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September 23, 2009


ChinaCHINA – I wanted to write that out in a headline, just to see what half a billion actually looked like in numbers. The actual number of subscribers to China Mobile is closer to 502,936,000, but that doesn’t look as good in headlines. China Mobile is the largest mobile phone operator on the planet, when you count subscribers, and it’s just announced the jump in numbers that means it’s broken through the half billion mark. It’s a little less than half the total number of people who use a Nokia device, give or take a hundred million or so, and almost twice the population of the USA. Yes, the entire population, and then some. All subscribed to one mobile phone network. Am I the only one who doesn’t get the scale of this?

The numbers start to become spectral after a while. I’ve seen the board in Nokia House in Espoo which shows how many Nokia users there are at any point in time. But when you have to move your head to read the whole number, you start to distance yourself from it, somehow. I find it almost haunting. And so it is with China Mobile’s news. Half a billion subscribers is an incredible achievement. That said, take a step behind the numbers and it gets even more interesting.

No, it isn’t some kind of cover up, it’s just that when it comes to mobile phones in China, that the biggest operator has half a billion subscribers is about the least interesting statistic. Mobile penetration has only recently nudged above 50 per cent. Many countries are already well in excess of 100 per cent penetration. For a country like Ireland (or even Finland) with relatively meager populations when it comes to size, these kinds of numbers mean little. But for China, where 50 per cent mobile penetration equates to almost 700,000,000 people, it’s a different matter.

Now pause for a second. Almost 700 million mobile subscribers and a little over 500 million of them with one network.

3G is interesting in China too. Only 1.33 million people are on the China Mobile 3G network, as of August (though that represents a jump of 30 per cent over July). With 4G technology already being tested in some parts of the world, and expected to begin roll out in the next 12 months, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what’ll happen in countries like China. I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that those 500 or so million people who aren’t yet on a 3G network, never will be. Nor will the ones who aren’t yet mobile. Nope, their first experience of mobiles, and the Internet, will be at such speed, they won’t even realise what we all had to live through (9,600 baud modem anyone?).

502,936,000. If size is your thing, then that’s an impressive number. I wonder what it’ll be this time next year though? Predictions below, please.

Oh, anyone remember why Nokia celebrated its own 500 million milestone at the start of the year? Here’s a hint (and the answer!)

Photo by kelleys