On the eve of the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, it seems fitting that the UMTS Forum has announced that there are now 500 million 3G/UMTS subscribers in the world. It's worth remembering that, from humble beginnings in a mish-mash of hotels in Cannes, France, today's 50,000 attendee, Barcelona über-event has emerged. It's also worth remembering that it was originally known as the GSM World Congress, then the 3GSM World Congress before it hit on its current, wider-embracing theme.
While the UMTS Forum reports with evident delight that 3G/UMTS subscribers have hit half a billion in the eight years since NTT DoCoMo launched the world's first commercial 3G/WCDMA service, in terms of the mobile population in general, that's still a tiny amount and the industry has plenty of headroom to target in its deliberations in Spain. GSM connections are fast approaching 3.5bn worldwide and account for the lion's share of the GSMA's reported 4.3bn users. And that's before the industry has properly engaged with machine-to-machine market and vast portions of the planet's population. It's not too far fetched to think of this as a market with potential to top 20bn connections.
What is clear, is that users are now demanding greater mobile bandwidth and capabilities and seeking out high bandwidth networks and devices rather than being pushed them by operators and device manufacturers. Perhaps the likes of Nokia feel they've done enough and don't need to push on an already open door. In a previously unthinkable move, the company won't be exhibiting its devices at the show and, although that could be laid at the recession's door, I suspect the reality is they simply don't need to target the MWC audience of operators and other vendors. The end users want their devices, Apple's and a spate of other absentees' offerings. The market is maturing and relationships are well established so they may feel relaxed about not needing to be there. How times change.
The GSMA released one further piece of market data in the week before the show, no doubt with the aim of getting operators' spending fingers twitching. It reported that HSPA connections have passed the 200m milestone and that it expects mobile operators around the world to spend US$72 billion on mobile broadband technologies this year. To what extent that is wishful thinking, we will see in the next ten months, but it certainly provides a compelling reason to head for the show.