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March 10, 2010

Regional Focus: Asia Pacific - the world's largest mobile phone market

by An Hodgson.

Asia Pacific has the highest number of mobile phone subscriptions of all world regions, yet the potential is far from being exhausted.

With the region's consumer spending on communications set to reach US$815 billion by 2015, urbanisation and growing mobile Internet connectivity present opportunities for marketing and consumer services.

Key points

  • Asia Pacific had 2.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions in 2009, or 46.0% of the world's total subscriptions, more than any other region. China had the largest number of mobile phone subscriptions globally, with 707 million subscribers in 2009;
  • Asia Pacific's mobile phone boom is fuelled by rising disposable incomes, urbanisation and rural migration to the cities;
  • However, the potential for expansion remains significant. The population mobile phone penetration rate – i.e. the number of subscriptions as a percentage of the population – remains well below the global average (of 67.3% in 2009), measuring 38.6% in India and 53.2% in China;
  • In 2009, China accounted for 48.1% of Asia Pacific's US$406 billion consumer spending on communications, followed by Japan (28.6%), South Korea (6.0%) and India (5.9%);
  • Between 2009 and 2015, Asia Pacific's mobile subscriptions are set to rise by nearly half. Total consumer expenditure on communications is set to reach US$815 billion in 2015, from US$405 billion in 2009. The proliferation of Internet-enabled mobile phones will open new possibilities for marketing and consumer services.

Mobile phone coverage: high, yet below potential

Asia Pacific has the highest number of mobile phone subscriptions of all world regions, yet the potential for expansion remains considerable:

  • In 2009, Asia Pacific had 2.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions, or 46.0% of the world's total subscriptions. In comparison, the region with the second highest subscriptions' number was the Middle East and Africa, with 0.6 billion subscriptions;
  • China had the largest number of mobile phone subscriptions in Asia Pacific and indeed in the world, with 707 million subscribers in 2009, making up 33.6% of mobile subscriptions in the region. It was followed by India (21.4% of subscriptions in Asia Pacific), Indonesia (8.6%), Japan (5.4%), and Pakistan (5.2%). The overwhelming majority (91.1% in 2009) of mobile phone subscriptions in the region were in emerging and developing economies;
  • Globally, Asia Pacific had the second fastest growth of mobile phone subscriptions, rising between 2004 and 2009 by 209.8%, faster than Latin America (190.0%), Eastern Europe (151.4%), and North America (53.9%). The only region to grow faster than Asia Pacific was the Middle East and Africa, with 422.7% increase between 2004 and 2009;
  • However, in terms of population penetration, coverage in Asia Pacific remains low, and the potential for expansion considerable. Asia Pacific had the world's second lowest penetration level at 55.1% in 2009, surpassing the Middle East and Africa (50.1%) but falling behind Latin America (88.1%), North America (90.3%), Western Europe (121.3%), and Eastern Europe (127.2%);
  • Mobile phone penetration rates were especially low in South Asia, in Bangladesh (35.1%) and India (38.6%). China had a penetration rate of 53.2% in 2009, while other emerging and advanced economies in East Asia had higher penetration levels for example in Vietnam (102.0%), Thailand (155.4%) and Hong Kong China (169.4%).

Consumer spending

Growing mobile phone usage has boosted consumer spending on communications, with significant differences between countries:

  • Total consumer expenditure on communications in Asia Pacific rose significantly from US$205 billion in 2004 to US$406 billion in 2009. In 2009, China accounted for 48.1% of regional consumer spending on communications, followed by (Japan 28.6%), South Korea (6.0%) and India (5.9%);
  • In China, consumers spent 11.2% of their total expenditure on communications, which was an unusually high share compared with 7.0% in Malaysia, 5.7% in South Korea, 3.9% in Japan, 3.3% in India, and 1.6% in Indonesia, as of 2009;
  • In per capita terms, there were huge differences in spending on communications. In 2009, Japanese consumers spent US$910 on average on communications, compared with per capita spending of US$500 in South Korea, US$147 in China, US$19.7 in India and merely US$10.4 in Vietnam;
  • India and China saw the steepest rises in per capita spending on communications between 2004 and 2009, measuring 114.3% and 109.2% respectively, in real terms. Increases in other Asian countries were less steep yet still impressive, with a 60.3% increase in Indonesia, 49.3% in Vietnam and 18.2% in Japan, in real terms;
  • Richer households tend to spend more on communications, yet marketers should be aware of differences within the region in order to gauge the potential for spending among different income groups. In China, India, Pakistan, and Thailand, the 30% of households with the highest incomes (the top 3 deciles) were responsible for slightly more than half of total communications expenditure as of 2007 (the last year for which data was available). The weight of the top 3 deciles was higher in Indonesia (61.4%) and Vietnam (69.9%); while in Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, the top 3 deciles were not as dominant, accounting for around 40.0% of communications' expenditure. In those countries, low- and middle-income households had a higher share in communications expenditure;
  • In India, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea, consumers spent the bulk share of communications expenditure on telecom equipment such as handsets, and relatively little on telecom services such as talk time, subscription fees and other mobile services. While in Vietnam, Thailand and China, telecom services represented about half of consumers' expenditure on communications, while telecom equipment accounted for a smaller share of between 25.0% to 44.0% as of 2009. In Japan and Malaysia, telecommunication services accounted for more than 90.0% of consumers' expenditure on communications in the same year.

Potential remains significant

Rising disposable incomes and rapid urbanisation created the conditions for the mobile phone boom:

  • Strong economic growth in emerging Asian economies has boosted disposable incomes between 2004 and 2009. During this period, per capita disposable income in China soared by 76.6% in real terms, reaching US$2,136 in 2009; in Indonesia, per capita disposable income rose by 36.8% in real terms, to reach US$1,553; and in India, per capita disposable income increased by 20.5% in real terms, to reach US$835;
  • Urbanisation is a driver of growing mobile phone usage. In 2009, 41.1% of Asia Pacific's population was urban, up from 38.2% in 2004. Asia Pacific had the world's second fastest urbanisation rate between 2004 and 2009, following the Middle East and Africa;
  • In China, rural migration to the cities accounted for about 80.0% of urban growth between 2005 and 2010, according to experts' estimate. Chinese rural migrants use mobile phones to maintain social networks and to keep in contact with family and friends in remote rural areas. Mobile phones are also seen as a way to embrace the urban life, and as indispensable consumer items, allowing rural migrants to negotiate the difficult transition stage in both practical and psychological terms.

The wide coverage of mobile phones and increasing Internet connectivity makes them an ideal platform for marketing and consumer services:

  • According to a national newspaper, in 2008, 117 million Chinese mobile phone subscribers (nearly a fifth of China's mobile subscribers in that year) used their mobile phones to access the Internet. About half of these were students, who use their cell phones to read online news, download music, check email and perform a variety of other tasks;
  • Enhanced Internet connectivity, for example through the increasingly popular "smartphones", presents huge potential for marketing via mobile phones. Wide mobile coverage allows reaching consumers throughout the region, including also rural consumers. Mobile phones could be used not only for communications, but also for consumer services such as money transfers (remittances) and other banking services, as is already the case in Africa.
  • In 2015, Asia Pacific will have 3.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions, up from 2.1 billion in 2009. China will continue to have the world's largest number of mobile phone subscriptions, forecast at 957 million in 2015. China's mobile phone penetration rate is set to rise from 53.2% in 2009 to 70.3% in 2015;
  • In India, growth is expected to be even brisker, with the penetration rate rising from 38.6% to 69.0% between 2009 and 2015, reaching a total number of 871 million subscriptions, a 93.2% increase over 2009. Bangladesh and the Philippines will also see dramatic increases in total subscription number over the same period, at 100.1% and 43.1% respectively;
  • Asia Pacific's consumer expenditure on communications is set to reach US$815 billion in 2015, from US$405 billion in 2009. By 2015, per capita annual consumer expenditure on communications is expected to rise to US$329 in China, from US$147 in 2009; and to US$39.7 in India, from US$19.7 in 2009. More moderate increases in consumers' communications spending will take place in South Korea, from US$500 to US$635; and in Japan, from US$910 to US$1,105;
  • Analysts expect the number of Asian smartphone users to reach 347 million by 2015, from 120 million in 2007. The proliferation of smartphones will open opportunities in marketing and consumer services through mobile broadband data.

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