SO fast is the growth of telecoms around the world that many of the statistics collected for the World Telecomunications Report are already way out of date, but they are a good start for anyone wanting an overview of the world industry. There were 647 million fixed lines in place at the end of the year, up from only 388 million in 1984, a compound annual growth rate of 5.2 per cent over the period. Worldwide there were 11.57 telephones per 1,000 people, and the disparity between regions was stark; Europe had 32 phones per 1,000 people, the Americas 28, Africa 1.67 and Asia 4.79. Africa's fixed lines showed the strongest growth between 1984 and 1994, increasing by 8.6 per cent, followed by Asia with growth of eight per cent. Desite the growth in the availability of telephones, far more people around the world owned television sets. So much for basics. Much of the report is devoted to the convergence of telephony, computing and audiovisual industries and the development of the information society. 'The global economy is currently undergoing an information revolution which will be equally as significant in effect as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century,' the ITU said. Service sectors around the world were outpacing agriculture and industry in economies as diverse as Hong Kong, Senegal and Hungary. 'From the re-mapping of the economic landscape to fundamental changes in the way we learn and are entertained, we are witnessing the birth of a new society,' it said. The ITU said public telecommunications operators (PTOs) were, arguably, the best-placed to develop multimedia networks. The PTOs generated profits of about US$50 billion a year. This, and their billing and customer service skills, would count as strengths if they entered multimedia markets. Other advantages were the PTOs' huge subscriber bases, their digital networks and the switched architecture of the main public networks which allowed for individually addressed delivery. On the negative side for the PTOs, the public switched networks were narrow band transmission media, optimised for voice but not video, most had no direct access to copyright material and their universal service commitments could limit their ability to selectively deliver material. There could also be a backlash against the PTOs if multimedia channels were used to deliver pornography, hate mail or racist literature, the ITU said. There were many challenges involved in developing multimedia services. Of the much-hyped Video on Demand services, most trials of which in the US have been cancelled or put on hold, the ITU said: 'It appears that demand would be high but not necessarily high enough to justify investment in interactive services. 'The truth is that no-one really knows which multimedia services will prove popular and which will flop.' The ITU said no government could possibly afford the huge investment needed to build an informaton infrastructure. Fortunately, the track record of telecommunications projects would ensure there was no shortage of private investment capital but, to boost the flow, governments ought to consider the removal of barriers to private investment and foreign ownership. The promotion of competition was the most effective weapon policy makers could use in ensuring the development of the global information infrastructure, the report said. 'Where competition has been permitted, it has invariably resulted in lower prices for consumers, faster network growth and roll-out of advanced services, and a greater degree of innovation.' In a competitive environment the information infrastructure developed more quickly and investment was more efficient. The ITU said competitive market entry should be encouraged. 'This will almost certainly entail lifting barriers, such as those that prevent cable television companies from providing telephone services and vice-versa.' The argument for competition was even stronger in the field of service provision because it would determine the speed at which the information infrastructure was put in place, the ITU said. 'In many developing countries, one of the most disturbing patterns to emerge is that, despite the availability of a digital communications network, often technologically equal to or even ahead of that which is available in developed countries, the potential of the network remains underused. 'This is often due to policies restricting the provision by third parties of value-added network services.' No report on global telecommunications would be complete without reference to digital sex. 'Sex and money are rarely far apart,' the ITU says. 'International phone sex now generates 65 million minutes of traffic per year [1.5 per cent of the global total] and has created a booming industry in such unlikely places as Guyana and Moldova.' Video on Demand promoters saw pornography as a major driver of demand, the ITU said, noting that the Penthouse site on the World-Wide Web broke the record for the most accesses in a week. The ITU said banning sexual material from the Information superhighway was probably impossible, because it would violate freedom of speech rights in some countries and providers could easilly shift services to countries where it was allowed. A more appropriate approach would be to use industry self-regulation and technological solutions such as content tags to control access. The ITU has published a multimedia version of the ITU report on the World-Wide Web. It can be found at http://www.itu.ch/WT DR95.