Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

EL SALVADOR: Central America’s Leader in Cell Phone Use

SAN SALVADOR, Jan 14 2009 (IPS) - By the end of 2008, El Salvador had the largest number of cell phones per person in Central America, with 6.6 million for a population of 5.8 million.

Experts say the large number of cell phones is a reflection of consumerism, promoted by intense advertising campaigns. Another factor that has played a role is the large number of Salvadorans living abroad, many of whom communicate with their families back home via mobile phone.

According to El Salvador’s telecoms regulatory agency, SIGET, 90 percent of mobile lines in the country are prepaid, which is usually more expensive than postpaid or billing, due to higher costs per minute.

Of the total number of cell phones in El Salvador, two million were purchased in 2008 alone, as a result of advertising blitzes launched by the five telecoms companies operating in the country: Movistar (owned by Spain’s Telefónica), Claro (controlled by Mexico’s Telecom), Tigo (Telemóvil, a unit of the Luxembourg-based Millicom International Cellular or MIC), Digicel (a Caribbean-based mobile telecommunications operator), and the less popular Red (run by the Salvadoran company Intelfon).

The first three provide fixed phone line services as well, and Spain’s Telefónica and Telecom, owned by Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, also operate part of the cable television market.

SIGET’s statistics for the 2007-2008 period indicate that Panama has 90.1 cell phones per 100 people; Guatemala 72.4; Honduras 55.5; Nicaragua 48.6; and Costa Rica – where there are no prepaid cards – 34.5.

SIGET telecommunications manager Saúl Vásquez said many people own more than one cell phone, because they are drawn in by the constant promotions offered by the telecoms companies.

Blanca Flores, a student of communications who has two cell phones, said she purchased her second after having problems with the first.

“I kept losing my Claro connection, so I decided to get another number, from Telemóvil,” she told IPS.

The large proportion of Salvadorans who live outside of the country – 2.5 million live in the United States – has had a major influence on the expansion of cell phone use. Many migrants’ relatives use mobile phones to communicate, especially with their families in rural areas of El Salvador where fixed lines are unavailable.

War and poverty over the last three decades have driven thousands of Central Americans abroad, mainly to the United States.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) reported in an August 2008 study that poverty had risen since early 2007 from 51.4 to 59.4 percent of the population in Guatemala; from 35.1 to 41.7 percent in El Salvador; from 69.5 to 73.4 percent in Honduras; and from 41.5 to 46.8 percent in Nicaragua.

José Santos, manager of a sausage company, told IPS that he uses two cell phones, one for work and the other for personal matters.

“It facilitates my business dealings,” said Santos. “I hook up through the company’s telephone network, which is cheaper.”

He added, however, that he believes people have too many cell phones, which he said “cause stress and undermine privacy.”

Santos admitted that most Salvadorans fall into the “advertising trap” and that many people use their cell phones for “insignificant conversations,” and give mobile phones even to their youngest children without gauging the effects on the family budget.

In the last five years, companies have stepped up their advertising in the media as well as in movie theatres and by means of leaflets handed out on the streets or at sales stands in shopping centres.

Salvadorans are easy prey, “because we live for appearances,” said anthropologist Ramón Rivas. “If our neighbour buys a car, we want to buy one that’s more expensive or better, and the same thing goes for cell phones. The most important thing, family welfare, is left aside.”

This way of thinking leads to “a world of competition, of illusions, where the most important thing is to prove that I am better than the next,” according to Rivas, who said that companies exploit that tendency to sell their products.

This cultural pattern is driven by “family remittances, which have become a key support for the economy,” said Rivas.

According to the Central Reserve Bank (BCR), El Salvador received 3.45 billion dollars in expatriate remittances between January and November 2008, equivalent to 18 percent of GDP.

In greater San Salvador, it is common to see students, newspaper hawkers, bus drivers, street vendors, employees and executives holding their cell phones to their ears for minutes at a time or sending text messages.

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