Q&A: The Importance and Prospects of Mobile Telephony

Mobile telephones have become an integral part of life for many consumers worldwide as well as playing an important role in driving the economy in many countries. In the future, the mobile phone market in developing countries is forecast to grow strongly whilst in the developed world, business opportunities will arise from the deployment of next generation technologies.

How fast has mobile phone usage spread across the world?

The global spread of mobile phones has been faster than any other information technology:

  • The number of mobile phone subscriptions worldwide rose from 1.0 billion in 2001 to 5.1 billion in 2010;
  • The mobile phone penetration rate – the proportion of the population with a mobile phone subscription – rose globally from 15.6% in 2001 to 74.9% in 2010. The mobile phone penetration rate is expected to rise to 100.6% globally by 2020
  • Most of the growth has come from the developing world where the penetration rate was below the global average at 68.3% in 2010. The total number of mobile phone subscriptions in emerging and developing countries rose from 0.4 billion to 4.0 billion during 2001-2010. In comparison, in the developed world where the mobile market is reaching saturation with 112.7 subscriptions per 100 people in 2010, the number of mobile phone subscriptions grew at a much slower pace, from 0.6 billion to 1.1 billion over the same period;
  • China is home to the world’s largest number of mobile phone subscriptions, with 839 million subscriptions in 2010. It is followed by India with 611 million mobile phone subscribers in 2010;
  • From a luxury product used primarily in developed countries, mobile telephony has become universally available and an integral part of life for many consumers.

How do poorer countries benefit from mobile telephony?

Mobile telephony has transformed life for many consumers in the developing world:

  • Mobile phones help improve the livelihood of the poor through better communications and greater access to information. Many poor farmers are now able to receive better prices for their crops because they have access to information on market prices, primarily via mobile phones. TradeNet, a Ghana-based trading platform, is one such example, allowing farmers to access prices and offers from traders by mobile phone;
  • Mobile phones have also spawned a wealth of micro-enterprises, offering work to people with little education and few resources, such as selling airtime and repairing or refurbishing handsets. In Bangladesh, for example, with micro-credit from the Grameen Bank, over 100,000 Bangladeshi women have set up mobile phone exchanges in villages where there are few if any landlines, and earned their living as “Grameen phone ladies”. Such village phone schemes have subsequently spread from Bangladesh to Uganda, Rwanda and many other poor communities;
  • Mobile phones have helped consumers to bridge the digital divide between regions in many developing countries. This is thanks to wireless technologies that enable the consumer to use mobile phones for better communications and Internet access without the need of a PC and cable connection;
  • China and India are the two largest mobile phone markets amongst developing countries, and indeed in the world. However, similar to other developing countries, the mobile phone penetration rates in China and India remain relatively low, at 62.8% of the population and 51.6% respectively in 2010, leaving a significant potential for growth.

What are the prospects of the global mobile market?

The developing world – particularly major emerging economies – will continue to drive growth of the global mobile phone market. This is due to their large population, low penetration rates and rising disposable incomes, although the true growth potential depends also on government policies to help liberalise the market and enhance competition among network providers:

  • During 2011-2020, the number of mobile subscriptions in Africa and the Middle East is forecast to grow at an average rate of 5.6% per year, compared to the global average of 3.7%. However, the expected growth in Africa and the Middle East is from a relatively low base: in 2010, the mobile penetration rate in Africa stood at 56.5% of the population;
  • Asia Pacific will continue to be the largest regional mobile phone market, with 3.9 billion subscriptions in 2020 (up from 2.4 billion in 2010). China will continue to be home to the world’s largest number of mobile phone subscriptions, with 1.3 billion subscribers in 2020 (up from 839 million in 2010). However, India – currently the world’s second largest mobile phone market – will have significant growth potential not only in Asia Pacific but globally, with the number of mobile phone subscriptions forecast to grow at an average annual rate of 5.7% during 2011-2020, to reach 1.1 billion in 2020;
  • Meanwhile, in the developed world, the development and commercial deployment of next-generation technologies and devices will increase usage of advanced mobile services, which in turn will open up many new business opportunities and drive revenue growth.