One of three common positions required for proper mobile phone use.

Photographer: Eddie Gerald/Getty Images

Mobile Phones Are Taking Over the World

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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They keep coming closer, but will just fail to make it again this year. The International Telecommunication Union estimated last week that there will be 7.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide by the end of this year. Global population, meanwhile, is just about 7.25 billion.

This doesn't mean that almost every last man, woman and child on the planet has a phone -- many people, especially in affluent countries, have multiple phones and/or multiple phone numbers. But still, the data does show that most of the world is now connected, a big change from just a decade ago, when there were 2.2 billion wireless subscriptions worldwide. This represents such a dramatic and rapid transformation in how the world works that I imagine we are just starting to figure out what it might mean for business and other endeavors.

In the U.S. and Western Europe, where most everybody was already connected via landlines decades ago, the rise of mobile is of perhaps less epochal significance. But it's still pretty remarkable. In Western Europe, where easily removable SIM cards make it possible to use multiple subscriptions with the same device, the number of wireless subscriptions passed the number of people back in 2006 or so. In the U.S., wireless penetration passed 100 percent in 2012. According to the new Telecommunications Industry Association 2015-2018 ICT Market Review and Forecast, it's going to keep rising:

Most of those wireless subscriptions are for smartphones -- comScore reports that smartphone market penetration hit 77 percent in the U.S. in March. Spending on wireless data services surpassed spending on voice for the first time in 2014, according to the TIA Review and Forecast, and is projected to keep growing rapidly while voice spending falls.

As for the traditional circuit-switched phones that everybody used before mobile came along, they're rapidly going away. Landlines are still around, but they're increasingly going to be voice-over-Internet-protocol lines that bypass much of the old telephone infrastructure and are bundled with TV and broadband connections:

To sum up: the world is now truly connected for the first time, thanks to mobile phones. Americans, meanwhile, are increasingly connecting to the Internet via their mobile phones and making their landline calls over the Internet. None of this will be news to anyone who follows the telecom industry, recently set up a home phone line or recently walked down a sidewalk full of people looking at their smartphones. But it's worth reminding ourselves of how fast it is happening.

  1. Stands for subscriber identity module, but hardly anyone ever writes that out.

  2. The report, prepared by Wilkofsky Gruen Associates, isn't freely available online.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net