Nº 2 2013 > Cover story
Mobile subscriptions near the 7‑billion mark
Does almost everyone have a phone?
ITU estimates that there will be almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions globally by the end of 2013 as there are people on Earth. This is the message according to The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures, released by ITU on 27 February. Another message is that mobile broadband is currently the most dynamic market segment.
Subscriptions versus subscribers: A big difference?
The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures confirms strong sustained demand for information and communication technology (ICT) services. In this report, ITU estimates that by the end of 2013, there will be around 6.8 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions globally, with that figure set to near the 7‑billion mark in 2014. More than half of these subscriptions are in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Near-ubiquitous mobile penetration makes mobile cellular the ideal platform for service delivery in developing countries,” says Brahima Sanou, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. “Our new m‑Powering Development initiative is designed to leverage this potential across markets worldwide, and especially in rural and remote communities.”
The impressive figure of 6.8 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions implies that global mobile penetration will reach 96 per cent by the end of 2013. But does this mean that almost everyone on Earth has a phone? The simple answer is no. For example, GSMA’s report The Mobile Economy, released in February 2013, estimates that the actual number of individual mobile subscribers (defined as the unique users subscribed to mobile services) will reach 3.4 billion during this year. So the statistic needs some clarification.
There are several factors explaining the huge difference between the number of subscriptions and the number of subscribers. But most analysts agree that one main reason is that many subscribers have more than one subscription. So double counting takes place when these individual consumers subscribe to more than one service. For example, individual consumers may have separate subscriptions for business and private use.
As Susan Teltscher, Head of the ICT Data and Statistics Division of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau explains, “Individuals may own multiple subscriber identification module (SIM) cards. Many mobile consumers actively use more than one SIM card. Having several subscriptions — for work handset and home handset, for example — is not unusual.”
Ms Teltscher also observes that “In many developing countries, where the large majority of subscriptions are on a prepaid basis, people often buy several SIM cards to avoid paying high termination charges which occur when calling from one network to another. In countries with very low shares of prepaid subscriptions and therefore few people with multiple SIM cards (such as the Republic of Korea and Japan), mobile-cellular penetration rates are relatively lower as there is less double-counting.”
In contrast, there are also people, particularly in developing countries, who share one subscription, for example through a family or a village phone. Therefore, the actual number of mobile phone users is yet again different from the number of subscriptions or unique subscribers.
Another factor is that, in some cases, operators are slow to remove inactive accounts from their databases and therefore end up reporting inactive SIM cards in their subscription totals. According to ITU’s definition, accounts that have been inactive for three months or more should not be counted.
ITU tracks statistics on mobile phone users, which are collected in countries through national household surveys. Available data show that there are significant differences between the number of mobile subscriptions and the number of actual mobile users in some countries, but that the differences are not consistent across countries — even within Europe. Numbers are sketchy, though, since household surveys are costly to implement and collect a large number of indicators, among which mobile phone usage may not always be included. ITU works closely with national statistical offices to improve the availability and quality of country data on the use of mobile phones and other information and communication technologies.
Mobile-cellular penetration estimates in 2013
Mobile-cellular subscription penetration exceeds 100 per cent in four of the six ITU world regions, with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) at 170 per cent leading the pack, followed by Europe (126 per cent), the Americas (109 per cent), and the Arab States (105 per cent). Asia-Pacific stands at 89 per cent, with Africa at 63 per cent.
Mobile-cellular penetration rates stand at 128 per cent in the developed world, and 89 per cent in developing countries.
The number of active mobile-broadband subscriptions has grown from 268 million in 2007 to an estimated 2.1 billion in 2013. While people in developed countries use mobile-broadband networks in addition to fixed-broadband connections, mobile broadband is often the only access method to the Internet for many people in developing countries. In these countries, the number of mobile-broadband subscriptions more than doubled from 472 million in 2011 to an estimated 1.16 billion in 2013, surpassing the number in developed countries.
Africa has had the highest regional growth rate over the past three years, with mobile-broadband penetration increasing from 2 per cent in 2010 to an estimated 11 per cent in 2013.
The statistics on active mobile-broadband subscriptions also deserve further explanation. According to ITU’s definition, they refer to mobile-cellular subscriptions with advertised data speeds of at least 256 kbit/s (the rate used to define a service as broadband) and which have been used to set up an Internet data connection; and to subscriptions to dedicated data services over a mobile network that are purchased separately from voice services, either as a standalone service — for example, using a data card such as a USB modem or dongle — or as an add-on data package to voice services requiring an additional subscription.
Similar to mobile-cellular subscriptions, mobile-broadband subscriptions do not refer to the number of individuals using mobile-broadband connections to access the Internet. People may access mobile broadband services through different devices, such as a handset, laptop or tablet computer. One person may subscribe to several of these services, while another may share the subscription with family and friends.
Significant growth opportunity for the mobile industry
So while mobile access has certainly become ubiquitous, with more than 90 per cent of the global population covered by a mobile-cellular signal, and 3G+ coverage expanding rapidly, the numbers have to be interpreted with care. ITU works actively with data providers in countries to ensure international data comparability and to improve the quality and availability of indicators that provide further insight into mobile phone and broadband usage.
Noting that “almost half the population of the Earth now uses mobile communications”, The Mobile Economy says that “There are still many adults and young people who would appreciate the social and economic benefits of mobile technology but are unable to access it, highlighting a huge opportunity for future growth and a challenge to all players in the industry ecosystem to expand the scope of products and services to tap this demand.”
For more information see http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/definitions/)