News on the go: how mobile devices are changing the world's information ecosystem

8 Nov 2011

This report examines how a global information society might look with mobile media devices at its hub.

Mobile devices now reach the farthest corners of the world. By the end of 2011, about 5 billion mobile phones will be in service in a world with 7 billion people. The implications–for politics, for education, for economies, for civil society, and for news and information–are profound.

The connected society reached a milestone at the end of 2010: More than 4 billion people paid for mobile phone service. That’s six of every 10 people on the planet.

During a period of unprecedented technological innovation, the spread of a decades-old technology may seem like an obvious achievement. That is until you consider that the hand-held device has become the hub for thousands of innovations that are changing the way the world communicates.

Mobile devices now reach the farthest corners of the world. By the end of this year, about 5 billion mobile phones will be in service in a world with 7 billion people. Many will be phones with limited capabilities, but technologies are becoming so cheap that by the end of this decade virtually every phone sold will be what we now call a smart phone: a mobile communications device that goes beyond voice calls and has the capacity to run computer applications, send and receive e-mail, pinpoint locations via global positioning systems (GPS), and more.

The makers of these ubiquitous devices aim to put one in every person’s hands, everywhere. For telecommunications companies, even markets in poor, remote, or undeveloped parts of the world are worth fighting for.

The growth of both cellular and digital technology now moves to parts of the world where the lack of effective communications infrastructure has traditionally been one of the biggest obstacles to economic growth. With 100,000 phone masts erected each year, the number of places with no signal is dwindling quickly. More than 90 percent of the global population now has access. Even remote spots in Bhutan and Tibet are increasingly in reach. Busy scaling Everest’s summit? Now there’s no excuse for failing to answer your mobile at 29,000 feet. In 2007, China Telecom installed a mast near the Everest base camp as a communications tower for the Beijing Olympics torch run and as a symbol of China’s global influence.

Networks are also proliferating throughout the developing world. Developing countries now account for about two-thirds of the mobile phones in use, according to a United Nations report. Africa is the continent with the fastest growth. Penetration has soared from just one in 50 people at the beginning of this decade to about one in three today. A $50 billion investment of cellular infrastructure in the sub-Sahara region will bring access throughout the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent.

So what happens when most of the citizens of our world carry a device that gives them instant access to the world’s information?

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