GSMA Announces New Global Research that Highlights Significant Growth Opportunity for the Mobile Industry

Worldwide Unique Mobile Subscriber Penetration Stands at Only 45 Per Cent; Global Mobile Subscribers to Hit Four Billion within Five Years Driven by Growth in Developing Markets

The GSMA today announced the results of a global, multi-year study that for the first time examines not only the total number of mobile connections 1 , but also the number of individual mobile subscribers, defined as the unique users subscribed to mobile services. The primary research, undertaken by the GSMA’s Wireless Intelligence team over three years and across 39 developed and developing markets, found that:

  • By Q4 2012, total mobile connections will stand at 6.8 billion including machine-to machine (M2M) communications, or 5.9 billion excluding M2M and inactive SIM cards
  • With consumers using an average of 1.85 SIM cards each, the total number of mobile subscribers globally will stand at 3.2 billion by Q4 2012, growing to 4 billion within the next five years
  • Global penetration based on total connections is set to exceed 100 per cent in 2013, with mobile subscriber penetration standing at only 45 per cent by the end of 2012

“This research, for the first time, highlights the difference between mobile connections and individual mobile subscribers, and points to a significant growth opportunity for the mobile industry as we continue to connect the world’s population,” said Anne Bouverot, Director General of the GSMA. “By identifying inactive SIMs and multiple SIM ownership, we have developed the most accurate measurement of the global mobile subscriber base, which shows that only 45 per cent of the world’s population has subscribed to mobile services.”

The study found that future mobile subscriber growth will be driven by demand among currently ‘unconnected’ populations in developing countries, particularly those in rural areas, which the research estimates to be 1.8 billion people throughout the next five years. By 2017, subscriber penetration in developed countries is set to have passed 80 per cent2 and growth in these markets is expected to slow. In contrast, subscriber penetration across developing economies is forecast to increase from 39 per cent in 2012 to 47 per cent in 2017, and will be the largest factor spurring the global growth of mobile over the next five years.

Europe has the highest mobile penetration in the world 3 , with countries such as Denmark, Finland, Germany and the UK already averaging close to 90 per cent subscriber penetration. Africa currently has the lowest penetration, with only one out of three people in the region subscribing to mobile services in 2012, a figure that is expected to increase to 40 per cent in 2017. In Asia, subscriber penetration stands 40 per cent, and is expected to grow to 49 per cent by 2017. In China, the world’s largest mobile market, subscriber penetration will grow from 43 per cent to 52 per cent over the next five years.

“In developing markets, where there is clearly an opportunity for growth for the mobile industry, SIM per user patterns are influenced by cost-conscious, low-usage consumers who tend to accumulate prepaid SIM cards depending on the latest and most affordable prepaid tariffs,” continued Bouverot. “In developed markets, SIM per user patterns are influenced by the ownership of smartphones, tablets and other devices connected to mobile broadband networks and through the wider availability of shared data plans.”

According to the research, approximately a third of the world’s population of 7 billion are unlikely to be able to subscribe to mobile services for a variety of reasons 4 , resulting in an ‘addressable’ mobile subscriber base of around 5 billion. Wireless Intelligence predicts that the mobile industry will reach the 5 billion users milestone over the next decade as network expansion continues to progress in developing markets and as people in rural areas, many of whom currently live on less than $2 a day, subscribe to mobile services.

In India, according to figures from the World Bank and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), approximately half a billion people in the country’s rural areas are unconnected to mobile networks, with rural mobile penetration of 39 per cent. Rural penetration tends to grow slowly and, even when coverage has been deployed on a nationwide basis, it takes time for users to adopt mobile services. For example, in several African markets, such as Malawi, even though mobile coverage is close to 95 per cent of the population, connections penetration still stands at only 29 per cent in Q2 2012.

The below table provides global mobile subscriber penetration data in 2012 and 2017, and highlights the ‘addressable’ growth opportunity for the mobile industry.

Gross demographic subscriber assessment

(units in billion) 2012 2017
Global population * 7.0 7.4
Global mobile unique subscribers 3.2 3.9
Global unique subscriber penetration 46% 53%
Population potentially unable to subscribe ** 2.3 2.4
Addressable population 4.7 5.0
of which, unconnected due to network coverage *** 1.5 1.1
Adjusted global unique subscriber penetration 68% 78%

– ENDS –

Notes to Editors
1 Total unique SIM cards (or phone numbers, where SIM cards are not used) that have been registered on the mobile network at the end of a period. Connections differ from subscribers such that a unique user can have multiple connections.
2 Unlike total and active connection penetration rates, which can gravitate towards and above 200 per cent of the population, subscriber penetration measures the number of unique users and cannot exceed 100 per cent.
3 Mobile penetration, connections versus unique subscribers (Wireless Intelligence):
4 Globally there remains a share of the population without access to a mobile network – the (as of yet) ‘unconnected’ population. In addition, there will always be a share of the population within an area of coverage who are not mobile subscribers for other reasons. For example, within the youth, elderly, disabled, incarcerated or unemployed demographics, mobile subscriber penetration is likely to be lower than the overall average.
* Aggregated from UN population data
** Estimated proportion of demographic split in 0-14 and 65+ age brackets, based on World Bank data
*** Estimated proportion of unconnected population; assuming 70% GSM coverage by population in developing markets

Total connections penetration Unique subscriber penetration
2012 2017 2012 2017
World 93% 114% 45% 53%
Africa 68% 88% 33% 40%
Americas 112% 132% 59% 64%
Northern America 108% 117% 69% 70%
Southern America 128% 156% 57% 65%
Asia 87% 110% 40% 49%
Japan 113% 132% 88% 92%
Israel 135% 152% 76% 80%
Europe 135% 152% 76% 80%
UK 123% 128% 87% 89%
Spain 119% 129% 81% 84%
Oceania 108% 119% 74% 76%
Developing 87% 110% 39% 47%
Brazil 140% 177% 58% 68%
Russia 164% 183% 73% 79%
India 76% 100% 26% 40%
China 82% 107% 43% 52%
South Africa 138% 171% 66% 79%
Developed 122% 133% 79% 81%

About the GSMA
The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide. Spanning more than 220 countries and territories, the GSMA unites nearly 800 of the world’s mobile operators with more than 230 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset makers, software companies, equipment providers and Internet companies, as well as organisations in industry sectors such as financial services, healthcare, media, transport and utilities. The GSMA also produces industry-leading events such as the Mobile World Congress and Mobile Asia Expo.

For more information, please visit the GSMA corporate website at or Mobile World Live, the online portal for the mobile communications industry, at

About GSMA Wireless Intelligence
GSMA Wireless Intelligence is the definitive source of mobile operator data, analysis and forecasts, delivering the most accurate and complete set of industry metrics available. With twelve million individual data points (updated daily), the service provides coverage of the performance of all 1,550 operators and 1,600 MVNOs across 3,500 networks, 65 groups and 237 countries worldwide.

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