You Can Soon Talk to 5 Billion People on a Mobile Phone

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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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