Meet the top 20 mobile operators

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There are more than 5 billion mobile subscribers in the world, but the growth is coming from Asia and Latin America, according to data out on Thursday from Wireless Intelligence, the analyst arm of the GSM Association. The group reports that China Mobile has the highest number of subscribers with 616.8 million, followed by Vodafone and America Movil Group.

U.S. carrier Verizon doesn’t show up until lucky No. 13, and AT&T is at No. 16. However, despite their low standing in terms of the number of subscribers, both U.S. carriers are in the top five of the listed carriers when one tallies their revenue. However, the inability of those firms to continue growing through new subscribers means we’re likely to see them enter new markets (hence the race to embrace machine-to-machine connections) and perhaps lower their prices and try to score exclusives on hot devices to steal away market share.

One would expect things to get a lot more cutthroat, except that the American mobile phone buyer tends to expect a subsidy, which locks him or her into a two-year contract. Those contracts will keep churn lower and prices higher despite the fight for growth. It’s almost as if the industry were fighting a battle for growth while trapped in syrup. Every move will take a year or two to have real results.

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