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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mobile phone penetration ceiling

I see lots of predictions about how quickly we'll reach 3 billion mobile phone subscribers. TI's CEO has gone one further and estimated 4 billion within 5 years.

I think he needs to check his maths.

There are 6.6bn people on the planet. About 1.7bn are less than 15 years old. Let's say 5bn adults (yes, some children will have phones, but some adults are too probably old/infirm which should balance this out). But something like 1.6-2.0bn people have no access to electricity - although these are probably disproportionately young, so there is probably a maximum of 4bn adults with the ability to charge up a cellphone. Assuming they can pay for one (maybe 3bn live on <$3 per day), or live within areas with cellular coverage, that is.

100% penetration of the theoretical target market? I don't think so.

Maybe we'll get to 4bn cellular subscriptions, or devices owned (which, let's face it, is what TI is interested in from the point of view of selling chips), perhaps growing to 1.5 per person in the developed world. But cellular users? No way.


Anonymous said...

Access to electricity can mean different things depending on the context. There's a thriving busines in rural South African villages for people who own car batteries: they rent it out to their neighbours to charge their phones, and once a week they spend a few hours travelling to the nearest place they can charge it. Then add in solar power and generators. Try travelling around rural India and see the number of villages that have clubbed together to buy a generator so that they can watch TV. How many of GSMA's $15 handsets ($20 including SIM) will a can of petrol charge up?

There's a persistent tendency in the west to underestimate the amount of their disposable income that people are willing to spend on mobile phones. Who would have thought that Kenyan fishermen would consider a mobile essential to find out where to land their catch for the best prices?

Dean Bubley said...

Fair point about car batteries and the like, and I had thought about that issue. Nevertheless, the point I was making was more about poverty.

I'm probably more aware than most people in the industry about the realities of mobile phone usage in emerging markets, as I tend to go on holiday to obscure places, travel by public transport & generally get a flavour for local use of technology. See http://disruptivewireless.blogspot.com/2006/01/thoughts-from-africa.html for my comments on Mozambique, for example.

I've also heard the fishermen example in at least 3 separate contexts. However, I'd argue that people who own a boat - or a minibus, or a farm - are in a minority in many countries.

Another anecdote: apparently in Zambia, it's cooler to have a USB memory stick than a phone, as it shows you're PC- and Internet-savvy....