The “digital divide” between rich and poor nations is narrowing fast, the World Bank said on Thursday, calling into question a costly United Nations campaign to bring hi-tech telecommunications to the developing world.

As some 1,700 international experts gathered in Geneva to prepare for the U.N.’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the World Bank said in a report that telecommunications services to poor countries were growing at an explosive rate.

“The digital divide is rapidly closing,” the report said.

“People in the developing world are getting more access at an incredible rate — far faster than they got access to new technologies in the past.”

Half the world’s population now enjoys access to a fixed-line telephone, the report said, and 77 percent to a mobile network — surpassing a WSIS campaign goal that calls for 50 percent access by 2015.

The report said there were 59 million fixed-line or mobile phones in Africa in 2002 — contradicting Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade’s claim at a U.N. news conference last year that there were more telephones in Manhattan than in all of Africa.

“Unless New Yorkers and their commuter friends have 12 phones each, Africa now has many more telephones than Manhattan,” the World Bank report said.

The U.N. hopes that widening access within the developing world to technology such as mobile phones and the Internet will help eradicate poverty and build stable democracies.

Poorer countries, particularly from Africa, are expected to repeat calls in Geneva Friday for a “Digital Solidarity Fund” to help finance the infrastructure they say is needed to close the perceived technology gap. But the telecoms industry has already leapt into action to feed demand in booming markets such as Africa, where mobile phone growth has leapfrogged fixed-line communications, to help offset falling customer growth in more mature markets.

To help fuel fierce demand for communications in countries which lack fixed-line alternatives, U.S. mobile phone equipment maker Motorola Corp announced this month it planned to provide an ultra low-cost mobile phone for less than $40 — aimed at emerging markets. “Developing countries are catching up with the rich world in terms of access,” the report said.

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