MADISON, Wis. — If you are developing a new business plan for the next big thing you're about to spring on the burgeoning mobile phone market, forget about it. File it. Mothball that sucker. Seriously. The mobile phone market is saturated.
"More than 3.4 billion people, nearly half the world's population, own at least one mobile phone," says a recently released study by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington independent research organization. "As of 2010, more than 90 percent of people worldwide were covered by a mobile phone signal."
This all seems good. Everybody's talking or texting or gaming. But the number of mobile subscriptions paints a whole different picture. It already far surpasses the number of phone owners, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Subscription growth is slowing; annual additions peaked in 2010 at 680 million. "The subscription rate began to dip in 2011, and an estimated 424 million new subscriptions will be added in 2013 -- some 250 million fewer than in 2010."
By "mobile subscriptions," the institute means the number of active accounts with access to a mobile network. Many people have multiple mobile devices or use multiple SIM cards in one phone, so it's understandable that the number of mobile subscriptions is higher than the number of people owning phones. But here's the rub. Mobile subscriptions, which are projected to grow from 1 billion in 2000 to more than 6.8 billion by the end of 2013, is unlikely to increase by a whole lot more in the future.
The International Telecommunication Union expects the number of mobile subscriptions to surpass the world's population in early 2014. That's just a few months from now.
The Worldwatch Institute writes in its report, "The future of the mobile phone industry will be less about adding new subscriptions and more about improving existing service." The most common mobile network in the world still uses 2G technology that allows users to talk and send text messages. Nearly 4.7 billion mobile subscriptions use that technology today.
With so many market research companies producing reports on mobile phones, the fascinating feature in this one is the genuine global view. Instead of the usual horse-race market predictions about who's winning or losing, the Worldwatch Institute offers analysis on mobile phones from the social and economic points of view. Think about this:
Perhaps one of the most important side effects of the growing mobile phone industry in the developing world is that financial services have become tethered to mobile phone use in poor regions. Areas with high poverty tend to have mobile subscription rates of 50 out of 100 people, while only 37 percent of people living there have access to a physical bank branch. Financial institutions have begun to leverage the existing infrastructure for mobile phones so that a host of transactions -- such as opening a savings account, paying bills, or transferring money -- can be conducted at local mobile retail stores.
The report also touched on the environmental effects of mobile phones. People in the United States are believed to replace their phones every two years on average. (Young users probably do so more often.) How many phones get chucked every year? According to the report, 150 million phones were thrown away or recycled in the US alone in 2010.
What happens to old phones?
Old phones, along with other so-called e-waste, are often exported to countries like India and China, where the valuable materials contained in them are extracted in ways that endanger the health of the workers and that pollute the local environment with dangerous toxics. Exposure to the phones’ components can have severe neurological effects, especially on the children who are most often the ones involved in this extraction.
Your next big thing could be in developing apps to devlier financial services on mobile phone in the developing world, or it could be delivering services that deal squarely with old phones. Either way, counting on the fast growth of mobile phones is a strategy whose only future might be on late-night infomercials.