Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: What percentage of the world has made a phone call? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   5 Comments )
Subject: What percentage of the world has made a phone call?
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: clayshirky-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 03 Jun 2002 13:08 PDT
Expires: 10 Jun 2002 13:08 PDT
Question ID: 20411
What percentage of the world has made a phone call?

In 1995, in a survey of telecommunications by The Economist magazine,
the phrase "half the world's population has never made a phone call"
first appeared (attributed to Richard Klugman or Paine Webber).

Since then, the phrase has taken on a life of its own, having been
attributed variously to Kofi Annan, Thabo Mbeki, and Charles Lee,
former CEO of GTE. Google shows hundreds of matches on the phrase,
though almost none of them attribute Klugman. It is still being used
in current debates (e.g. in Davos coverage this year,,

In some cases the statistic is actually increased, as with a speech
from April of this year inflating the figure to "most of the world"
( or an editorial
from May of 2001 claiming that an astonishing 80% of the world has
never made a phone call.

Note that the Economist, the most careful of magazines, did not even
present the original figure as factual, but rather took it as an
attributed quote. Nevertheless, if we take the figure as a correct
state of the telecosm in mid-1995, the figure can no longer be
correct, as the last 7 years have seen considerable growth in
teledensity in the developing world.

So, what approximate percentage of the world has now made a phone call
by mid-2002?

Subject: Re: What percentage of the world has made a phone call?
Answered By: cynthia-ga on 04 Jun 2002 21:20 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi Clay!

Interesting question, and after much searching and finding many of the
same roadblocks as the Commenters before me, I must say that I have
concluded the obvious: The original statement:

..."half the world's population has never made a phone call..." 

...was used for shock value, and from your links and my own
observations and long search, I must say it was successful!  Richard
Klugman or Paine Webber (?) must have only used 2 or 3 criteria in
order to come to this [wild] undocumentable conclusion.  There are far
too many other variables to state with any measurable degree of
accuracy just how many people on the planet have used a telephone.

I know you must realize this, and I suspect you're hoping someone will
go out on a limb and entertain you with a stab in the dark... All
kidding aside, I took your inquiry very seriously and gave it my
absolute best effort. Keep in mind that there is no way to determine
the actual correct number/percentage, but using the Internet and a
healthy dose of patience and common sense, I was able to arrive at
what I consider to be a well researched and thought out response that
is very close to whatever the "real" number IS.

I don't want to make you wait to the end of my long explanation and
documentation to give you my answer, so here it is:

..."what approximate percentage of the world has now made a phone call
by mid-2002?..."

Approximately 67.28755%

This was a very interesting question to research, and it's questions
like this one that is the reason I love Internet Research. I learn not
one new thing, but about 20-25 new things, every single day.

Please keep in mind that I'm positive there are alternate statistics
and figures that would or could substantially change this final result
by a few million, and as mvguy-ga pointed out -- many people could
cite different results, however I am happy with the number. After
reading your links and considering your commentary with the question,
it sounds about right.

This slide illustrates the considerable growth in Global Teledensity
that you mentioned:

Teledensity Evolution - Mainlines By Region

Indeed, the exact international telephone subscriber and telephone
access/usage statistics are difficult to locate, however they are
available on the Internet. What is not measurable or available is the
number of people that use someone else's telephone, or only use
payphones, so my factual answer will be limited to installed
telephones and cellular phones. When I began this hunt I wasn't going
to consider cell phones but as the day wore on I began to realize that
in developing countries many population segments are now able to use a
phone because of cellular service. There is no way to run a landline
but there is a huge cellular phone market that caters to areas of the
world that don't have regular telephone service within hundreds of
miles, let alone a couple miles. I don't think the number of cellular
subscribers in developing countries/rural areas that have NEVER used a
landline is high enough to substantially change the figure considering
*most* cellular users are in developed countries. I also don't think
business telephones would change the number too much, --in my humble
opinion, because anyone that has used a telephone at work has also
used a telephone somewhere else that is covered in my guestimate
below. I don't know if it's possible to estimate the number of people
that don't have access to a phone but have borrowed one --or use
public telephones exclusively, however by combining statistics and
common sense with worldwide family size/housing statistics -as
reported to the United Nations, I think a fair guestimate can be

Please forgive the fact that not all the numbers given here are recent
or even from the same year, or source. International statistics are
only as accurate as the last census or data gathering, and not all
countries conduct censuses regularly. I used the most recent figures I
could find in every case.

Reference this link at the United Nations on the availability of
recent census data worldwide:

Population and housing census dates (Worldwide)

To arrive at an educated guestimate for you I decided to use the
planet's population and the number of installed telephone lines, both
fairly reliable figures, and then rationally consider how to determine
how many other people [beyond the telephone subscriber] --that don't
have a telephone of their own have used a subscribers, or public

Global Teledensity as of mid 2001 - 12.5% (10% increase over 2000)
SOURCE: BuddeComm Market Report
This figure includes cellular subscribers.

Using that same 10% increase we arrive at 13.75% in 2002

Number of main telephone lines/subscribers worldwide -
1,115,000,000(**below) (2002)
SOURCE: Key Global Telecom Indicators for the World Telecommunication
Service Sector
This figure does not include cellular subscribers.

At this stage we can safely conclude that between 13.75% and 17.9% of
the world's population is a telephone subscriber, and has used said

I am going to split the difference in the 2 numbers and call it
15.825% global teledensity.

Number of people on the planet - 6,228,772,626 (note, this changes
SOURCE: World POPClock Projection - US Census Bureau

To attempt to answer your question, one must estimate how many people
that don't have their own telephone have used someone else's phone or
a public telephone. I think it is safe to assume that --at a minimum,
all members in a household with a telephone installed would have used
that telephone too.

Moving along... I found a Web site that details the average number of
rooms per dwelling in 6 different developed countries:

Comparative International Statistics
Average number of rooms per family dwelling - worldwide: 4.465

By averaging these numbers we get 4.465 rooms per dwelling. I am
comfortable with this figure considering undeveloped countries are
less likely to have telephones installed or the means to purchase and
subscribe to cellular service.

Next we have the United Nations figures on the average number of
persons per room in a family dwelling, internationally:

Average number of persons per room - worldwide - 1.096
SOURCE: United Nations Statistics Division - Indicators on housing

4.465 X 1.096 = 4.89364 people per dwelling, worldwide.

I feel the best way to arrive at the answer from here is to take
13.75% of the world population of 6,228,772,626 and multiply it by the
average number of people per dwelling, worldwide: 4.89364. This method
makes the large assumption that the teledensity figure assumes each
telephone accounted for --is in fact-- in a family dwelling.

Population X World Teledensity:
6,228,772,626 X 13.75% = 856,456,236.075

Result X # persons likely to use each phone:
856,456,236.075 X 4.89364 = 4,191,188,495.1

Then, we can figure what this percentage result is of the original

6,228,772,626 - 4,191,188,495.1 = 67.28755%

** (from above) See the same statistic (1,115,000,000) broken down by
country.  Please note that although the countries are listed
separately there are totals at the bottom.  Although I used the bottom
line number, a more accurate estimate could be determined by
considering each countries average family-size with their actual phone
line subscriber density numbers.

Direct links to hard numbers on installed phone lines by country: 

Teledensity of Countries/Territories - (main telephone lines per 100

(NOTE: These next 2 files are in PDF Format, if you need to you can
download Adobe here: )

Basic indicators: Population, GDP, total telephone subscribers and
total telephone subscribers per 100 people - Year: 2001 

Main telephone lines, subscribers per 100 people - Year: 2001

I found the 2 above links here:
International Telecommunication Union - Free Statistics

This next link is mainly commentary with some charts and combines a
discussion of International communication in relation to Internet
access with telephone line penetration and usage. Internet access is
most easily measured by looking at telephone line penetration per
capita, so this is the avenue that finally garnered results. This link
succeeds in explaining the WHY of low percentages of access to
communication devices: Internet and Telephone.

Telecom Reform - Interpreting Current Statistics
..."For most of the world, the real digital divide is what is shown in
Figure 1 above  access to the telecom network. The statistics on this
divide are of higher quality and cover a much longer time period. They
clearly document the fundamental barrier to the participation of most
of the world in any telecom network services. Common sense suggests
that low-income levels in poor countries will limit participation in
any network service. However, the existence of ten-year waiting lists
for service; the stunning success of prepaid mobile service in poor,
previously unserved areas of poor countries; and experiences..."
(click link to continue sentence, bottom of page 6) 

Other links of interest that I found in my search:

Plunkett Research, Ltd. - Telecommunications Industry Statistics

Plunkett's Telecommunications Industry Almanac (buy the book)
Includes basic telecommunications usage statistics, worldwide, by
..."This massive reference book's market research section provides
complete access to the U.S. telecommunications and communications
industry. This section includes 19 major statistical tables covering
everything from the world's top fixed line and wireless service
providers, to the number of telephone subscribers worldwide, to
Telecommunications Equipment Estimates and Forecasts. Finally, in this
massive, carefully-researched 525 page volume, you will receive an
abundance of data on: national and global telecommunications
statistics, new telecommunications technology, telecommunications
market forecasts, telecommunications trends and leading
telecommunications companies..."

World Telecommunication Indicators Database (annual subscription or
single-use fee applies)
..."The World Telecommunication Indicators Database contains time
series data for the years 1960, 1965, 1970 and annually from 1975-2001
for around 80 sets of telecommunication statistics (updated) covering
telephone network size and dimension, mobile services, quality of
service, traffic, staff, tariffs, revenue and investment. Selected
demographic, macro-economic, broadcasting and information technology
statistics are also included. Data for over 200 economies are

Search terms used at Google:

telephone +usage +worldwide +statistics
telephone +usage +global +statistics
"never made a telephone call"
"telephone usage statistics" +global
"telephone usage" +global
"telephone usage" +worldwide
"global telephone usage"
"worldwide telephone usage"
"telephone usage" international
Teleaccessibility +global
Telephone +access +demographics
teledensity +global

And many other combinations of the above words...

I hope this gives you food for thought! Thanks for the mental workout!

clayshirky-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Incredible work! Thanks so much; you're underpaid -- I wonder how I
can increase the fee for the question?


Subject: Re: What percentage of the world has made a phone call?
From: mvguy-ga on 03 Jun 2002 21:48 PDT
It's possible that the numbers could be determined (or guessed at)
based on the figures in this report:
The executive summary (which can be downloaded for free) gives quite a
few interesting statistics. However, the numbers are broken down by
country and type of economy; worldwide figures aren't given.
Subject: Re: What percentage of the world has made a phone call?
From: xemion-ga on 03 Jun 2002 22:10 PDT
Also look at these statistics:

Worldwide totals are at the bottom.
Subject: Re: What percentage of the world has made a phone call?
From: izzard-ga on 04 Jun 2002 01:17 PDT
I don't believe it is possible to find a definitive answer to this
question.  A brief scan of the results of a search for the phrase
"never used a telephone" reveals estimates of "just under half the
population", "just over half the world", "39%", "70%", "more than
half", etc, etc.  Most of these, as you suggest, will simply be
chinese whispers.
Subject: Re: What percentage of the world has made a phone call?
From: mvguy-ga on 04 Jun 2002 09:31 PDT
The figures that Xemion found make it pretty clear that statements
such as "80 percent of the world's people haven't made or received a
phone call" (yes, I ran across figures that high) are balderdash.  It
might be the case, however, that that many are unable to make phone
calls from home.  In the Third World, at least in places I've been,
many people without phones at home make calls at telephone offices. 
If we're looking at just the adult population, it looks like there's
about one phone line for every two people or so.  Since people without
their own phones may be able to make calls from work or from telephone
offices, my semi-educated guess is that the figure of adults never
having made a phone call is around 20 percent.  Somewhere, there are
probably figures to back up (or reject) my assumptions.
Subject: Re: What percentage of the world has made a phone call?
From: cynthia-ga on 16 Jul 2002 14:53 PDT
Thanks for the excellent rating Clay... I doubt there is a way to
increase the fee I receive for this answer, but I appreciate the
thought very much. I enjoyed answering your question very much, thanks
for the brain-work-out!


Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy