Asia's telecom access gap is closing, says ITU

As broadband and wireless telephony markets surged over the last two years in several Asian nations, some of the region's least developed economies also made strides in getting basic telephone service to more people, according to an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report published on Tuesday.

The accessibility gap between the region's poorest and richest economies closed in the period between 2001 and 2003 as the price of installing a telephone line for a potential user fell in price, said Eric Nelson, an ITU consultant and author of the ITU's Asia Pacific Telecommunication Indicators report for 2004. The report was published Tuesday as ITU Telecom Asia 2004 opened to the public in Busan, South Korea.

The increase in teledensity, or the measure of the number of telephones per 100 inhabitants, grew at a rate of almost 28 percent in lower-income countries and was substantially lower in upper-income and developed countries, said Nelson. The lower starting point for poorer economies is partly due to the higher growth.

Although teledensity remains low in many of the region's poorer economies overall, it is now above 1 percent in all developing countries except one, Myanmar, where it stood at 0.81 at the end of 2003, according to Nelson's report. Other nations at the lower end of the ranking include Afghanistan at 1.18 percent, Papua New Guinea at 1.41 percent, Bangladesh at 1.56 percent, Solomon Islands at 1.62 percent and Nepal at 1.78 percent.

The region's highest teledensity was in Taiwan, which had 170.07 lines per one hundred people at the end of 2003.

A large part of the growth in most economies in Asia can be traced to mobile telephones. The number of mobile subscribers in the region passed those of fixed line subscribers in 2002, although the fixed-line network continues to grow. At the end of 2003, Asia had 480 million fixed-telephone lines, representing a compound annual growth rate of 13 percent in the 2000 to 2003 period. This growth was far higher than any other region of the globe, according to the report.

In areas such as broadband and wireless, several Asian countries, including South Korea and Japan, are at the cutting edge of technology.

The report underscored this leading position, adding that nowhere in the world can consumers purchase cheaper broadband than in Japan, where its not only cheaper on an absolute price basis at AU$43.50 per month, but also cheaper as a percentage of the average monthly income. In Japan and South Korea, 100K bps (bits per second) of Internet bandwidth costs less than a tenth of a percentage point of monthly income.

The report also touched on new wireless Internet developments, which could have far reaching implications for the region, Nelson said. For instance, new WiMax technology, which is able to send a broadband Internet signal for several miles, could become a cheap and effective way to provide coverage for numerous villages or towns or even Pacific islands from a single tower, he said.

However, Nelson warned, hurdles still exist in some markets. Resistance from governments and incumbent carriers to new services such as voice over IP (Internet Protocol) because of potential revenue loss could, for instance, slow the expansion of broadband Internet in some markets, Nelson said.

ITU Telecom Asia 2004 is taking place in Busan, South Korea, from Sept. 7 until 11.

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