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The spread of mobile phones in Colombia has taken place at one of the fastest paces in Latin America, increasing more than seven-fold since 2002. According to the International Telecommunication Union, there were only 10.6 mobile subscribers per 100 residents in 2002 but by 2008 there were 91.9 mobile subscribers per 100 inhabitants.[1] By the end of 2004, mobile telephones had overtaken fixed lines in service for the first time.[2]

In InterMedia's urban Colombia survey, around 89 percent of respondents said they have household access to a mobile phone. Similarly, about eight in 10 urban Colombians use a mobile phone on a weekly basis. Colombia’s telecommunications regulator, Comision de Regulacion de Comunicaciones (CRC) has sought to expand mobile phone access by imposing some pricing constraints, including the maximum cost of connection fees between mobile networks. According to the CRC, there were over 40 million mobile phone subscribers at the end of June 2009, of which 85 percent were prepaid subscribers.

The leading mobile service provider is Comcel (owned by Mexico-based America Movil), with around 67 percent market share (27 million subscribers). Telefonica Movistar (part of Spain’s Telefonica) is second with around 22 percent market share and Colombia Movil (Tigo, Millicom International Cellular) with only a 10 percent share.[3] Millicom entered the Colombian market in 2006 taking over operations of the state mobile provider.

Chart 1

All three of Colombia’s mobile providers offer GSM and have launched 3G data services. However, these services are only available in urban centers. Even though many of the advanced data service functions are only slightly used, as Chart 1 illustrates, access to mobile internet is on the rise. According to the CRC, the number of mobile internet subscribers, those who pay for access to the internet via their mobile phone, rose by 57 percent between March and June 2009 to nearly half a million. Mobile internet subscriptions account for about 18 percent of all 2.7 million internet subscriptions in Colombia.[4]

Another increasingly popular mobile phone function is mobile banking. M-banking first began in 2007 in a cooperative venture between all three GSM operators and Redeban Multicolor, Colombia’s largest banking network, which allowed subscribers to perform secure transactions and make financial payments, transfers and requests for information. The mobile software application, developed by the Dutch firm Gemalto, is stored in a mobile phone’s SIM card and the transaction is encrypted and decrypted in the bank’s server. The service is available to both post-paid and pre-paid subscribers. By April 2009, over 9 million mobile subscribers had signed up for the mobile-banking service.[5]

Chart 2

Low literacy rates are often barriers to mobile phone use in developing countries, though not in Colombia, where the UNDP estimates a relatively high literacy rate of 93 percent. What's more, InterMedia's urban survey indicated that mobile phones were used at least weekly by a majority (59 percent) of those who are not likely to have a strong level of literacy (those who either stated that they had no education or only had primary-level education).

Income can also be a limiting factor, though here again; lower-income Colombians seem to make do, as 85 percent of respondents with low-socioeconomic status said they had home access to a mobile phone.

The frequency with which an urbanite uses a mobile phone seems to be most affected by the respondent's age. Only 73 percent of urban Colombians between 45 and 60 said they used a mobile phone on a monthly basis, while at least 88 percent of those 15 to 29 and those 30 to 44 did so. In addition, women were less likely to use a mobile phone on a weekly basis. While 90 percent of men said they used a mobile phone at least weekly only 80 percent of women did so.

[1] “ICT Statistics Database.” International Telecommunication Union. Geneva, Switzerland. Accessed October 2009. http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/icteye/Reporting/ShowReportFrame.aspx?ReportName=/WTI/CellularSubscribersPublic&RP_intYear=2008&RP_intLanguageID=1.

[2] “Country Profile: Colombia.” Library of Congress – Federal Research Division. February 2007. Washington, D.C. Accessed October 2009. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/profiles/Colombia.pdf.

[3] “Informacion Sectorial.” Ministerio de Tecnologías de la Información y las Comunicaciones Bogota, Colombia. Accessed October 2009. http://www.mincomunicaciones.gov.co/mincom/src/index.jsp?page=./mods/contenido/view_page&id_contents=217&l=1.

[4] “Informe Trimestral de Conectividad.” Comision de Regulacion de Comunicaciones. August 2009. Bogota, Colombia. Accessed October2009.http://www.crcom.gov.co/images/stories/crt-documents/BibliotecaVirtual/InformeInternet/Informe_Internet_junio_2009.pdf.

[5] “ICT Statistics Newslog – Colombia M-Banking Subscriber Base Crosses 9 mn Mark.” International Telecommunication Union. 6 April 2009. http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/newslog/Colombia+Mbanking+Subscriber+Base+Crosses+9Mn+Mark.aspx.