As of 2017 two-thirds of the world population is using cell phones. That’s five billion people with cell phones and many of them with more than one. The gr0wth in cell phone use has been phenomenal. There were one billion users in 2003, two billion in in 2007, three billion by 2010 and four billion by 2013.
The rapid spread of cell phones had the most impact in poor countries with few phones of any kind and little or no Internet use. The cell phone became simultaneously the first phone and personal computer most people got their hands on because by 2008 most cell phones were both. In the poorest countries many people used texting (it's cheaper) most of the time but their cell phones give them an unprecedented ability to send, and receive information, to or from anywhere in the world. This has brought on many changes.
The cell phone was more than a social revolution. These cheap and compact devices phones revolutionized life and culture in poor countries. Before cell phones came along few people in poor nations had phones because landline (traditional cooper wire) networks were expensive to build and operate. It was even worse because these telephone networks were usually government monopolies and the government officials were corrupt and inept. Cell phone networks were cheaper to set up and in poor countries the governments generally let foreign operators come in, after paying the usual bribes and learned that, so far at least, it was best to leave them alone. Cell phones proved to be far more popular than local rulers expected and became too popular to mess with.
Even Somalia, after ten years of anarchy in the 1990s, found local businessmen willing to set up cell phone networks. Again, the popularity and usefulness of these devices were something that even local warlords became dependent on. The warlords still demanded protection money from the cell phone system operators, but not so much that the operators would go out of business.
At first Islamic radical groups tried to ban the use of cell phones that provided Internet access. The Islamic terrorists believed that because you can use these devices to access porn they are forbidden to Moslems. According to most Islamic terror groups porn meant any picture (especially videos) of a woman showing skin. Not all, just a lot of more than the Islamic terrorist lifestyle police allowed on the street. Previous attempts to ban cell phones in general failed because these devices were and are too popular even with young Islamic terrorist recruits. In some areas the Islamic terrorists persisted, if only because many people used their cell phones to let the security forces know what the Islamic terrorists were up so.
Cell phones and email make it possible for terrorist groups to stay in touch and make plans, thus many terrorists wanted to keep their phones. In poor countries Islamic terrorists also tried to ban the use of money transfers via cell phones, saying this results in unIslamic banking practices. The use of cell phone accounts to store and transfer money has been a boon to undeveloped areas that lacked banks. The locals and the people in charge of Islamic terror group wanted to keep the phones for banking services also. Worse for the Islamic terrorists was that the widespread prevalence of cell phones also insured that photos of Islamic terrorist atrocities got taken and quickly distributed worldwide.
The Islamic terrorists had good reason to fear cell phones, something many of them also used these devices constantly and it soon became know that the Americans could use that to track you. In Afghanistan the Islamic terrorists tried to shut down cell phone service at night because they believed that the Americans were able to track them via cell phones only if the towers were active. In some parts of Afghanistan the Islamic terrorists damaged or destroyed cell phone towers if necessary to force cell phone companies to shut down service at night.
Actually, NATO had several ways to track the Islamic terrorists at night and forcing towers to be shut down at night made the Islamic terrorists even more unpopular with the locals and hardly interrupted the American tracking efforts.
The Islamic terrorists themselves make heavy use of cell phones, especially since service was installed in many rural areas. The cell phone companies made deals with the local tribal leaders whose people demanded cell phone service. Not so much to call in the police, but to stay in touch with friends, family and the few government services that are available. The phones also were good for business, because useful information was easier to get and it was now easier to buy and sell products. This cell phone popularity forced the Islamic terrorists to compromise, and not try and shut down rural cell phone service entirely. But even trying to shut it down at night becomes one more thing that makes the Islamic terrorists unpopular.
It was the same story in Iraq, where five years after Saddam was ousted in 2003 there were three million cell phones in Iraq and many rural areas were getting access to phone service for the first time ever. The phones are very popular, especially among the young. Islamic terrorists fought cell phone use in Iraq as well. Sometimes they would try to ban musical ringtones for cell phones, and insisting that clerics, reading verses from the Koran, be used instead. The Islamic radicals were particularly upset at how cell phones allowed young men and women to operate more freely than in the past. More of them, for example, were skipping the usual arranged marriage and just taking off with lovers.
By 2008 most of Africa (including Somalia) had cell phone service. At that point only about 18 percent of Somalis had one (compared to 40 percent in their southern neighbor, Kenya). But because the fees were low (local service could be had for $10 a month, while overseas calls cost about thirty cents a minute) the number of users climbed rapidly in the poorest of nations. This was driven in part by the arrival, after 2006 inexpensive smart phones became the thing to have. This was mainly because cheap (under $300) Chinese models showed up and sold well even in places like Somalia.
Cell phones radically changed the way warfare, and peacekeeping, was conducted. This was first noticed in Iraq, where cell phone use went from nearly zero in 2003, to nearly a third of the adult population by 2008. A similar revolution was underway in Afghanistan. While cell phones gave the bad guys better communications, it also made them vulnerable to eavesdropping. It gets worse. In both countries, cell phones enabled people to express their dislike for terrorist violence by quickly and discretely reporting the location and activity of local terrorists. The bad guys have found no countermeasure for this. Trying to collect all the cell phones in the vicinity, or blowing up cell phone towers, merely make them more hated, and drives more people to risk their lives fighting the terrorists.
But it's not just terrorists who have taken a hit from the spread of cell phone use. It's much harder to run a police state now. With all those cell phones out there, the state can no longer control information flow by simply seizing a few radio and TV stations. The cell phone use leads to Internet use, and, as the Chinese government was one of the first police states to learn that means no one has the kind of control dictators were accustomed to for the last century. Some police states have tried to solve the problem by simply not allowing the public to have cell phones or Internet. That, however, has a side effect of crippling the economy (even more than the damage a police state inflicts). Even tyrants like their luxuries, and you need some kind of economic activity to get the goodies.
The impact has been most acute in poor countries that went from no widespread availability of any phones to inexpensive cell phone and Internet service in only a few years. But while industrialized nations see 80 percent of the population with cell phones there is still room to grow in less affluent areas. In sub-Saharan Africa only 44 percent of the population has access to cell phones and India, which was late to allow widespread and inexpensive service, is only at 54 percent penetration. Despite that future growth is fastest in those two areas and even long-time holdouts like North Korea and Cuba have had to allow the cell phones in to survive.