Image Credit: Source: Etisalat, ITU and Informa; Illustration: Guillermo Munro and Nadia Saleem/Gulf News

Dubai: Etisalat has gone a step closer to its goal of being one of the top 10 operators globally as its number of subscribers has crossed the 100-million mark, the company announced Monday.

Its growth in subscribers comes with a continuation of international expansion plans as its home-based UAE market is saturated with nearly 200 per cent penetration levels.

Last year the company bought out Sri Lanka's operator Millicom International Cellular for $207 million (Dh759.69 million) and renamed it Tigo.

The year before saw acquisitions and investments which included a 45 per cent stake in India's Swan Telecom, now called Etisalat DB. It also increased its share in Atlantic Tele-com, a holding company for telecom assets in Africa, to 100 per cent after acquiring the remaining 18 per cent of shares for $75 million.

"It's a little unclear how etisalat is defining the top ten operators, but if it means the ten biggest operating groups in terms of total mobile subscriptions, then etisalat still has a little way to go," Matthew Reed, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media told Gulf News over the phone on Monday.

According to Informa Telecoms and Media research, at the end of the third quarter last year, etisalat was the 19th largest operating group in the world in terms of total mobile subscriptions. At that time, NTT DoCoMo of Japan was the 10th largest operator in terms of total subscriptions with 171 million.

"Worldwide, the strongest growth in mobile subscriptions is in South Asia and Africa, and etisalat's footprint in these regions means it is well positioned to take advantage of that growth," Reed said.

He added that while those emerging markets present growth opportunities, competition is high and revenues are low and falling.

"They are often difficult environments in which to operate. Growth and success is not assured," Reed said.

The company reported full year results for 2009 at net revenues of Dh30.831 billion and net profits of Dh8.836 billion at a five per cent and 16 per cent increase respectively, compared to 2008.

Etisalat has operations and investments in 18 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa including UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Tanzania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Niger, Togo, Republic of Central Africa, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Buoyant market

As operators around the world grow their market share, the global number of telephone users is expected to hit five billion this year, according to International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The growth will be driven by advanced services and handsets in developed countries and increased take-up of mobile health services and mobile banking in the developing world, the United Nations agency for information and communication technology said.

"Even during an economic crisis we have seen no drop in the demand for communications services," said ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure, taking part in the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week.