In the worldwide race to roll out wireless telephone service, the U.S. is the out-of-shape Sunday jogger running in the midst of an elite marathon team.
Growth in cell phone usage in the U.S. is expected to begin to plateau in 2004, due in part to carriers reluctance to build infrastructure in underserved rural areas. But in other countries, where wireless networks still are cheaper to construct than fixed-line phone systems, where phone customers are used to paying by the minute for local and long-distance calls and new products are quickly deployed, wireless already is nipping at the heels of traditional telephone.
According to the Personal Communications Industry Association and Telecompetition, in 2000, 57 percent of U.S. households used cell phones — paltry compared with Singapore, where about 72 percent of residents subscribe to mobile service.
Khoong Hock Yun, assistant CEO of the infocomm development group of Singapores Infocomm Development Authority, a government-sponsored telecom overseer, said fixed-line penetration is about 49 percent. Singapores "tech-savvy, cosmopolitan" population is quick to adopt services sold by the countrys "three very cooperative mobile operators with common platforms."
Fees for service in the U.S. tend to be higher than in Europe and Asia. Khoong estimated that the average Singapore user spends about $22 per month, or 6 cents per minute. U.S. subscribers average about $42 per month.
Australian carrier Telstra says mobile and landline penetration are about equal, at 60 percent, but predicts Australian mobile usage will outpace landlines this year.
In countries such as China, mobile phone usage surpasses landline because its cheaper and easier to rely on cell phones, rather than build landline infrastructure. In the Scandinavian countries, cell phones outnumber landline phones partly because the region is home to Nokia, which offers subscribers cutting-edge technology.
In Europe, the PCIA, the European Information Technology Observatory and the U.K.s Office of Telecommunications estimate mobile voice penetration at 93 percent for Italy, 90 percent for the U.K. and 74 percent for Germany.
Competition is the driving force behind the high number of European wireless users. Most countries only use two platforms, with global system for mobile communication dominating. That makes it easy for subscribers to switch carriers and encourages carriers to offer cutting-edge services to lure customers.
In France, the government is partnering with private industry to ensure that the entire country is wireless-ready by 2004. Currently, only 8 percent of French households fall outside wireless network coverage areas; the government wants 100 percent penetration in an effort to tout the nations high-tech capabilities. About 55 percent of French citizens use cell phones today.