A new study by ABI Research today confirms that mobile subscriptions worldwide passed the 5 billion mark in the second quarter. The crossing of that dramatic threshold had been predicted earlier in the year, and Ericsson estimated the 5 billion mark was reached in July.
That's the kind of number that could make a mobile marketer drool: a phone for seemingly every man, woman and child on the planet. (Actual world population is 6.7 billion.) Most of that growth is coming in emerging markets, though, where most U.S. mobile advertisers haven't yet ventured, such as India, Indonesia and China.
Africa led the way with 4% growth between the first and second quarter of 2010. ABI said the continent's low mobile penetration to date is attracting global service providers such as Vodafone and India's Bharti to build up wireless infrastructure in Africa.
But what about developed markets in the U.S., Europe and Japan, where mobile saturation has already been reached?
The report says the introduction of high-speed 4G data technologies such as WiMax and LTE will ensure that subscription growth stays strong even in "hyper-saturated" regions. Jake Saunders, ABI's vice president of research, pointed in particular to the successful launch of the HTC Evo 4G from Sprint, running on the WiMax network built by Clearwire (in which Sprint is a majority owner.)
ABI expects mobile subscriptions to reach 6.4 billion by 2015, of which 169 million will be to 4G technologies. Both AT&T and Verizon Wireless this week touted their roll-outs of 4G networks this week and growth in mobile data use via smartphones and other devices in third-quarter earnings reports this week.
AT&T said its 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) trials are currently underway in Dallas and Baltimore, with an expected launch in mid-2011 to reach 70 million to 75 million customers by the end of next year. Verizon plans to launch its 4G LTE network in 38 metropolitan markets covering 110 million people by year's end. The company expects to complete the rollout for all areas where it now offers 3G service by the end of 2013.
Thanks to the iPhone, AT&T said more than half (57%) of its postpaid, or contract, customers have smartphones, while 23% of Verizon's contract subscribers do. Of course, Verizon should see that proportion increase with the expected arrival of the iPhone next year.
Mobile data revenue for AT&T in the quarter grew 30.5% from a year ago and 26.3% for Verizon. For the U.S. carriers, it's all about getting people to upgrade to more sophisticated devices and data services to boost revenues. But with 5 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, the 285 million U.S. subscribers the operators are battling over somehow don't seem like such a huge market anymore.