Despite saturated markets in developed countries, the world added a record 196 million mobile subscribers during the fourth quarter of last year. According to research firm TeleGeography, the previous record of just under 190 million new subscribers was set during the fourth quarter of 2007 — the year the iPhone (s aapl) hit stores. The growth is positive for operators, but they are already looking ahead to ensure that sales keep trending up when everyone has a cell phone.
Mobile subscribers grew by almost 690 million globally in 2010, to over 5.3 billion. And TeleGeography analyst Mark Gibson predicts that by 2014 the number of global wireless subscribers will top seven billion. This will be driven in part by the expansion of 3G networks in India and China, which were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, when it came to adding subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2010. India saw 42 percent growth for the year, while China’s mobile subs grew by 14 percent year over year.
As subscriber counts level off, the growth in the industry will have to come from selling more data plans and selling machine to machine connections in more devices. However, the growth in mobile data plans will require cheaper smartphones for developing countries as well as different data plans. Pre-paid or per-use data will likely take off for those on a budget. On the machine-to-machine side, carriers will have to fight in-home Wi-Fi and subscribers who don’t want multiple subscriptions for each device in order to see revenue rise.