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There are now more SIMs than people in the world, with the former surpassing the latter a little earlier this year, or so says mobile network supplier Ericsson, with that particular factoid – and many others – found in its annual Christmas Pudding of traffic stats and forecasts, the 2015 Mobility Report.

Ericsson takes a quarterly snapshot of data and traffic trends, and every year gathers them up and extrapolates them into forecasts. We learn that the number of mobile subscriptions (7.4 billion) has now surpassed the global population of the world (7.3 billion) for the first time.

Ericsson points out there are actually fewer (4.3 billion) subscribers, and it doesn't count dormant SIMs.

Looking ahead to 2021, Ericsson forecasts that video will fuel the biggest growth in traffic by type, and can just about envisage a small number of subscribers on 5G networks by then, although the definition of a "5G network" is pretty generous.

The average mobile subscriber in Europe will use nine times more traffic in 2021 than today, although the growth will be much more modest for laptops and tablets.

Most of these, around 75 per cent, will be using LTE by then, thinks Ericsson. By the way, Ericsson is one of the top three vendors of LTE equipment, but jumps to number one when WCDMA (3G) and LTE are added together.

However, intense pressure from LTE leader Huawei saw it cuddle up to Cisco in a non-nuptial living arrangement announced last week. The idea that LTE technology will plateau at 75 per cent was met with some skepticism from one or two analysts.

By 2021, 90 per cent of the world will have been covered by mobile networks, so by then even David Cameron should be able to make a mobile call from the remote "Cotswolds" region of the UK.

For real numbers, Ericsson estimates there were 87 million new subscribers added in Q3 2015, with much of the growth seen in Africa; Nigeria is adding a new subscriber every five seconds. At these rates, smartphone growth should double by 2021 – but by 200 per cent in Africa.

Around a billion Africans will have smartphones by then, with lots of market experimentation and new business models.

Ericsson says its forecasters have raised the data traffic growth prediction for the year on the back of strong demand for video.

More contentiously, Ericsson sees around 150 million subscribers on "5G networks" by 2021, almost all in Asia and North America, even though the standard still won't have been finalised. Its definition of a "5G" subscriber is that it "requires a device capable of supporting LTE Evolved or NX, connected to a 5G-enabled network, supporting new use cases".

More growth will come via the fabled "Internet of Bits and Bobs", aka M2M. Ericsson defines a M2M device as something with an IP stack allowing two way communication, a definition that excludes passive sensors and tags.

The growth in M2M will not ignite operators cash tills, however, Ericsson forecasts, with overall M2M growth hitting 28 billion devices by 2021, from 14 billion currently, but most of these will come from non-cellular M2M devices, rather than things with a SIM (or soft SIM) inside.

2G Kinda Lingers

Somewhat surprisingly, 2G isn't going anywhere. Analysts have been guessing a shut down date for GSM in mature markets for years, to free up spectrum and use it for more efficient 3G and 4G networks.

In the US, AT&T announced three years ago that it would sunset the GSM network by 1 January 2017. Other US networks were more tardy. Aussie network Telstra will beat AT&T to drop GSM by a day.

But Ericsson thinks GSM will be stickier than most people assume.

"It isn't going away," Patrik Cerwell, lead editor of the report, told analysts at a briefing. He cited a widespread installed base of handheld payment terminals, most of which use GPRS, and which work just fine.

In fact Telenor has vowed to shut down its 3G network by 2020, keeping GSM around for five further years after that. You can find more of the factual goodies here


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