The ITU is 100% wrong on mobile phone penetration, IMHO


The ITU (the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency that looks after ICT – information and communication technologies) has produced a useful update on ICT facts and figures.

The report is well worth reading and shows, amongst other things:

  • As more and more mobile phones are bought, the growth is slowing. In 2005/6 the global growth rate in cellular subscriptions was just under 25%. In 2012/13 it was down to just over 5%. In the developing world the growth has fallen from over 30% in 2005/6 to just over 6% now. None of which is surprising, but it is nice to know the numbers.
  • The internet continues to grow in all regions and globally. With 77% in the developed world having internet access, and 31% in the developing world.
  • Globally just under 3 billion people are using the internet, almost 40% of the population.
  • About 50% of the households with access to the internet are in the developing world (although that is a much lower penetration rate than in the developed world, 28% in the developing world and 78% in the developed world).
  • Fixed-broadband is much cheaper in the developed world than the developing world, although the price has been falling in the developing world. Costs in the report are measured as a percentage of GNI (Gross National Income – roughly, the amount the whole country earns) per person. In the developed world fixed broadband costs under 2% of average monthly income, in the developing world it costs over 30% of average monthly income.
  • Fixed broadband in the developing world is growing, but is still only 6%, compared with 27% in the developed markets. However, over 50% of the households with fixed-broadband are in the developing world, because it is larger.
  • The four countries with the highest percentage of their fixed-broadband being high-speed are: South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Bulgaria.
  • Mobile broadband subscriptions have grown from under 300 million in 2007, to 2 billion in 2013.
  • In the developing countries mobile broadband is more expensive than it is in the developed markets, but cheaper than fixed broadband in the developing markets.
  • In Africa mobile broadband subscriptions cost about 50% of average income, compared with less than 2% in Europe.

The ITU is 100% wrong on penetration
So, it is a pity that the ITU refer to a highly misleading statistic in their report, which challenges the value the way that data from the ITU will be considered. And, it is a pity that some people in and around the market research world have picked up on this misleading number.

What is this misleading statistic? I am referring to the part of the report where the ITU says that the penetration of mobile-cellular is 96% globally and approaching 100%. It then compounds its dodgy use of language when it describes the penetration in the developed world as 128%, and describes mobile-cellular penetration as 170% in the CIS (a subset of the countries that used to be in Soviet Union, including Russia).

Let’s just think about 100% for one moment. In the way we normally use the phrase (for products, diseases, education, services) 100% would mean every baby, every prisoner, every homeless person would have one. For example, when we estimate the penetration of a TV show we interview a representative sample and gross up to the population. Clearly, it would be a nonsense to claim that 100% of people have a mobile phone. By the time we get to 170%, we can see that the ‘normal’, or useful definition of penetration is not the one they are using.

So, what do the reports of 100% penetration mean? Read the non-nonsense bits of the ITU report and you will notice that the team who have produced the charts (as opposed to the copy) refer to mobile-cellular subscriptions, and mobile-cellular subscriptions per 100 people. It is a pity that the copywriters did not follow the lead of the ITU people who worked on the charts.

What are mobile-cellular subscriptions? Very roughly, the number of subscriptions is the number of sims in use. If somebody has two phones, that is two sims, two subscriptions. If somebody has a dual-sim phone, that is two sims, and is often two subscriptions. If somebody has two phones, a tablet, and a mobile modem, they have four sims.

Am I just being pedantic, or does it matter? Yes, in my opinion it matters. Because people are quoting these super high ‘penetration’ rates there is an assumption that catering for mobile phone users, in and of itself, avoids excluding people.
We can use the UK as a good example. The ITU figures for the UK, in 2011, says there were 131 subscriptions per 100 people – a figure the ITU copywriters and careless MR tweeters would call 131% penetration. However, the UK’s General Lifestyle Survey found that in 2011 one-in-seven households had zero mobile phones (i.e. 86% of households had at least one person in it who had at least one mobile phone). Data collected in the UK by the communication regulator (Ofcom) estimate that at the end of 2012 92% of adults owned or had the use of a mobile phone.

In the developed markets, such as the UK, the difference between a penetration rate of 131-132% of the total population (babies and all) and a real rate 0f 86-92% of adults is not particularly important. But if the ratio in the UK is typical, the ITU figure of 100% global could mean about two-thirds of adults have the use of a mobile phone, and that does matter. For example, it means research projects requiring a good representation of people, in some countries, cannot assume that mobile is currently a safe option.

11 thoughts on “The ITU is 100% wrong on mobile phone penetration, IMHO

  1. You’re right Ray – SIM counts being masqueraded as subscriber counts is a sham. But also agree with Christian… fact is that the tsunami is visible, and its a matter of time before it strikes!

  2. Hi Christian, which wave? I don’t doubt that we are fast moving towards a world where every economically active adult has a smartphone connected to the internet – and many non-adults and non-economically active people too. And, other than the damage to the world’s environment that the internet is causing, I would not seek to halt it.

    Or, is the wave you are talking about the growth in misleading statistics, leading to an erosion in evidence based decision making? In which case, you may be right, but I will certainly try to halt that wave 🙂

  3. Hi Ray,

    I’ve been researching this topic and have been frustrated by this point. They are misusing the term penetration. Have you found any reliable sources for true penetration? I’m looking for global, regional or even country by country statistics.



    P.S. this thread was found by Google in a web search and I recognized your name from the MR discussion boards on linked in.

  4. I’m with you, Ray. Apparently counting people is not a skill everyone learned in kindergarten. The next time I see a baby using a couple of phones, I’ll let you know.

  5. Wave or no wave, the statistical assumption that a functioning SIM card means actual ‘penetration’ (wish we had a better word…) is surely flawed – so I agree with Ray. I, for instance, do have a ‘plain’ mobile phone (not a smartphone – all I can do with it is phone people (duh) and text them), and would therefore be counted as one of the 92% of the UK population (if I lived there) owning a mobile or with access to one. But in practice I never use it, never have it on me and hence am not contactable by phone. So when people ask me if I have one I say ‘no’, since any other answer would be misleading.

    The only reason I ever got one was that I travel a lot (by train) and hotels increasingly insist that I have to check in by 6 p.m. or else phone them (again the assumption that we all have a mobile), otherwise my reservation will be cancelled – time was when an agreement was an agreement, but there you go…. So my mobile only comes out of its drawer when I leave the country, and is seldom if ever used even then – basically only if a train gets delayed.

  6. You can find solace in the latest GSMA study (The Mobile Economy 2015) where they provide both “unique subscriber by region” and “total connections by region” — If only they could provide this on a country basis…

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