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section heading icon     teledensity

This page considers teledensity: a measure (or basket of measures) of national and regional connectivity.

It covers -

Examples of those measures are found here, in the Digital Divides profile and in the discussion of audience measurement elsewhere on this site.

subsection heading icon     introduction

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, personal computers).

Some writers, adopting the 1984 Independent Commission for World-Wide Telecommunications Development study (Maitland Report) (PDF), refer to a 'teledensity gap' to characterise the -

  • major difference in teledensity in advanced versus developing economies (eg 0.1 lines per 100 people in Afghanistan and 67 lines per 100 in Canada)
  • expensiveness of connectivity in advanced and developing economies (in terms of percentage of personal income)
  • differences in service in those economies (with for example delays of months or yours in provisioning and repairing lines).

Teledensity 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).

subsection heading icon     basis and questions

Traditional teledensity has measured infrastructure, on the basis that -

  • 'raw 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)
  • integration of that data (eg expressing it on a per capita basis) and publication was trivial
  • there 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.

International 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

  • emphasises individual (rather than community) access
  • ignores other access mechanisms
  • is 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

Others 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 Boy Scouts).

Some of the more subtle contemporary infrastructure metrics include variables such as -

  • telecommunication personnel per line
  • length of time waiting to acquire a landline
  • length of time while landline is out of order
  • cost to acquire a line or device
  • cost of ongoing access (eg line rental charges).

subsection heading icon     indicators

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 -

  • fixed 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).

Those infrastructure and access measures might be supplemented by an 'extended core' -

  • radio receivers per 100 inhabitants
  • television receivers per 100 inhabitants

Proposed 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
  • proportion of individuals who used the net (from any location) in the past year
  • location of individual use of the net in the past year -
    • a) at home;
    • b) at work;
    • c) place of education;
    • d) at another person's home;
    • e) community internet access facility
    • f) commercial internet access facility
    • g) other
  • internet activities undertaken by individuals in the past year -
    • getting 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
    • communicating
    • purchasing or ordering goods or services
    • internet banking
    • 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.

An '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 of access
  • 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 a month.

Core measures for access by business are -

  • proportion 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.

The '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 -
    • sending 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 services
    • dealing with government organisations/public authorities
    • providing customer services
    • delivering products online.

Proposed 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.

The ITU comments that 'categories of access' in relation to the net should

allow 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.

There 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.

subsection heading icon     application

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 -

  • overall teledensity and GDP
  • growth in teledensity and growth in GDP, along with improvement in other areas such as mortality

That 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 stir'.

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.

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version of September 2007
© Bruce Arnold
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