By Kathy Gibson in Stockholm, Sweden – The number of mobile subscriptions in the world already exceeds the number of people – a trend that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
One of the major growth areas for new subscribers is Africa, which in the second quarter of 2013 numbered 781-million subscribers; 20-million more than the previous quarter.

This is according to Patrik Cerwall, head of strategic marketing and intelligence at Ericsson’s ConsumerLabs, presenting an interim update to the Ericsson Mobility Report yesterday.

He believes that current connectivity trends will continue, with subscriptions growing about 6% year over year to reach 9-billion by 2018.

The excess subscriptions will come partly from people having more than one device but also from connected machines not tied to actual people.

Mobile data traffic is seeing the most growth around the world. While voice traffic has stayed fairly static over the last couple of years, data has once again doubled year on year, with Ericsson predicting a 12-fold growth between 2012 and 2018.

Cerwall points out that most of the networks in use today were built for voice traffic and, with data having overtaken voice back in 2009 and growing exponentially since then, enormous pressure has been put on operators’ networks.

In terms of network types, LTE reached a milestone of 100-million subscriptions by the end of June 2013 and is expected to top 2-billion as soon as 2018. GSM, which has been the dominant connection until now, will start to decline in 2013/2014 in favour of 3G, while LTE starts to gain traction around the world.

There are currently 1 000 devices that can connect to LTE, further helping to fuel the technology’s growth.

In Africa, the dominant network is still overwhelmingly GSM, with only 15% to 20% of connections currently on 3G. By 2018, a small portion of subscribers will be on an LTE network, with the bulk split almost evenly between GSM and 3G.

The demand for faster networks is being partly fuelled by the growth in smartphone devices. For the first time, in the second quarter, smartphone sales passed feature phone sales around the world, having passed the 1-billion mark at the end of 2012. Ericsson believes there will be about 4,5-billion smartphones in use by 2018.

The smartphone growth has a significant impact on the network, Cerwall points out. “It’s not just about the device, it’s about using data on that device,” he says.

Currently, the average data usage of a smartphone is about 450Mb per month. This is expected to grow to about 2Gb per month on average by 2018.

“This means that the growth of smartphones, and the growth in what people do with them and the amount of data they will use, will lead to a 12-fold increase in data traffic by 2018.”

It’s clear that a lot of that traffic will be video, Cerwall says. In fact, video will account for well over half of data traffic by 2018.

This means the networks are going to have to grow and evolve quickly to keep up. GSM currently covers 85% of the world’s population, and will cover 90% by 2018, about the limit of where it will get to. 3G currently covers about 55% of the population, expected to reach 85% by 2018. Meanwhile, LTE is only accessibly by 10% of the population now, but will grow to about 60% by 2018.

As users start downloading apps and data, the existing networks will appear to be less efficient. Cerwall explains that this is because the coverage from base station is general wider for voice than it is for data, while performance may seem slower.

“So it feels like the network is getting worse, but really the user requirements are changing,” he says.
Network operators are urged to improve their network performance and coverage of their existing networks. “Operators can do a lot to improve all parts of their networks in terms of performance, coverage and optimising services; they can even do a lot on their GSM networks.”