September 20, 2008

October 13, 2008, was a milestone in mobile communications: the 25th anniversary of the first commercial cellphone call. As the revolution-without-wires has spread, the result is an adoption rate that would have left Alexander Graham Bell himself speechless. Within a quarter century of that call—which was placed to Mr. Bell’s grandson—the majority of people on this earth have a mobile phone.

Think of anyone you know, odds are that person is a wireless subscriber.

In fact, that person might be a bunch of wireless subscribers.

In a phenomenon that baffles newcomers to the mobile world, penetration figures sail past 100%—and no one so much as bats an eyelash.

More than once, we’ve received questions from people who assume the numbers are some sort of error, an egregious typo repeated half a dozen times. How can penetration be above 100%? Is Spain bringing in extra people from outside the country just to talk on the phone?

Well, no. Probably not, anyway. Seems like something we would have noticed.

The reason, of course, is that people have more than one mobile. One for home, one for work. A contract phone for around town, a prepaid phone for the road. This happens to a particular degree in Europe, where frequent travel across borders means juggling subscriptions to keep from paying steep roaming fees. Usually, this means carrying one phone and switching out the SIM card, the little chip that stores your subscriber information.

Set aside for a moment the fact that SIM cards are about as big as a fingernail and have got to be the easiest things to lose this side of bobby pins. The real issue is that for those of us who look at spreadsheets and want to know how many people have phones, the concept of “multiple SIMs” is a bit abstract. The image we conjure in our heads is of someone with an armful of phones.

For example, Informa Telecoms & Media estimates that by the end of the year, 28.9% of prepaid mobile subscriptions worldwide will consist of “secondary or tertiary SIM card ownership.” Certainly a very useful figure to know, but can you blame us if “tertiary SIM card ownership” sounds an awful lot like “has more phones than hands?”

Heck, the GSM Association reports mobile phone penetration in Italy at 154%. It’s hard not to picture every man, woman and child in the country carrying baskets of phones, trading them like currency, using them as noisemakers at football matches, building sculptures out of them to stand alongside fountains and in piazzas.

Definitely seems like something we would have noticed.

Courtesy of


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