Digital backwaters are going straight to wireless, leaving the hassle of upgrading legacy copper systems behind.

As developing economies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America enter the Digital Age, they’re going to need networks that carry data and voice. Just don’t expect land lines to bear the load. According to Mike Jensen, an independent telecommunications consultant in Port St. Johns, South Africa, there are just forteen million phone lines serving Africa’s population of eight hundred million. (By contrast, the US has 169 million lines.) Most of Africa’s telecom coverage is concentrated in the national and regional capitals of the more developed countries. Even there don’t count on getting a dial tone. “The telecom infrastructure is just downright abysmal,” says Michael R. Littenberg, a partner at the New York law firm Schulte Roth&Zabel, which brokers deals in Africa.

Peter Horvath
Which is why in Africa, as in other developing regions, something remarkable is happening. Telecom providers are leapfrogging traditional fiber- and copper-based land lines and going directly to wireless. “It’s ironic that many places that have had the worst technology in general are about to get the best,” says Ellen Agler, medical missions coordinator with the international nonprofit relief agency Operation Smile.

Major telcos are building big network projects in many parts of the world. In May, Siemens won 260 million (nearly $140 million) in contracts to build four mobile communications networks in China, adding to previous deals struck with China Unicom for development in Shanghai and Fujian. Also in May, Lucent Technologies announced a wireless broadband system for Comsat, in Peru, to offer high-speed wireless Internet and multimedia services to Lima. Nortel Networks, Ericsson, AT&T, Alcatel, and others are all involved in building up segments of international networks in places like the Indonesia, Ethiopia and Balkans.

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