There are 7 billion people on earth, including babies, the infirm, prisoners and others who can’t use a phone. But still early half of the world’s population have the things. In Australia and many western and Asian countries there are as many – or more – mobile phones as there are people.
There are 50 million new mobile phone connections every month – more than a million a day (or more than 50,000 every hour, or more than one every second). A quarter of the growth is coming from just two countries, India and China. Most of the rest is coming from other developing countries, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria all in the top ten.
For many years I used a slide in presentations which compared the industry’s forecasts for mobile phone penetration with what actually happened. In 2000 the UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) Forum underestimated the growth in mobile phone shipments over the next five years by a factor of two – twice as many shipped as they thought would happen.
If an industry body can get got so wrong – and they are more often optimistic than pessimistic – it shows the difficulty of forecasting these things.
The real news is that even in the developing world, by far the majority of adults have a mobile phone, and that is now the way most people on this planet access the Internet. To most people on this planet, the Internet revolution and the mobile phone revolution are the same thing.
I remember visiting Shanghai back in the 1990s. I was wandering down the Bund, as one does, and my phone rang (it was wine merchant calling from Australia). My guide, a young Chinese girl, saw my Ericsson flip phone and pulled out her own phone – it was exactly the same, even down to the banana yellow colour.
She asked me how much my phone cost me. I said a couple of hundred dollars. I didn’t really know – it was part of a plan. She told me hers cost her over a month’s salary, up front. Then it really hit me just how much people are prepared to pay for the convenience of mobile telephony. Every time a see figures like three billion mobile phones, I am reminded of that conversation.
Most of these new mobile phone connections are being taken up by people to whom the expense is a very significant part of their disposable income. More than a motorbike, more than a smart shirt, more than just about any other consumer item, people will buy themselves a mobile phone as soon as they can afford it. The cheapest models are now well within the reach of all but the poorest of the poor, and even smart phones are increasingly affordable.