Economic growth in countries is hampered by 'gross inadequacy of telecommunication facilities'. The accelerating development in the technology of semiconductors, optical fibres and satellites means that some countries, while making large investments in communications, are getting ever farther behind. Only a few years ago the most advanced integrated circuit consisted of about 10,000 components on a single chip. Today that complexity is in the range of 100,000 components per chip, and by 1990, will go up to a million. Telecommunication networks may be considered as 'the central nervous systems of complex societies'. In particular it is impossible, without adequate telephone service, to meet the growing communication needs of business, government and the professions in developing countries. Present demand so far exceeds supply that business and government entities are often forced to build uneconomic private systems for their own use.
In 1983, 1,200 million television sets and telephones concentrated largely in nine countries. World statistics for 1980 indicate that the average number of telephones in use per 100 population was: 11.5 overall in the world; 1.1 in Africa; 3.1 in Asia; 5.5 in South America; 33.9 in Europe (excluding the USSR); 42 in Oceania; and 58 in North America. 1971 figures were 55 in North America, 18 in western Europe and 22 in Japan. In 1983, three-quarters of the world's 600 million telephones were concentrated in nine countries : USA (80 telephones per 100 population); Sweden (78); UK (48); Japan (48); (West) Germany (44); Italy (31); Hong Kong (30); Spain (29); Barbados (21). Those densities, are in sharp contrast to a country such as Ethiopia which has about 0.2 per hundred.
In 1971, the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America had only 7% of all telephones, serving 61% of the world's population. In 1983 more than half of the world's population lived in countries with less than one telephone per 100 inhabitants. In such countries most telephones are concentrated in a few cities, with little or no service in many areas. Typically, there is a large gap between demand and supply; the waiting list for new connections is often greater than the number of telephones in service, and the waiting time is often several years. Many of these countries still make use of party-line systems; in Zimbabwe, for example, the average party line serves 10 subscribers. In most countries, traffic exceeds capacity, resulting in overloaded facilities and deteriorating service.
Telecommunications is a means of fulfilling the basic need to communicate. Although it is a challenge still largely to be faced, past and present cooperation, and future possibilities arising from further developments, should lead to continuing improvements in telecommunications for the Third World. These will not only be in quantifiable economic gain, but also in social benefits related to education, medicine and the sense of being part of a wider community; and they will be out of all proportion to the initial investment. The very lack of modern technology in many Third World countries may be an advantage, as it presents a possibility of choice not open to many developed nations.