Years of neglect of network infrastructure meant that, until relatively recently, Papua New Guinea experienced only minimal coverage by landlines and even less by mobile networks. In mid-2007, total teledensity was just four per cent countrywide and zero in the majority of rural area. The sector was liberalised in 2007, and Irish company Digicel entered the market soon after. Prices dropped quickly, and innovative retail models and advertising campaigns meant that consumer uptake was swift. Mobile networks have expanded exponentially over the past five years to now cover some 75 per cent of the country’s population. Phone ownership has increased apace, and some estimates suggest that over 30 per cent of the population now has a mobile phone, dwarfing the number of fixed-line connections. Mobile phone penetration is growing fast — from just 1 per cent in 2005 to 35 per cent in 2011.
Conversely, internet penetration is still relatively low, at approximately two per cent of the population. Access is largely limited to young, educated urban elites, although increasing numbers of Papua New Guineans are accessing the internet via mobile phones following the introduction in 2011 of a mobile broadband service. The International Telecommunications Union estimates internet access from mobiles in Papua New Guinea may increase to about 50 per cent of the population by 2017. This is in line with predictions made for internet access in much of the developing world — that is, access will largely be via mobiles and will increase exponentially. As in other developing countries, illiteracy in Papua New Guinea is likely to be an impediment to at least some aspects of ICT use. The country’s literacy rate is decreasing and now stands at below 50 per cent. However, research elsewhere suggests illiteracy need not pose an ultimate barrier to ICT use.
Despite relatively low levels of internet access, Papua New Guineans are using social media in ever-increasing numbers. There are close to 140,000 Facebook members in Papua New Guinea — a country of seven million — a majority of internet users. Most users are aged 18–24, and there are more males than females. Usage has more than doubled over the past six months and looks set to continue. Most users are aged 18–24, and there are more males than females. Usage has more than doubled over the past six months and looks set to continue. Statistics on Twitter users are less readily available, but during recent unrest Twitter users were extremely active, and hashtags such as #PNG regularly broke news far faster than any other source in Papua New Guinea. Ultimately, considering Papua New Guinea does not have a fully functioning national landline network, and, arguably, no functioning national radio network or truly national newspapers or TV, the phenomenal expansion of mobile telephony and internet access has the potential for significant expansion of the public sphere, particularly as it relates to the practice of politics.