Recession dampens wireless subscriber growth; but six billion milestone still within reach

4 Sep 2009

TeleGeography reported two weeks ago that aggregated Q2 revenue from the top 15 largest service providers grew by just a fraction of a percent from the previous quarter, and the full analysis of wireless subscriber growth in the quarter helps to explain why. While the quarterly growth in wireless subscribers came in at over 130 million, taking the worldwide total to 4.3 billion, this represents a further drop in the quarterly growth rate. Global growth in subscribers countered the drop in ARPUs, but only by the smallest margin.

Subscriber growth took a marked turn for the worse in the last quarter of 2008. Historically, wireless service providers have experienced a growth spike in the fourth quarter of each year. However, in 2008 the quarterly growth rate fell to the lowest level of the year. Subscriber growth has continued to slow in the first two quarters of 2009, and now stands at just over 3%.

On an annual basis, global wireless subscriber growth has gradually tailed off, reaching just 20% in 2008, and TeleGeography had predicted that the figure for 2009 would dip to 15%. We are currently re-running our detailed country-level wireless forecasts, but early indications are that a percentage point may have to be shaved off its this growth projection. Nonetheless, as global economies stabilise and start to return to normal, TeleGeography believes that wireless subscriber growth rates will follow suit.

Beyond 2009 it is inevitable that annual growth rates will steadily decline, but the market remains on track to reach six billion subscribers by mid- to late- 2013, a milestone that TeleGeography had previously forecast would be reached by the end of 2012. Keep watching this space for results of the updated forecast.

So, where is the subscriber growth coming from? Few surprises here. Looking at the ranking of national service providers with the highest quarterly growth in wireless subscribers, three of the top ten are in China and five are in India, with China Mobile leading the charge followed by Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Essar and Reliance. Looking beyond the top ten, it is startling to see that no less than 15 of the top 17 come from BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China.

TeleGeography’s GlobalComms products include a regularly updated online database of wireline, wireless and broadband competition, covering over 160 countries and 1,200 operators.

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