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The state of mobile: data subscriptions, smartphone ownership exploding

Mobile phones

Most of us take our mobile phones for granted. They’re so much a part of our daily lives that we can’t imagine what the world would be like without them, mostly because we don’t have to. In fact, a lot of people are so attached their devices that their brains perceive them in the same way they do phantom limbs. That personal relationship with our phones does however mean that we don’t take the time to consider the big picture.

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And when it comes to mobile, the big picture is flipping massive. According to the latest Ericsson Mobility report the global mobile market is still growing, despite the fact that there are now nearly as many mobile subscriptions as there are people on the planet.

According to the report, the number of mobile subscriptions worldwide has grown approximately seven percent year-on-year during Q3 2013. It’s not going stop for a while yet either. The company reckons that mobile subscriptions will continue growing over the next few years, hitting 9.3-billion by 2019.

That’s nothing however compared with the growth in mobile broadband subscriptions, which are up 40% year on year. Right now there are around 2.3-billion mobile broadband subscriptions around the globe. That number is expected to grow four times by 2019, reaching 8-billion.

The vast majority of those subscriptions will, in turn, be smartphone based. According to Ericsson, total smartphone subscriptions will reach 1.9-billion at the end of 2013 and are expected to grow to 5.6-billion in 2019. One of the main reasons for this, the company says, is a notable increase in Asia-Pacific and Middle East and Africa subscriptions, as people will be likely to exchange their basic phones for smartphones.

Despite that though, regional differences are still expected to be large. In 2019, almost all handsets in Western Europe and North America will be smartphones, compared to 50% of handset subscriptions in the Middle East and Africa.

Those disparities will also be reflected in the kind of mobile connections available across different regions of the globe.

Just as developing regions are dominated by 2G technologies, like GSM/EDGE, while developed ones are dominated by WCDMA/HSPA today, so developed areas are likely to be dominated by LTE in the near future, while 3G technologies will come to dominate emerging markets by 2019.

All about the data

That increase in subscriber numbers also inevitably means an increase in data usage. And by increase, we mean dramatic increase.

According to Ericsson, in 2013, total mobile traffic generated by mobile phones exceeded that from mobile PCs, tablets and mobile routers for the first time. Over the next few years, mobile data traffic will grow considerably faster than fixed data traffic with the Asia-Pacific region expected to see a particularly large explosion of data crossing its mobile networks.

Video firmly on top

It’s all well and good knowing how much data we’re using, but what are we using that data for? The answer, it turns out, is video…mostly. Right now, video accounts for around 35% of mobile data traffic, but it’s expected to grow to over 50% by 2019.

According to Ericssom, a big part of that is down to the massive demographic shift we’ve seen in who watches video on their mobile devices:

Streaming on-demand and time-shifted content, including YouTube, is growing. It is no longer just early adopters that use these services. As many as 41% of people aged between 65 and 69 stream video content over mobile and fixed networks on at least a weekly basis.

The percentage of data spent on music streaming meanwhile is also growing, while social networking and web browsing will remain flat. That said, the outlook for every category of mobile data shows significant growth through to 2019. The highest growth is expected from video traffic, which is estimated to constitute more than half of all mobile data traffic by the end of the forecast period.

There’s also still a definite discrepancy in what we use smart devices for, with tablets and mobile PCs being favoured over smartphones for video watching. Smartphones meanwhile are far and away the number one choice of device for social networking.

Interestingly, Ericsson reckons one factor that could potentially drive video on smartphones is gaming. As more games adopt elements such as multi-player features, high-definition content and video streaming, it says, requirements for greater throughput speeds and improved latency on both uplink and downlink will increase.

An Ericsson ConsumerLab analysis of smartphone users in the US meanwhile found a strong correlation between the frequency of playing games and watching video on this device type. Only 14% of all smartphone users watch video on their device on a daily basis — but out of this group, 57 percent also used it to play games every day. In fact, 52 percent of those who don’t watch videos on smartphones also play games less than monthly or never on their device.

It adds that there’s other evidence to support the hypothesis that games drive video consumption:

Qualitative studies reveal that mobile phone gamers mix games and video in order to improve the overall experience. Many watch videos of other players to improve their skills, find solutions to in-game problems or just enjoy watching others play. Creating and uploading one’s own gaming video is also gaining popularity. In addition, many free mobile games enable players to unlock bonuses by watching video ads.

One possibility thrown open by this assertion is that video platforms could well benefit from partnering with popular games.

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