A World With More Phones Than People

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A new report from the World Bank details the astounding growth of mobile since the year 2000. Then -- just 12 years ago -- there were less than a billion mobile subscriptions worldwide. Today, there are more than 6 billion and the count will "will soon exceed that of the human population," according to the Bank (it is common in many countries for one person to own multiple SIM cards). Three-quarters of the world population now has access to a mobile phone.

A comparison between mobile and landline subscriptions shows just how bananas mobile is -- both in the pace of its diffusion around the world and, today, its predominance.

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Even at the height of landline subscriptions there were "only" about one billion globally, and it took more than a century to get there. Of course, mobile and landlines require different infrastructure and most people did not have an individual landline but rather a household one. But even taking those differences into account, the spread of mobile is representative of a globalized economy in which new technologies can spread farther and faster than ever before.

Also, in contrast with landlines, mobile tech is not only a telephone but a broader multimedia device (just how broad depends on the phone). In particular, consider text messaging. Nearly five trillion (that's trillion, with a "tr") text messages were sent in 2010, more than 12 million per day. Mobile Internet use lags behind but is growing as more capable smartphones become cheaper and more widely available.

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The Bank emphasizes that the spread of mobile is an opportunity for economic growth for small businesses and better public-health outcomes, whether through personal health apps or increased access to medical personnel. 

Good side benefits, but certainly not what most people are doing with their phones -- that is to say, games and keeping in touch with friends and family (and, I might add, who can blame them?).

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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