Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011
 
Connectivity
Information and Communications Technology
Data source: International Telecommunication Union (ITU), World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Database

The expansion of mobile cellular networks and popularization of mobile phones have been driving growth in information and communications technology (ICT) in Asia and the Pacific, and the world, over the past decade. Internet infrastructure is quickly expanding but has not yet reached a similar level of coverage. Mobile phone ownership and Internet access between and within countries is uneven, exacerbating socioeconomic disparities.

Access to telephones

The ICT growth rates over the past decade, in particular mobile telephones, in the region have been impressive; a promising indication of improved income levels as well as declining costs of equipment and user fees. The growth has been driven by many countries, including the two most populous countries of China and India, which between 2005 and 2009 experienced an annual growth in mobile subscriptions of 17% and 55%, respectively. Those two countries alone added an impressive 284 million subscriptions in 2009. Note that the number of persons who acquired their first phone would be smaller than that, as some people may have more than one mobile subscription. Another measurement consideration is that mobile phone usage figures are reported as the number of subscribers per 100 population; however, in most cases mobile phones are owned by adults not children. Thus, if mobile subscriptions rates were calculated per 100 adults, the pattern in subscription rates may be slightly different.

The desired benefits of mobile phone use can be seen in the services provided through mobile phones (i.e., mobile applications or “apps”) to the mass of subscribers. Receiving less publicity but having greater socio-economic impact are the applications that are designed specifically for people previously unconnected and usually in low-income population groups. The low-income users have become connected with digital markets through simple text-based phones and can benefit from services such as mobile banking. Mobile phones are also useful for disseminating information that benefits the public – for example, health-awareness messages and disaster warnings.

The average mobile subscriber growth rate among Asian and Pacific countries between 2005 and 2009 was 26%, the world average growth rate during that period was lower at 21%, bringing Asia and the Pacific closer to the world average.

Despite impressive growth in low and lowermiddle income countries, mobile phone use is still uneven among countries. However, as the upper-middle and the high income countries are becoming saturated with cell phone subscriptions, the low and middle income countries may close this connectivity gap.

Figure IV.1 – Mobile cellular subscription growth rate by country grouping, 2007, 2008 and 2009

Figure IV.1 – Mobile cellular subscription growth rate by country grouping, 2007, 2008 and 2009

Figure IV.2 – Mobile cellular subscription by country grouping, 2007, 2008 and 2009

Figure IV.2 – Mobile cellular subscription by country grouping, 2007, 2008 and 2009

Analysis of the variations within the Asian and Pacific region highlights the radical differences between lower-middle income countries and upper-middle income countries, with the latter showing a higher proportion of mobile penetration than among high income countries. The differences in mobile subscription rates among the more advanced ICT user markets are due to various policy and socio-economic factors, including development of standards (GSM, 2G and 3G, for example), consumer demand for mobile services and availability of applications for mobile phones such as mobile payment. In Malaysia, an upper-middle income country, the 2009 penetration rate reached 108% in contrast with 92% in high income Japan.

Connectivity in a few countries (such as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Myanmar, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu) is far below that of the rest of the region for a range of geographical, cultural, policy and economic reasons.

The disproportionate access in Pacific island developing economies is related to the difficulty of providing access to thousands of sparsely populated islands where there is only negligible profit opportunities for commercial service providers. The principal islands of Fiji, Guam, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea can access global communications systems for mobile telephone and Internet use via undersea cables; many other islands, however, must rely on satellite-based communications. Private operators that have emerged in recent years have been able to improve ICT access in urban areas on the larger islands. Significant improvement in access elsewhere would require the help of development partners and/or new technological breakthroughs. In Kiribati, whose islands are dispersed over 3.5 million square kilometres, only 1% of the population can access mobile networks. The more populous centres of Samoa and New Caledonia enjoy over 80% penetration; Palau registered 65%, Tonga 51% and Vanuatu 54% in 2009. Vanuatu more than tripled its rate, from 16% to 54%, in a single year.

Measuring the “digital divide”

The International Telecommunications Union has developed the ICT development index (IDI), a composite index composed of 11 indicators that cover ICT access, use and skills to measure the so-called “digital divide” between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of access to digital services such as mobile telephone and the Internet. Apart from the indicators described in this chapter, the index includes computer ownership, adult literacy rates and gross enrolment ratios of secondary and tertiary education as proxies of ICT skills.1

The IDI uses four tiers – high, upper, medium and low – in rating countries by ICT development levels. In 2008, the Asia-Pacific countries of Australia; Hong Kong, China; Japan; Republic of Korea; Macao, China; New Zealand; and Singapore ranked in the high range of ICT access, use and skills. The low range of rankings included the Asia-Pacific countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Papua New Guinea. Interestingly, India ranked in the low range despite its fast-growing economy and very rapid increase in mobile usage; however, neither the technology nor ICT skills have reached all parts of the population – in 2009, only 44% of the Indian population had a mobile cellular subscription, 5.1% used the Internet and 0.6% had access to broadband.

Internet and broadband

As the world embraces new Internet standards, such as “cloud computing” and ubiquitous mobile access through smart phones, tablets and mini computers, those who do not have access are at a technological disadvantage. The third-generation mobile networks (3G), which help drive demand for mobile services, can provide relatively reliable access to basic Internet service. However, mobile Internet services and prerequisite devices for access are not affordable for many people in the region.

Although the number of Internet users in Asia and the Pacific in 2009 was more than five times higher than in 2000, the overall Internet usage rate in the region was only 20% in 2009, well below the world average of 27%. However, the 2005-2009 average annual growth rate, 21%, was much higher than the world average of 15%. In 2009, the number of Internet users grew faster in the low income countries than other income groups. Similar to mobile access, many Pacific Island developing economies have very low Internet access; further, between 2005 and 2009 the average growth rate of Internet users was only 8.3% with just 3.6% of the total population having access in 2009.

Among the subregions, most Internet users are found in East and North-East Asia – over 530 million in 2009 – with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea leading the way. At the other end, the vast Pacific subregion (excluding Australia and New Zealand) held just 617,000 users.

Of a total 820 million Internet users in Asia and the Pacific in 2009, only 200 million used fixed-line broadband for their access. Most broadband users lived in East and North-East Asia (154 million) while the Pacific (excluding Australia and New Zealand) had only 93,000 broadband users in 2009.

Figure IV.3 – Cumulative numbers of Internet users, Asia-Pacific subregions, 2000-2009

Figure IV.3 – Cumulative numbers of Internet users, Asia-Pacific subregions, 2000-2009

Figure IV.4 – Cumulative numbers of fixed-line broadband Internet subscribers, Asia-Pacific subregions, 2000-2009

Figure IV.4 – Cumulative numbers of fixed-line broadband Internet subscribers, Asia-Pacific subregions, 2000-2009

South and South-West Asia has the largest untapped potential for expansion, as just 1 person in every 100 there were able to access the Internet through fixed broadband in 2009. The subregion has far to go in catching up with China (at 7.8%), and even farther from the Internet leader, the Republic of Korea (at 34%).

One new innovation that may result in overcoming gaps in Internet access is the text-only version of Facebook launched in 2010 in partnership with selected mobile operators. The new service permits users to access the Facebook network, and send and receive text messages, worldwide and free of charge. The opportunity to capture billions of first-time Internet users is so large that this company and mobile operators are subsidizing the airtime. In the upcoming years, this example could be followed by other enterprises or governments.

Broadband for enhancing connectivity and socio-economic development

Internet broadband connections open users’ access to an almost unlimited supply of content. People and institutions are challenged to change daily routines that involve analysis and delivery of education, health and financial services, to leveraging information for knowledge, to connecting and interacting with each other.

At the same time, the unprecedented technological opportunity for development may widen existing digital and innovation divides. The connectivity in Europe and North America is faster, cheaper and more efficient than in most countries within the Asia-Pacific region; also within the region a gap by income group is evident.

Broadband connections can be established using fixed telephone lines or high-grade mobile networks. Fixed line, dial-up connections are limited by the small number of phone lines in the region. In 2009, the Asian and Pacific region had 15 fixed lines per 100 population. Where available, mobile networks provide wireless Internet connectivity at speeds superior to fixed-line, dial-up connections. They can deliver high-value-added services designed for such networks. If used to their full potential, they could go far in connecting the unconnected – the high speeds facilitate downloading of video, audio and photographic material, thus enabling exchange of content-rich information that, over time, could help extend the knowledge-base of currently underserved communities.


1 Measuring the Information Society, ITU, 2010, Available from http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/publications/idi/2010/Material/ MIS_2010_without_annex_4-e.pdf; Note: For ranking see page 45.
 
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