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Summary:

The number of worldwide mobile subscriptions is expected to cross the 5-billion threshold this month, or roughly 73.4 percent of the global population. What happens, however, when voice migrates to expensive data networks? Might we be able to call fewer people around the world?

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The number of worldwide mobile subscriptions is expected to cross the 5-billion-person threshold by the end of this month, equating to roughly 73.4 percent of the global population. iSuppli, a market research firm, reported the numbers this morning and expects a near-75-percent mobile subscriber penetration rate before 2011 arrives. Such numbers are in line with the data offered earlier this week by Sir Tim-Berners Lee, who said, “80 percent of the world has access to a cellular data signal,” so most of those that can subscribe, appear to do so.

As a global milestone, the ramp-up to 5 billion mobile subscribers is huge when seen in comparison to the adoption of communications methods such as the telegraph and landline telephone. Data traffic on wireless networks surpassed voice communication in December 2009, so the next frontier is global Internet connectivity, which helps explain where the future growth is for telecom spending. iSuppli predicts $80.2 billion in wireless communications semiconductor spending by 2014, but carriers will surpass that investment  In-Stat expects carriers to invest $117 billion on mobile data backhaul alone in the same time period.

Will the adoption of data services be faster than the adoption of voice? Moving voice packets to 4G data networks will help accelerate the move: In the not-too-distant future, you won’t buy voice minutes, you’ll simply purchase a bucket of data which will support voice communications. That’s great for industrialized nations, but a problem for developing areas. Berners-Lee sadly pointed out that although the majority of the population has cellular access, only 20 percent of all people on Earth use the web because it’s too expensive compared to voice. Unless we get the free or low-cost, low-bandwidth mobile data plan for everyone Berners-Lee is calling for, we might be able to speak with fewer people in the future if cheap voice becomes expensive data.

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  1. The Web is not “too expensive compared to voice.” You don’t get free voice in every coffee shop and McDonald’s! What’s more, computers cost less than cell phones.

    The real reason why the Web is less used is that it requires at least minimal computing skills and we are not educating people properly. I still regularly encounter adults who do not know the meanings of the terms “icon,” “URL,” and “focus.”

  2. The figure cited about 5 billion subscriptions equating to roughly 73.4 percent of the global population is misleading. That implies that 100% of the population would be 6.8 billion.

    But, it fails to take into account that people might have more than 1 phone subscription.

  3. What’s cheaper than voice? In the developing world mobiles are cheaper and more ubiquitous than computers, but people don’t necessarily do voice calls or surf the web. They text (SMS) or if their phone has some sort of GPRS connection they can do messaging via IM. And yes, in some parts of the world, people have more than one phone, which explains why phone penetration exceeds 100% in some areas. – jim in manila

  4. What is happening with wireless mesh networking? I remember being quite excited by OLTP’s pioneering of 802.11s but don’t seem to have heard much about it since. The possibilities of wireless ad hoc networking between mobiles as well as the internet would seem to offer serious growth in low-cost data communication in poor countries.
    I’d love to read a GigaOm article on developments in wireless mesh networks and peer to peer mobile data.

    1. Oops, I meant OLPC

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