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How Many Cell Phones in the World

SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- Within the tender span of a decade, the cellular telephone has wiggled its way into just about every social crevice on planet earth — becoming the new patchwork technology that now holds the social fabric of the world together. As of 2009, 60% of the humans on earth are reported by the [...]

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SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- Within the tender span of a decade, the cellular telephone has wiggled its way into just about every social crevice on planet earth — becoming the new patchwork technology that now holds the social fabric of the world together.

As of 2009, 60% of the humans on earth are reported by the UN to possess a cellular telephone, 75% of which are in developing countries. There are now 5 billion cell phone subscriptions current active in the world. Just ten years ago, this number was, relatively speaking, next to nil. This technology has not only proliferated itself evenly over the face of the globe, but it has inveigle itself deeply within the cultural matrix of almost every country on the planet. Without regard for race, culture, background, or even location, the cell phone has become the prime medium through which people communicate on earth.

In the ten years since I began traveling, the way that my species communicates has changed drastically. It is now a very strange act to not have a mobile phone connected to you at all times. The cell phone has permeated itself into the collective culture of the planet — it is how humans communicate.

It is my impression that if you have a job, you can have a cell phone — they are priced to match nearly every income. But there is also a paradox at work here, as you now virtually NEED a mobile phone to have a job. Societies have been restructured all across the world to depend on the cell phone, especially in regards to employment. There are now few exceptions to this rule: even the lowest paid members of just about ANY society carry cell phones, and a good number of them, I am sure, must do so to stay employable.

The cell phone has grown from being an upper class toy to a real necessity for any person desirous of a job on planet earth in only ten years.

I can remember when I was trying to land an English teaching job in China around four years ago, I remember how no employer would even consider hiring me without a cell phone. I out rightly refused to carry one then — I would rather not work than engage in the power play of being “on call” at all hours. I would even be laughed out interviews for teaching jobs that I was otherwise qualified for:

“You don’t have a cell phone huh, huh, huh. How will we contact you?”
The mobile phone had already been so ingrained into the communication structure of Chinese society that people really had no idea that there were other ways to contact me. No, there were no longer any other ways.

Offering to potential employers in China that we could draw out a work schedule in advance was an overtly archaic suggestion, the society now works on the premise that appointments can be made and canceled at the push of a button. Work schedules, prior arrangements, and confirming that I would be somewhere at a certain time was not enough: I was still on an old model, the new world required that I could be contacted at any time to make ever shifting appointments. The world is now perpetually adjustable.

To work almost anywhere in the world demands that you follow the communication conventions of the society where you seek employment, you need to play by the rules of engagement. In this case the modus operandi of communication on planet earth is the cell phone. The working world no longer knows how to function without cellular communication, the personnel infrastructure of the planet is now 100% dependent on each member being easily contact each member at any time. I repeat, if you want to work on this planet –especially outside of the USA — you almost need to have a cellular telephone connected to you at all times.

The communication practices of world culture have been completely restructure in the past 10 years. It is amazing how quickly this happened, how quickly nearly every culture on the planet has created a similar social dependence on the cell phone. In 2002, only 15% of the world carried cell phones, this number is now far over 60%, and global cell subscriptions are predicted to go over the 5 billion mark this year.

5 billion active cell phones for 6.8 billion people.

Contrary to easy assumption, the cell phone was culturally absorbed with vastly more speed and porosity in many developing countries than in the USA. I believe I was in the mountain city of Huanaco in Peru in 2001 when I looked around for the first time and realized that everyone around me had cell phones. This left me dumb struck. At this time in the USA — a mighty, rich, 1st world country — the cell phone was just becoming popular, but in Peru — a technologically archaic, poorer, developing nation — the cell phone was already distributed across the country: it had already become a part of the culture, the common way for people to communicate.

Last year when traveling through the Balkans, Chaya and I would attempt to use Couchsurfing.org whenever we could find places to sleep. In nearly every occasion, the proposed method to meet up was for use to call the host on their cell phone when we arrived in their city. At our mention that we did not have a cell phone, our prospective hosts were often very hard pressed to come up with another solution as to how we could meet. “Just borrow someone else’s phone and call me,” was usually the only alternative.

Communicating through a cell phone is now not only a convenience but is a fundamental part of the way people function — all over the earth.

I had been so foolish as to believe that we could just meet up with our Couchsurfing host at a certain place at a certain time — a truly archaic idea. The cell phone has allowed people to further optimize and structure their time, or to remain lazy: you don’t need to go and wait to meet someone if they just call you when they get there.

“In Africa, money is for buying cell phones,” Andy Hobotraveler.com once said to me in Guatemala. It is true: the developing countries are the ones driving this cell phone mania, they are the ones where this technology is becoming an inseparable and thoroughly integrated part of the society. The cell phone provides a way to contact a person without needing to get up out of your hammock and go find them. The cell phone truly meshes in well with tropical cultures.

It is my impression that the cell phone communication industry follows the economic globalization model with precise acuteness. It is a system that works “as designed.“ If globalization is a model which seeks to make every man and woman on planet earth a player in a mutual economy, then the cell phone industry has made this a reality. This is truly a “no consumer left behind” mission, and as I travel the world I can see that it is working: nearly every person who maintains an active a role within their society carries a cellular telephone with them at all times. 75% of the world’s cell phone subscriptions are in developing countries, in only eight years cell phone access has grown from 15% to over 60% of the people on the planet.

The business model for the next era is that it is better to sell something to 5 billion people cheap than to 1 billion expensive.

The international cell communications merchants have mastered commerce in a globalizing world: they have created a product that just about any person with an income can afford, anywhere in the world. Rather than shooting to sell a product that only 2 out of every 10 people on earth can afford, the cell phone moguls have priced their products cheap enough to attempt to take a cut from 8 out of 10 humans respectively. It is better to charge five billion people a little money than 1 billion a lot. There is a phone for nearly any budget on the planet — seemingly, if a person has any amount of money at all a cell phone is the first thing they will buy.

All modern travelers have stories about how they have seemingly met the poorest of the poor in some destitute human desert on the planet just to hear a ringing sound come from their pocket and a cell phone revealed. Buddhist monks in Asia seeming send their mantras through text messages, at the Ak-Tenamit NGO in the jungle of Guatemala the girls carry their phones in between their breast, and it is not uncommon to find a man begging while talking on his mobile phone.

From the meekest of the impoverished to the most extravagant of the affluent, if you live on the money system of exchange on planet earth, there is a good chance that you carry a cell phone. If you don’t have a cell phone you truly must be one poor schmuck.

I bought a pay as you go cell phone yesterday in El Salvador. It cost $10 and came pre-charged with $6 worth of call time. As far as value is concerned, the phone itself only cost $4. To put more minutes on the phone I just need to take it to a recharging station — they are at numerous mini marts and stores all around the country — and pay around 12 cents per minute. If I take it to a Claro store — the company the phone is issued through — then I will get double the minutes for the price, or 6 cents per minute.

Most countries in the world run cell phone subscriptions pay as you go. It is my impression that this is far more common than subscriptions dealing with compulsory monthly bills or endless contracts. Most of the world just pays for the time they want to use and then recharges their phone when the minutes run out. If you don’t want the phone anymore, just chuck it, nobody is going to come chasing after you.

There are few worries associated with purchasing a cell phone in most countries of the world. There are no questions if you will be able to afford it in the future if you loose your job, no uncertainty if you will have money for the phone a few months from now: no, if you don’t have money for more minutes then your phone simply sits idle, you owe nothing (though maybe you will still carry it around with you to fit in with the majority 60% of the planet). If you have the money in your pocket right now, you can get a phone. The pay as you go model makes the future irrelevant.

In addition to the cheap price of cell phones, it is my impression that this live for today, no worries for tomorrow “pay as you go” business model is what has truly made the cell phone accessible to such a large portion of the human population. The developing world knows that their economic situation is perpetually terse and often tumultuous, to try to lock these people into a contract is to make your product inaccessible.

And accessibility is what has made this viral spread of cellular technology revolutionary: nearly everybody on the planet wants, needs, and, more importantly, can afford to access this new form of communication.

Soon, I believe, nearly every cell phone — no matter how cheap — will come with the ability to access the internet. When this is done the revolution will be complete, the makeover of the human species would have reached its climax, the world will then be roped into the same bag, Facebook will become our face, and the internet will be taken as seriously as the world we tread upon. Prometheus still deals in fire.

The study of archaeology is the study of culture as seen through technology. Every archaeologist knows that technology is not only a part of a culture, it is the culture. Our thought patterns, intelligence, physical abilities, community organization, and communication strategies are based on the tools we use.

I refused to carry a cell phone for many years. I simply did not want to be called, I did not want to be accessed. Though I must admit, I now carry a cell phone. I carry three of them. To live abroad without a phone is to make yourself a non person, un hombre incognito. People do not just walk over to your house and knock on your door anymore — no, they call you on a cell phone. This is the new etiquette of the post cell phone world. I think it may be considered rude to try to contact a person outside of this mechanism. If your number is not in a person’s contact list, there is a good chance you will not be contacted. On a certain level, without a cell phone you are outside of the bounds of communication, virtually inaccessible — you are limpdicked, inconsequential, you have no roll in the society, you are outside of the circle of communication.

This is the world that we now live in: even vagabonds must carry cell phones. Everybody has finger prints, and everybody now has a number. The “fear the future” conspiracies once warned us of the doomsday when everybody in the world will be ordered, ranked, filed, and numbered. This day has now come: our numbers are the ones that are dialed when we are called on our cellular telephones.

Wade Patrick Shepard = 001-207-951-0400

My phone will ring anywhere in the world.


  • Cell phone subscriptions hit 5 billion globally
  • What percentage of cell phone subscriptions are in developing countries?
  • 60 percent of world’s population have cell phones

Claro cell phone truck selling phones in the streets of El Salvador.

Cell phone store in El Salvador.

Claro cell phone that I paid ten dollars for which includes six dollars of call time.

El Salvador Travel Guide | El Salvador Photos


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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Economics, El Salvador, Technology

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

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  • amandaK April 26, 2010, 2:28 pm

    I just read this on my cell phone. Even vagabonds must have cell phones now.
    There are certainly many positive aspects to being connected to the world.
    But it is also another thing to tie you down. I think the pay as you go is a better option than a monthly bill for a wanderer.

    Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 26, 2010, 9:58 pm

      Right on! These cell phones are great tools for traveling webmasters.

      I think your new Droid could be a great thing for your blogging. If there is a Wordpress ap for it then it is real easy.

      Link Reply
  • Bob L April 26, 2010, 3:23 pm

    *On a certain level, without a cell phone you are outside of the bounds of communication, virtually inaccessible — you are limpdicked, inconsequential, you have no roll in the society, you are outside of the circle of communication.*

    Something to strive for!!!!!!

    Bob L

    Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 26, 2010, 9:59 pm

      Ha ha, this is probably why I did not start using a cell phone until last year.

      Link Reply
  • Francis Tapon September 24, 2011, 3:54 pm

    I didn’t have a cell phone whenever I walked across America (4-7 month journey) and I didn’t have one during half of my 3 years in Eastern Europe. As a travel writer, there are benefits of being disconnected.
    I’m no Luddite: I got a cell phone again about 1 month ago. There are huge benefits. But I often miss being disconnected. 🙂 Luckily, you can always simulate the experience by turning the cell phone off. 🙂

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    • Wade Shepard September 28, 2011, 1:12 pm

      Yeah man, those cell phones are a tricky technology. You realize how much you use one once you have one, but when you don’t have one anymore it feels like a relief. Beyond a year long Blackberry Global data plan, I’ve never really had a cell phone. This is not an idealistic stance at all, it is just something that I don’t want to have to bother with when changing locations constantly haha.

      Have fun on your book tour. Looking forward to digging into the Hidden Europe, which is about a truly interested part of this planet.

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