What Is Attached to Our Global ICT Infrastructure?

How much gear is attached to the edges of our global ICT infrastructure? Our 2015 estimate is over 19 billion items. This up ~1 billion over 2013. The increase is driven by mobile and consumer media devices, but we are constantly adding new categories like wearable devices. We will update this table as new information comes in over the course of the year.

Device Type 2015 Estimate
Mobile Phones (connected) 7.2
Radios 4.0
Televisions 1.7
PCs 1.3
Landline Phones 1.2
Cable, Sat & DTV STBs, DVRs 1.3
Printers 0.7
Ultramobiles: Tablets, Hybrids, Clamshells 0.7
Consumer Broadband [1] 0.4
Personal Music Players 0.4
Satellite TV Dishes* 0.2
Navigation Systems[2] 0.1
Wearable Devices 0.1

Total Items 19.3

[1] Modems, routers, residential gateways, etc.
[2] Portable GPS units for driving, boating, backcountry, etc. excluding GPS-equipped smart phones and tablets

Mobile devices - phones, tablets, navigation systems - are the largest segment, now surpassing the global population. Mobile phones alone are forecast to surpass the global population in 2014. IDC forecasts that ~2 billion of these will be smartphones by the end of 2014. This is significant from a Green ICT perspective, because smartphones drive energy consumption in the cloud's data centers and telecom infrastructure.

The World Bank reported in April 2013 that the western hemisphere has more mobile phones than people. (This is an average number; 30% of Latin America's population lack access to mobile services.) More of the world's population have mobile phones than have toilets!

Broadcast devices - radios, televisions, STBs - are the second largest segment at ~7 billion. STBs are high-growth; radios are flat. Broadcast is the original broadband wireless ICT infrastructure. It is still expanding worldwide as it converts from analog to digital and uses many ICT technologies. Broadcast shares with other forms of ICT the same issues of resource consumption, toxin emissions, and e-waste.

We examine dozens of reports, studies and forecasts from around the world. We evaluate their data and determine how to incorporate it into our edge gear model. Cross-referencing and consistency checks give us confidence in the numbers. The comment below from 2009 illustrates some of the challenges in doing this. We recently questioned an estimate of 50 billion "devices" by 2020.

Please make contributions of additional data points, comments, and questions in a comment below.

Green ICT and media tech.
How the materials in our e-gear play central roles in the problems of conflict minerals and resource insecurity.

Estimating Global Gear

Fitting diverse, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting external data points into a model while preserving internal integrity is key to our methodology. The challenges can be illustrated by a couple of examples from 2009.

One is our still in-progress first pass at the e-waste potential of all this gear. The frequently cited figure for global mobile phone discards is ~400 million per year. This comes to an average unit life of 8.5 years calculated against the entire 2008 installed base. Even measured against the 2007 base, that is a 7 year life.

How realistic is this 7-8 year number? We know that first user retention is much shorter in developed countries. This might be offset by potentially longer retention rates among emerging user communities, reuse, and discard latency due to stored unused phones. The bottom line is that is is difficult to know exactly how many mobile devices are irresponsibly discarded every year worldwide. But we do know it is 100s of millions.

Another is mobile devices. The IEA estimated in 2009: "By 2010 there will be over 3.5 billion mobile phones subscribers..." On the other hand, the ITU estimate in 2009 there were 4.1 billion mobile subscribers in 2008. Now, a year later, compare these with Ericsson's numbers, above.

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