In 2011 Mobile Broadband Will Surpass Wired Broadband

Updated. The world will see one billion mobile broadband subscribers this year, doubling from the 500 million mobile web users in 2010, according to Ericsson (s eric), a provider of global telecom equipment. An increasing rate of smartphone adoption is the key driver, although connected laptops, tablets, USB data sticks and mobile hotspots will also add to the mobile subscriber numbers to a lesser extent. By the end of 2011, Ericsson estimates 400 million mobile broadband subscribers will be from the Asia-Pacific region, while Western Europe and North America will follow with 200 million each.

Indeed, one can see the growth effects that smartphone adoption is having on mobile broadband subscriptions by looking backward in time:

  • In 1998, long before the smartphone, global mobile subscribers — I wouldn’t call it broadband back then — numbered a scant 57,200 says Om, who was covering the nascent market at the time. Given slow networks, limited infrastructure and high costs, this number isn’t surprising.
  • It took until 2008 to hit 400 million mobile broadband subscribers, and much of that growth came from the early rise of the smartphone, which early adopters began to use in the mid-2000s.
  • From 2008 to 2010, mobile data subscriptions jumped another 25 percent, reaching an estimated 500 million. That’s no coincidence, since smartphones running iOS (s aapl), Android (s goog), Symbian (s nok), BlackBerry (s rimm) and other mobile platforms are all on the rise as compared to less-connected feature phones.

While this little history lesson illustrates where growth is coming from, one other key point emphasizes it even better: In November, research firm Gartner (s it) estimated a 93 percent year-over-year increase in smartphone sales in the third quarter of 2010, a figure that’s likely to keep increasing until market saturation hits. With the number of smartphones sold nearly doubling as compared to a year ago, it only makes sense that mobile broadband subscribers should follow suit, provided 3G and 4G network operators are prepared to handle the growing demand for data on hot new smartphones.

One last point puts the growth of mobile broadband in perspective. Even as Ericsson today put forth the billion subscriber estimate for mobiles, In-Stat this morning announced its estimate for global wired broadband users at 763 million in 2010. Although the definition of broadband may vary, as will subscriber estimates, by the end of this year, it’s possible that mobile web subscribers will outnumber wired broadband users for the first time ever!

Update: In-Stat commented on our original story, saying its estimate includes wired and wireless subscribers with varying definition on wireless broadband. For another datapoint, I turned to the Broadband Forum, which last week announced 508.7 million wired broadband subscribers globally at the end of the third quarter 2010. Given the likelihood that wired subscriptions would have grown, wired and wireless broadband subscribers are probably neck-and-neck right now, with mobile growing faster.

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