What Cell Phones Reveal About the Failures of Government-Run Telecommunications

Private-sector innovations trump government-controlled monopolies.


A colleague of mine recently alerted me to the following quote from Charles Moore's book Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith. As Thatcher's official biographer remembered, "In 1981, the present author bought his first house. It had no telephone and he wished to install one, but was told by [British Telecom] that this would take six months because of a 'shortage of numbers.' The only way to speed this up was for his employer, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, to have a word with the chairman of the company, Sir George Jefferson. The device was installed in ten days. This was a classic example of how a nationalized industry would respond to string-pulling, but not to the ordinary customer's needs."

The British Telecommunications, as it was then known, was notorious for its slow and shabby service, and Lady Thatcher privatized it in 1984. At the time of privatization, Great Britain had 36 fixed telephone lines per 100 people. The United States had 47.

Of course, these are first world problems. Almost all African countries had state-owned and state-run telecommunications monopolies until recently. Some, including Kenya and Zambia, still retain a monopoly on the provision of landline services. No wonder, therefore, that the number of fixed telephone lines in Africa peaked in 2009 at 4 lines per 100 people. In Tanzania, there is just one landline per 100 people. The vast majority of Africans, in other words, never had reliable means of calling a doctor or a loved one.

The rise of the cell phone changed all that. In 2014, 84 percent of Africans had a cell phone. In addition to massively improved communications, cell phones enabled Africans to side-step another problem plaguing people in poor countries—limited banking opportunities (especially in the far-flung rural areas). Users of cell phone services, like Kenya's M-Pesa, can deposit, withdraw and transfer money, and pay for goods and services, without ever having to visit a bank or access a bank account on a computer.

The private sector has also been instrumental to mitigating the negative effects of African governments' failure to provide their people with adequate education and drinking water. For more data on communications and other indicators of human well-being, please visit

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  1. So, if I’m reading this right, low sperm count from cellular signals was Margaret Thatcher’s plan for slow genocide in Africa.

    1. Fucked by a phone? I’ll pass.

  2. Whoever this Reason Staff guy is he needs to learn alt-text. Also, that is not Ernestine.

  3. I’m not so sure you’ve figured out the problem. It’s not the government per se that’s the problem with helping the teeming poor in Africa, it’s the capitalism. See, us white folks are accustomed to giving our government lots of money and power to do Good Things like build roads and schools and hospitals and factories and grocery stores, but in Africa the colored folks don’t know no better so the people running the government take all the money we give them and put it in their bank accounts and the bank accounts of their families and friends and political supporters – you know, the way capitalists do things. What we need is some white folks to go over to Africa and teach the nappy-headed little urchins the proper way to run white folks governments. Just trying to help folks as individuals isn’t going to work, because without government who’s going to build the stores and the farms and the small businesses and the factories where these people can get jobs and earn a living? It sure as hell ain’t gonna be the capitalists doing that sort of thing, I’ll tell you that much.

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  5. Also, what the hell’s with the click-bait ad for “3 foods surgeons are calling death foods” – I swear it used to be 4 foods they were calling death foods. Did they decide one of the foods isn’t a death food after all or did they just outlaw the Junior Mints in the surgical gallery? And from the pic – is it canned beets or jellied cranberry sauce that I’m not supposed to be eating? I love beets, hate cranberries – am I going to die soon or live forever?

    1. Avoid eating cyanide in large quantities. Also avoid datura.

    2. Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational death food.

  6. Good article.

  7. I noticed that there were very few landlines but everyone had a mobile phone in a relatively remote part of Jamaica. I had assumed it was related to infrastructure since it would be so much easier and cheaper to build cell towers than to run copper to every home and business. Given the inertia of nationalized telephone services, it makes even more sense.

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  9. Privately owned telephone companies with government-granted monopolies may be better but are still not great. Under the pre-1984 Ma Bell monopoly, it could cost over a dollar a minute in inflation-corrected currency to call across Maryland, with no guarantee that you could even hear the person on the other end. The only thing that prompted improvement was the threat of taking one’s business to a competitor. Monopolists attribute improvement to improved technology, but that is only as good as the incentive to omplement it.

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  11. While cell phones are convenient for communication, that’s not all these Orwellian devices do. The term “cell phone” is more appropriate than most people know, since that device carries a panopticon with it.

    The phone network determines the location of each phone, by triangulation, whenever its radio is turned on — and holds that data for months or years. Moreover, any phone can be modified remotely to listen all the time and transmit all the conversations it hears, by sending commands over the phone network. Those of you that carry a portable phone are subject, through it, to more surveillance than Stalin could impose on most people in the Soviet Union.

    This is why I don’t carry a portable phone. I don’t choose to submit to Stalin’s Dream. Freedom over convenience, for me.

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