The number of mobile subscribers globally will reach 3.2 billion by end-2012, excluding inactive SIM cards and multiple SIM card users, and this means mobile operators can capitalize on the "significant" market opportunities available for the next few years, the GSMA notes.
In its report released Thursday, the trade association's Wireless Intelligence team found the total mobile connections worldwide will stand at 6.8 billion including machine-to-machine (M2M) communications by the fourth quarter of this year. Excluding M2M and inactive SIM cards, the number of connections will drop to 5.9 billion, it added.
Additionally, since consumers on average use 1.85 SIM cards each, the total number of unique mobile subscribers globally will reach 3.2 billion by the end of the year. A unique subscriber can have multiple connections, or SIM cards under his or her name, the report noted.
This means global mobile subscriber penetration is only at 45 percent by end-2012, it added.
The primary research was conducted in 2009, 2011, and 2012 across 39 countries, which constitute about 75 percent of global connections. There was an even split between developed and developed economies, the research team stated.
"Unconnected" to drive growth
Looking ahead, future mobile subscriber growth will be driven by demand from "unconnected" populations in developing countries, particularly those in rural areas. The research estimates these populations would come to about 1.8 billion people through the next five years.
Elaborating, the findings predict subscriber penetration in developed countries will pass 80 percent in five years' time, and growth is expected to slow then. By contrast, the penetration rate for developing economies is forecasted to increase from 39 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2017.
In Asia, specifically, subscriber penetration currently stands at 40 percent and is expected to grow to 49 percent in 2017. China's subscriber penetration rate will rise from 43 percent to 52 percent during the same timeframe.
"In developing markets, where there is clearly an opportunity for growth for the mobile industry, SIM per user patterns are influenced by cost-conscious, low-usage consumers who tend to accumulate prepaid SIM cards depending on the latest and most affordable prepaid tariffs," Anne Bouverot, director general of GSMA, pointed out.
Ultimately, the research points to a "significant growth opportunity" for the mobile industry as it continues to connect the world's population, Bouverot added.