The world’s largest mobile networks

According to the GSM Association, global mobile connections are expected to exceed 6.8 billion by the end of 2012 – and 43% of these connections will be carried by the world’s 10 largest mobile networks.

With a combined connection base of 2.92 billion subscribers the 10 largest mobile networks in the world carry the bulk of mobile users, filtered across continents, through partners and subsidiaries.

The GSMA makes a distinction between “connections” (number of SIM cards on a network) and “subscriptions” (number of individual people on a network); however, the United Nation’s telecommunications arm, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) does not make this distinction, and counts a SIM card as a subscription.

The GSMA expects real “subscription” figures to be closer to 3.2 billion by the end of 2012. For the basis of this article, the ITU’s defintion of a subscription (GSMA: connection) is used.

Asian domination

When looking at mobile subscriptions, globally, it comes as no surprise that Asia dominates the networks. With a population exceeding 4.1 billion out of the global population of over 7 billion people, Asia has by far the largest base of mobile users.

This is echoed by the largest mobile networks on the continent sporting massive subscriber numbers.

The largest mobile network, globally, is China Mobile, which holds almost 700 million subscribers on its network. Competing network, China Unicom, by comparison is the 6th largest network, overall, with 230 million subscribers.

According to figures from the ITU, China has over one billion mobile subscribers.

Another Asian powerhouse network is India’s largest network operator, Bharti Airtel, which is the third largest network, globally, with over 260 million subscribers.

Russia’s VimpelCom, with 209 million subscribers, is the 8th largest network in the world.

Global leaders

In Europe, Vodafone – the parent company of South Africa’s Vodacom network – is the second largest mobile network globally, with a figure of 446.5 million subscribers attached to its name.

This includes Vodacom’s 58.2 million subscribers from all its operations inside and outside South Africa.

Other European networks such as Spanish mobile operator, Telefonica, and France’s Orange network are 5th and 7th largest, overall, with 245.6 million and 227.2 million subscribers, respectively.

The USA’s Verizon and AT&T networks don’t crack the top 10 largest networks in the world, but do hold 109 million and 101 million subscribers, respectively.

The largest network representing the Americas, is Mexican operator, America Movil, which is the 4th largest network, overall, with close to 252 million subscribers.

The largest network in Africa, and the 9th largest overall, is South Africa’s MTN Group. MTN has operations across Africa, totalling 21 countries in total, and has close to 183 million subscribers.

The UAE’s Etisalat rounds off the top 10 biggest networks with 167 million subscribers.

The 10 biggest mobile networks in the world

Rank Operator Country As of
Subscribers (millions)*
1 China Mobile China September 2012 698.5
2 Vodafone UK June 2012 446.5
3 Airtel India October 2012 260.7
4 América Móvil Mexico June 2012 251.8
5 Telefónica Spain September 2012 245.6
6 China Unicom China October 2012 229.5
7 Orange France September 2012 227.2
8 VimpelCom Ltd. Russia March 2012 209.0
9 MTN Group South Africa September 2012 182.7
10 Etisalat UAE December 2011 167.0

* Numbers taken from financial reports

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The world’s largest mobile networks