the past year
c) place of education;
at another person's home;
community internet access facility
commercial internet access facility
activities undertaken by individuals in the past year
information - a)
about goods or services; b) related to health or
health services; c) from government organisations/public
authorities via websites or email;
and d) other information or general web browsing
purchasing or ordering goods or services
education or learning activities
dealing with government organisations/public authorities
leisure activities - a) playing/downloading video
or computer games; b) downloading movies, music
or software; c) reading/downloading electronic books,
newspapers or magazines; and d) other leisure activities.
'extended core' regarding individual/household use is
proportion of individuals with use of a mobile phone
proportion of households with access to the net by type
frequency of individual access to the net in the past
year (from any location) - a) at least once a day; b)
at least once a week but not every day; c) at least
once a month but not every week; and d) less than once
measures for access by business are -
of businesses using computers
proportion of employees using computers
proportion of businesses using the net
proportion of employees using the net
proportion of businesses with a web presence
proportion of businesses with an intranet
proportion of businesses receiving orders over the net
proportion of businesses placing orders over the net.
'extended core' for comparing business access is -
proportion of businesses using the net by type of access
proportion of businesses with a Local Area Network (LAN)
proportion of businesses with an extranet
proportion of businesses using the net by type of activity
and receiving email
getting information - a) about goods or services;
b) from government organisations/public authorities
via websites or email; and c) other information
searches or research
performing internet banking or accessing other financial
dealing with government organisations/public authorities
providing customer services
delivering products online.
core indicators on the "ICT sector and trade in ICT
goods" are -
proportion of total business sector workforce involved
in the ICT sector
value added in the ICT sector (as a percentage of total
business sector value added)
ICT goods imports as a percentage of total imports
ICT goods exports as a percentage of total exports.
ITU comments that 'categories of access' in relation to
the net should
an aggregation to narrowband and broadband, where broadband
excludes slower speed technologies, such as dial-up
modem, ISDN and most 2G mobile phone access. Broadband
will usually have an advertised download speed of at
least 256 kbit/s.
has been disagreement about other teledensity measures,
for example fuzzy indicators such as number of domain
names per capita, web
sites per capita or simply number of domain name registrations
in each ccTLD.
As the following pages (and the more detailed discussion
regarding digital divide initiatives)
suggest, identifying teledensity is easier than improving
the metrics or achieving the economic and social benefits
that supposedly flow from such improvements.
Since at least the 1960s economists have identified a
correlation between -
teledensity and GDP
in teledensity and growth in GDP, along with improvement
in other areas such as mortality
has led some to argue that the relationship is one of
causation, with for example investment in telecommunication
infrastructure and service driving economic growth throughout
regional/national economies and resulting in tangible
social benefits relating to education, health, development
projects, management of natural disasters and even 'calming'
of internal migration flows.
Some have reported that investment in telecommunications
infrastructure (apparent in greater teledensity) was a
reliable predictor of increases in national productivity,
claimed as attributable to enhanced resource mobilisation
and increases demand in multiple industry sectors.
As a result there have been calls to kick-start or 'leap-frog'
economic development through substantial investment in
connectivity, with national governments and major donors
such as the World Bank on occasion being urged to concentrate
resources on building and sustaining networks rather in
other areas such as education or anticorruption.
Other economists have been more sceptical, questioning
whether investment in public health and education might
in fact generate greater 'return on investment' in the
long term and warning that crude measures might disguise
fundamental inequities within nations (eg wired urban
elites, unwired rural poor).
It is likely that reality in different countries is quite
complex, with the greatest benefits from increased teledensity
being dependent on factors such as improved health, good
education, rule of law and social stability rather than
simplistic prescriptions to merely 'add bandwidth and
Selected teledensity figures (with data on GDP, literacy
and other variables) are provided in the Digital
Divides profile and Statistics note
elsewhere on this site. In September 2007 the ITU announced
that there were "4 billion lines worldwide"
(1.27 billion fixed lines and 2.68 billion mobile accounts),
up from less than 1 billion fixed line and mobile phone
subscribers in 1996.
next part (rankings)