Mobile industry celebrates 5 billion subscriber milestone

This month a major milestone was achieved as the GSMA Intelligence ticker flipped past 5 billion unique mobile subscribers. The milestone means that two-thirds of the global population is now connected to a mobile service – a tremendous achievement for an industry that is still relatively young. To give a sense of the rapid growth rate over the last decade or so: the 1 billion milestone was reached as recently as 2003.

The 5 billion mobile subscribers are distributed in all corners of the world, though are naturally clustered in high-density areas. For example, more than half (55 per cent) of subscribers are based in the Asia Pacific region, which is home to the world’s two largest mobile markets: China and India. More than a fifth of the global total live in China, but India is now adding subscribers at a faster rate. It is forecast that the number of unique mobile subscribers worldwide will increase to 5.7 billion by the end of the decade, with India expected to account for around 30 per cent of the new additions.

Similarly, there are wide disparities across the world in terms of mobile penetration levels, which are measured as a percentage of the population. The most highly penetrated region in the world is Europe, where 86 per cent of citizens are subscribed to a mobile service, while Sub-Saharan Africa is the least penetrated region at 44 per cent.

This demonstrates how subscriber growth opportunities over the coming years will be focused on connecting mainly rural, low-income populations. This requires operators to develop sustainable solutions to deliver affordable connectivity to underserved communities. Meanwhile, in mature markets where subscriber growth is slowing – or possibly already at saturation point – operators are evolving their business models to capture increasing value within the expanding mobile ecosystem.

What is a unique mobile subscriber?

GSMA Intelligence, the GSMA’s research arm, operates a real-time ticker that tracks the number of individuals worldwide that have signed up to a mobile service. This number is calculated using GSMA Intelligence’s extensive database of mobile statistics and forecasts, which comprises tens of millions of individual data points. GSMA Intelligence simultaneously tracks two separate metrics to determine market size. A unique mobile subscriber is defined as an individual person that can account for multiple mobile connections (i.e SIM cards), the latter being the number that is typically reported by operators.

According to GSMA Intelligence, the world’s 5 billion unique mobile subscribers today account for approximately 7.7 billion mobile connections (excluding M2M), which means that each individual subscriber accounts, on average, for 1.4 SIMs. In the developed world, an individual typically accounts for more than one mobile connection because they own more than one device; for example, an individual owns a smartphone and tablet with separate SIMs, that person would account for two connections. In emerging markets, subscribers are more likely to hold multiple SIMs, swapping them to take advantage of the best tariffs in a given situation.

In addition to unique mobile subscribers, GSMA Intelligence tracks and analyses mobile industry’s impact on society through the Global Mobile Economy Report and other regional reports. Access them here: