Beyond Subscriptions: Actual Ownership, Use and Non-Use of Mobiles in Developing Countries


As widely reported, the number of mobile phone subscribers in the world passed the four billion mark at some point around the end of 2008, in a global population of around 6.7bn of whom about 80% (5.4bn) live in developing countries.


At first sight, that might suggest that 60% (4 / 6.7) of the world’s population has a mobile phone.  Given (ITU stats) that the subscriber rate in industrialised countries is roughly 100 per 100 inhabitants, that might also suggest that 50% ((4 – 1.3) / 5.4) of those living in developing countries had a mobile phone at the start of 2009.


We arrive at similar figures if we extrapolate the ITU 2007 stats using the CAGR% for 2002-2007 (minus population growth for the per 100 inhabitants data), to get a 2008 figure:

– Africa: 409m mobile subscribers; 41 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants

– Americas minus US/Canada: 483m subscribers; 84 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants

– Asia minus Japan/S. Korea/Israel/Singapore: 1736m subscribers; 45 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants

– All developing countries: 2.63bn subscribers; 49 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants


BUT . . . These figures have a number of problems.  I summarise below what little I have found: if you know more, please comment.


Actual Ownership


First, mobile subscription figures are overestimates of in-country mobile ownership for at least four reasons (see James & Versteeg 2007, and Kalba 2008):

– Some individuals have multiple subscriptions

– Visitors (both foreigners (tourists, business visitors) and nationals who currently reside abroad) buy a subscription/card for their phone during a short-term visit

– Some people living in neighbouring countries may subscribe when they live close to the border within service range

– Subscriptions are counted for some period of days/months after the last use; some of these subscriptions may be on cards/phones that are now discarded


How big is this effect?  Of course it varies, but a gratingly rough estimate is that in-country ownership is 75% of the subscription figure.  Ewan Sutherland reports an EU-wide figure of 103 subscriptions per 100 population in 2006, but on-the-ground surveys indicating 79 per 100 own a mobile phone.  Gillwald et al report 44 subscriptions per 100 population in South Africa in 2004, but on-the-ground surveys indicated 33 per 100 mobile phone ownership.  de Silva et al (2008) surveyed in India in 2006 and found 9 mobiles owned per 100 respondents, compared to ITU data for the same period of 15 subscriptions per 100: a converter of 60%; in Sri Lanka, the converter was 85%.  Wireless Intelligence produced a report indicating real penetration as a percentage of reported penetration for 2006 was: Romania (80%); Turkey (79%); South Africa (76%).


Within the EU, the ratios vary from about 50% (wealthy Luxembourg where multiple subscriptions are very common) to roughly 100% in France.  In accession state Bulgaria, the figure was about 55%, perhaps due to it having so many foreign second home owners, nationals working overseas, and transit visitors.  So the 75% estimate covers quite a wide variation that will depend on specific national conditions.  We also need a lot more data from developing countries themselves (where there may be a fifth reason for overestimation according to James & Versteeg: those who own SIM cards but not phones).


Actual Use


Second, mobile subscription figures are underestimates of in-country mobile phone access and use for at least two reasons:

– Private mobile phones are shared with family, friends, neighbours, etc.

– Public mobile phones are accessible to large numbers of people.


How big is this effect?  James & Versteeg cite an estimate of two users on average per privately-owned mobile phone on the basis of Vodafone Tanzania data; and 70 users on average per public mobile on the basis of Grameen Phone Bangladesh data.  But they also note that levels of sharing seem to vary a lot between countries.


If we take the 75% figure and the “two users” figure, this would mean that usage rates of private mobile phones in developing countries are 1.5 times the cited subscription rates.  So, for example, that would estimate in 2008 there were around 615m private mobile phone users in Africa: about two-thirds of the population.  That’s also (citing GSM Association data) about the proportion of the population that was covered by a mobile signal.


Of course, that excludes those who use public mobiles and other public phones.  Looking at de Silva et al’s Asia data, we might estimate that in the poorer developing countries, for every mobile phone owner, there are about three others who don’t own any phone, but find a way to access and use one.  However, the figures vary wildly and the ratios decrease rapidly as mobile phone ownership rises.  It may be better to lump all phone use together and ask our final question . . .


Levels of Non-Use


Thirdly, how many people still do not use a phone?  In the 1990s, we circulated the much-quoted “fact” that half the world’s population had never made a phone call.  How do things look now?  Let us reduce the 350m in Africa who live outside cell phone coverage with Gillwald et al’s data that around 25% of rural populations in Africa had used public payphones in the past three months.  We get roughly 250m non-phoners.  About 40% of these will be under 15; we’ll exclude those, to reach 150m adult non-phoners.


In Asia, de Silva et al’s survey work from late 2006 suggested only 4.5% of adult lower-income group members in the countries they studied had not made a phone call in the previous 3 months.  That suggests 120m non-phoners.  And we might guess roughly the same proportion for Latin America, giving about 20m non-phoners there.


So, a very rough and ready estimate suggests about 300m adult non-phoners in developing countries.  This number becomes larger if we start adding in children: around 10% of the developing world’s population (some 500m) is under 5; something like a further 1.5bn are aged 5-14.  Many of them will have made phone calls, but many will not.


And Finally


Finally, some additional confusions:


– The 75% conversion from subscriptions to ownership might get messed up by age demographics.  Gillwald et al did draw from all age ranges to get their survey figures.  It’s not clear if the EU and Bulgaria figures cited by Sutherland do the same, and the de Silva et al data does not seem to have done so.  We can at least estimate that about 25% of Africa’s population and perhaps 20% of Asia’s and Latin America’s population might be seen as too young (10 or under) to own a mobile phone.  That would mean, ironically, that the mobile subscription per capita figures and the actual ownership per capita of adult populations could be about the same.


– The basis for the figures is not totally clear, but in a number of surveys (some sub-Saharan African countries covered by Gillwald et al; some Asian countries covered by de Silva et al), the reported mobile ownership per capita figures were the same, or even higher, than the ITU-reported mobile subscriber per capita figure for that country.  This may reflect the exact population from whom the survey data was gathered (e.g. more urban than the general population), but it may well also reflect just how ropey are the statistics on mobiles in developing countries, where ballpark figures and trends are all we can really talk about.


16 thoughts on “Beyond Subscriptions: Actual Ownership, Use and Non-Use of Mobiles in Developing Countries

  1. Richard this is interesting. I just read Ewan Sutherland report a few weeks ago. It set me thinking on themes related to what you have here. I could relate with much of the arguments raised actual ownership and usage. During my research activities in some African countries, Uganda, Cameroon and Ghana I have usually come across those who buy extra phones subscriptions to purposely set up a household internet access. Others also had extra subscriptions which were usually given to visiting relatives from abroad. There were also several examples of sharing of mobiles within a household. I wonder the implications of the actual numbers on ownership and users (at the household and individual level) on M4D strategies and initiatives. There is still much to be known.

  2. I think you miss one point that adds up to the difference between subscriptions and owners: corporate subscriptions. Many people in developing countries have a personal phone plus a work phone.

    Going to the core of this post, the problem is that we tend to measure supply-side variables instead of demand-side (real use) ones. This is also pointed by Gillwald & Stork and, after my own research, I fully agree.

  3. Interesting piece. The issues and conclusions drawn are generally valid. In my small island developing state, multiple subscription is very evident with the two main companies suggesting high mobile user rates. Mobile users can be seen with at least two mobile phones which allow them to use the best promotional offers and packages from the different companies. This presents an interesting dynamic to assess cost cutting gains received by mobile users in a completely liberalized telecommunications industry. In addition to this, there is a claim by the Government that mobile penetration is either approaching 100% or just over but they are concerned with the impact of regular purchase of mobile services – calls and texting on actual livelihoods – How is it impacting disposable incomes? However, there are the pros and cons to this? One of the positives of the mobile use on disposable income is being able to generate remittances almost instantaneously. I believe research work needs to be intensified on mobile subscription and use patterns and their impact on livelihoods.

  4. Interesting post. From a design perspective we typically separate expected use (peoples motivations for purchasing) from their patterns of actual use e.g. carrying a mobile but always using the kiosk for outgoing calls. How do these patterns of behaviour affect what we should design?

    Related to another post on participatory design: we’ve tried a variety of ways to bring users (and other stakeholders) into the design process – with mixed success. Most recently – whilst it produced interesting/photogenic designs, the real value was in the focus it provided in follow-up interviews. The trick is applying a variety of techniques and understanding how they fit together.

  5. The relevant data for Latin America & Caribbean can be found here:

    A few highlights:

    – Mobile ownership among low income sectors varies widely from 94% to about 30% in Mexico.
    – Actual use does not differ much since shared use is not common in the region
    – Tariff levels are the main barrier for adoption (quite obvious but a lot more relevant for Latin America than Asia and Africa); see also our work on tariffs:

    All these results are from a household survey carried out in late 2007. We are working on updating results now.

  6. There is discussion and data on mobile subscriptions and usage in the 2012 IC4D World Bank report:

    This cites data from Senegal that supports the idea of usage being 1.5 times subscriptions – subscriptions were 57 per 100 people, but 86% of households had a mobile phone.

    The World Bank data also says 1.4 billion people lack a mobile phone subscription, but a) half of those will be kids; b) lacking a mobile phone subscription personally is not the same as lacking any access to a shared/household mobile phone; c) even those without access to a shared mobile may still be able to access public payphones.

    It is hard to avoid the sense that mobiles are now close to ubiquitous – the survey cites 95% of rural Chinese households having a mobile (the other 5% must be able to borrow one if they need it), and Senegal’s 86% figure was from 2009 – it must be close to 100% by now (at which point my 1.5 times calculation starts to break down – by definition it makes no sense above 66.6 subscriptions per 100 population since you can’t have more than 100% of the population able to access and use a phone).

    Of course, there are still going to be tens maybe a few hundred million without any phone access, but that number is dwindling, and we should probably start to embrace the notion of (at least mobile) digital ubiquity.

  7. An update from:
    “• Ericsson (June 2013) believes global mobile penetration reached 90 percent in Q1 2013 and mobile subscriptions now total around 6.4 billion. However, the actual number of subscribers is around 4.5 billion, since many people have several subscriptions e.g. work handset, home handset, PC dongle and/or tablet. Also operators are slow to remove inactive accounts from their databases. (This is why you commonly see countries with mobile penetration above 100 percent). It should also be noted that in some developing regions, it is common for several people to share one subscription. …
    • Wireless Intelligence (October 2012) estimates that there were 6.6 billion total connections in 2012 globally, excluding M2M. Of these it believes 10 percent are inactive, bringing the total down to 5.9 billion. Estimating that consumers use on average 1.85 SIM cards each, Wireless Intelligence concludes that unique mobile users worldwide currently stands at 3.2 billion. That means unique subscriber penetration is just 45 percent in 2012.”

    Compared to the analysis above, this suggests ownership is less than the 75% of subscriptions estimated: Ericsson’s figure is 70%; WI’s figure is just under 50%. However, these are global figures and there was some suggestion above the figures would fall with income. So the converter of 75% as a very rough developing country average could still stand.

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