Mobile device connections growing quickly

BARCELONA — Sometime this year, the world will cross a threshold: There will be more mobile device connections than there are humans.

That doesn’t mean every soul on the planet will have a cell phone. But data released Monday by GSMA, an association of cell operators whose Mobile World Congress just opened for a four-day run in Barcelona, shows the total number of mobile connections surging to 7.4 billion this year, up from 6.8 billion in 2012. The world population sits at about 7.1 billion, and is growing far more slowly.

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Part of the rise in mobile connections results from customers having more than one at a time. The average user of mobile services — there were 3.2 billion worldwide last year — had at least two connections, according to Monday’s report by GSMA.

For some customers, using more than one mobile service is a way to chase better prices as carriers compete. Elsewhere, the rise in connections reflects the exploding popularity of different types of wireless devices. Many people have both a cell phone and a tablet or e-reader — each with its own wireless connection — adding to the global total.

The Mobile World Congress, an annual event expected to draw 70,000 people to this seaside Spanish city, is largely devoted to wringing even more money out of one of the world’s great growth industries — one that has managed to thrive even as the global economy has struggled in recent years.

That means new devices, new apps, new ways to reach the remotest corner of every potential market. Though the event’s nearly 1,500 exhibitors run the gamut of the mobile business world, much attention is being devoted to the development of systems that let customers make payments from their cell phones.

This has been an industry focus for years, but progress has moved slowly so far. Whoever solves the riddle — finding a way to get people to easily and elegantly use their mobile devices as mobile wallets — stands to win billions of customers.

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