GSM subscriber growth, on an absolute basis, is slowly grinding to a halt. According to forecasts from ABI Research that growth is expected to flatline by mid-2011.

“There is still some mileage in EDGE subscriptions (28 percent) and GSM voice-only subscriptions (8 percent), but otherwise GPRS subs are shrinking,” comments Vice President of Forecasting Jake Saunders. “However, 3G and 3.5G subscriptions are ramping up as the ‘need for speed’ encourages end-users to upgrade. At the end of 2009, there were 181 million HSxPA subscriptions. Overall, mobile broadband subscriptions grew to 271 million for a YoY growth rate of 43 percent.”

Global cellular subscription numbers surpassed 4.35 billion by the end of 2009, with a YoY growth of 10.4 percent. Cellular subscriptions slowed perceptibly in the first half of 2009 as emerging markets took the brunt of the economic slowdown. The rate of adoption slowed, and existing end-users reduced spending on cellular subscriptions. Cellular subscription adoption has since recovered in late 2009, resulting in global cellular penetration topping 66 percent.

Most industrialized countries pushed through the 100% penetration barrier by the end of the 1990s, with the help of prepaid subscription plans. “There is a very real prospect that within the next five to ten years, cellular subscription penetration will pass through 200 percent in a number of developed countries,” adds analyst Bhavya Khanna. “USB dongles, embedded modems in netbooks, laptops, tablets and consumer electronics will test the definition of ‘mobile cellular subscriber’. Operators will need to evolve to multiple devices per subscription to retain customers.”

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for a staggering 45 percent of the global cellular market compared to just 29 percent ten years ago. The next-largest market is Western Europe (13 percent) followed by North America (7.2 percent). In Asia-Pacific, cellular penetration has only reached 52.5 percent compared to 140 percent in Western Europe and 93% in North America. Cellular penetration will include 80 percent of the world’s population by early 2014.

ABI Research’s “Wireless Subscriber Forecasts” series of Market Data products – North and South America, Asia-Pacific, Western and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, and Worldwide – tracks key subscription trends by quarter by operator for over 120 markets. The database forms part of two ABI Research Services: The Mobile Consumer and Business Mobility.