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A Kenyan man talks on a mobile phone in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Developing countries now account for about two-thirds of cellphones in use, according to the March 2009 report from the International Telecommunication Union. ((Khalil Senosi/Associated Press))

Six in 10 people around the world now have cellphone subscriptions, signalling that mobile phones are the communications technology of choice, particularly in poor countries, a UN agency reported Monday.

By the end of last year there were an estimated 4.1 billion subscriptions globally, compared with about one billion in 2002, the International Telecommunication Union said.

Fixed line subscriptions increased at a much slower pace, to 1.27 billion from about one billion over the same period.

"There has been a clear shift to mobile cellular telephony," the agency said, noting that developing countries now account for about two-thirds of cellphones in use. In 2002, less than half of mobile subscriptions globally were in the developing world, it said.

Internet use more than doubled. An estimated 23 per cent of people on the planet used the Internet last year, up from 11 per cent in 2002. Poor countries still lag far behind on Internet access, with only one in 20 people in Africa going online in 2007, the most recent year for which firm figures were available.

Fixed broadband increased to almost 20 per cent in rich countries, while globally just over one in 20 had access to fast Internet connections at home.

The Geneva-based agency recorded the sharpest rise in mobile broadband subscriptions. The technology, which allows users to access the web at high speed with mobile devices, was available to three per cent of people worldwide, increasing to 14 per cent in developed countries.

Canada drops to 19th in ranking

The 106-page report also ranked countries according to how advanced their use of information and communications technology (ICT) is. Sweden came first, followed by South Korea, which had high ratings despite lower per capita income than most of its peers.

"The (South Korean) government has pursued a very active ICT-focused policy, making the ICT sector one of its priorities," said Susan Teltscher, who leads the agency's statistics division.

Denmark came third, ahead of the Netherlands, Iceland and Norway.

Small, densely populated countries such as 7th-ranked Luxembourg and 11th-ranked Hong Kong also did well, while large developing countries like China (ranked 73rd) and India (ranked 118th) were hampered by the size of their populations.

Canada dropped from ninth place in 2002 to 19th in 2007, trailing the United States and Ireland. Canada improved in communication technology access and usage, the report said, but other countries improved at a faster rate.

Myanmar was the only country where access and use indicators dropped in absolute terms. Internet bandwidth in the Southeast Asian country dropped 90 per cent during the five-year period.

Myanmar's military government has cracked down on Internet use by dissident groups, temporarily shutting down international connections and jailing bloggers.

Digital divide remains

The so-called 'digital divide' between rich and poor countries remained unchanged between 2002 and 2007.

"Despite significant improvements in the developing world, the gap between the ICT haves and have-nots remains," the report found.

Teltscher said the global economic recession would likely affect the development of telecommunications technology around the world.

"In terms of consumer demand and uptake, there will probably be a little bit of slowdown in the growth, but we are not expecting any decline," she said. "People who have a mobile phone are unlikely to give up on it."