The mania for mobiles among urban youth has manufacturers ringing up massive numbers Beijing fashion model Zhao Yue changes her mobile phone every six months to keep up with the latest trends in the world's biggest mobile phone market. 'I use different mobile handsets for when I wear different suits,' she said at a recent mobile phone fair, picking three models out of her Louis Vuitton bag: a red one, a glossy white one and a blue one. Ms Zhao is one of an estimated half a billion subscribers to fixed and mobile telephone lines on the mainland, making it the world's biggest telephone consumer, according to data released by the Ministry of Information Industry. Retail sales grew 10.2 per cent in October compared with a year ago, the fastest pace in two years, and the National Bureau of Statistics said mobile telephones were one of the main reasons for the strong rise in retail sales. Xi Guohua, Vice-Minister of Information Industry, said the information communication sector had become a 'leading and basic industry in China'. The mainland had 19 per cent of the world's telephone subscribers last year, compared with 9.6 per cent in 1998, he said. But the figures also show that penetration is still low. There are about 20 fixed lines for every 100 people, with nearly the same number of mobile phones per 100. Yet while the market is undeniably large, there is some dispute about the figure of 500 million telephones. A significant sticking point is the mobile phone figure, which central government data, and many private sector analysts, put at about half of the overall figure, or 257 million users. Analysts say that figure is based on the number of SIM cards in circulation, rather than individual users. And because the mainland does not operate a national pricing system, many users have multiple SIM cards to take advantage of cheaper regional deals, giving the impression that the market is larger than it really is. UBS Asia-Pacific technology strategist Sean Debow thinks 174 million is more accurate, or 83 million fewer users than the official figure. 'The figure is overstated in a global context. We've based this on subscriber people rather than SIM card owners,' he says. The present, complicated structure could be simplified, Mr Debow says. 'The logical way for the situation to right itself is to allow for packages to develop,' he says. Despite the UBS adjustment, the mainland remains the world's largest mobile phone market and Mr Debow emphasises that he sees it as the world's most significant market in global handsets. For manufacturers of mobile phones - Motorola, Nokia, Siemens, Ningbo Bird, TCL and Samsung are top sellers - the UBS adjustment shows that market penetration is lower than previously thought but still has significant potential. This potential was shown last month when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), ranked China 84th out of 178 countries in a survey of the ability of individuals to access and use information and communication technologies. Mr Debow estimates the possible market for mobile phone handsets is 350 to 400 million this year. The figure is expected to rise next year. He cautions that using a simple percentage of the country's huge population to estimate market size does not give an accurate picture. Despite that, Qualcomm Inc has tapped the multibillion-dollar market for wireless services such as downloads of ring tones, music and videos. The company says that downloads of karaoke songs using Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, which is the second-most widely used wireless network standard in the world behind Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), have been the most popular of its wireless offerings on the mainland. In addition, while Ms Zhao and her multiple handsets represent the glamour end of the market, that market is becoming increasingly diversified now to include the simpler needs of farmers or low-earning urbanites. Cheaper domestic handsets are set to benefit from the lower end of the market. Overall, the market is young - and choosy. According to the Information Ministry survey, more than 75 per cent of mobile subscribers had changed their handsets at some point, while another survey showed that nearly 60 per cent of mobile phone subscribers were between 20 and 30. Just over 3 per cent of mobile users change their mobile phones within half a year, 13 per cent change it before 12 months are up and 25 per cent change within two years. Despite the presence of a healthy number of Ms Zhaos, or fashionistas of the mobile phone market, the mainland is still a long way off emulating Italy, where traditional fashion-consciousness ensures it is the most 'excited' mobile phone market in the world, according to industry experts. Still, the country is putting on a good show. Yuan Yuan, a 21-year-old student from Liaoning, says she's now using a CDMA handset with camera function. 'I got my first mobile handset as a present for getting into college. But this one is the fourth. I lost two handsets and broke one in 18 months,' she says. Zhang Xiaoming, a smartly suited 25-year-old, runs a small business in Shanghai. He buys a new mobile phone every five months and is now on his eighth. 'The mobile phone handset has become a fast-moving consumer item. It's like clothes,' he says.