US Mobile Market Update Q4 2012 and full year 2012

US Mobile Market Update Q4 2012 and full year 2012


The US mobile data market grew 3% Q/Q and 15% Y/Y to cross $20B for the first time in Q412. Data is now almost 44% of the US mobile industry service revenues and as we had forecasted a few years back, the cross-over point of 50% might occur later this year. For the year 2012, the market ended up with $79 Billion in data revenues much higher than any other market. The overall mobile services revenue were $182 Billion. For the year 2013, we are expecting $90 Billion in mobile data service revenues for the US market.

For the year, the market added 9 million new connections, a decline of 56% from 2012. The postpaid category suffered a 97% decline despite Verizon and AT&T collectively adding 6.3M postpaid subs. Sprint and T-Mobile collectively lost over 3.3M postpaid subs in 2012.

The last year T-Mobile had Y/Y positive postpaid net-adds growth, George Bush was still the president, Facebook was in diapers, and Pinterest wasn’t even born yet. T-Mobile suffered its tenth straight quarter of postpaid declines. Cumulatively, in the last fifteen quarters, while Verizon and AT&T have added 15M and 8M postpaid subs respectively, Sprint and T-Mobile have lost approximately 4.7M each. Once Nextel is sunsetted for good (it is down to 2.1M subs), we can expect a pick-up of net-postpaid subs at Sprint.

2012 saw a couple of block-buster operator M&As that took many in the industry by surprise. T-Mobile found a soul mate in MetroPCS while Softbank showed up at the altar for Sprint. T-Mobile is adopting the challenger role while Sprint that of a disruptor.

As we mentioned in our previous update, smartphones are now past the 50% mark in the US and continue to sell at a brisk pace accounting for over 90% of the devices sold in Q4 2012. Apple led the smartphone sales amongst the top 4 operators with 51% share for the year. While the US penetration of smartphones is over 50% as we reported last year, the 50% of the sub base is concentrated in only 30% of the households thus leaving plenty of growth left in the marketplace.

In terms of Y/Y growth, Connected Devices segment grew 12%, Wholesale 9%, Prepaid 6%, and Postpaid was flat. The connected devices segment only grew 1% in Q4 2012 Q/Q.

Verizon and AT&T maintained their top positions in the global rankings by mobile data revenues. A survey of the entire ecosystem shows that the US companies dominate the top 5 rankings of profit share. China Mobile leads the industry with Apple, Verizon, AT&T, and NTT DoCoMo completing the rankings.

Race for the 3rd ecosystem

2013 might help define the 3rd ecosystem or at least separate wannabes from the true contenders. While iOS and Android duel out on the top (with iOS ahead in the US market), there is fight for the distant #3. Windows made a grand entry in Q4 but the sales have disappointed. Blackberry is hoping its Q/Z10s will do the trick and help revive its fortune or at least boost the asking price.

Last quarter, Microsoft and its partners launched a worldwide campaign for a chance to compete. It went from a dominant position to virtually zilch coinciding with the remarkable ascend of iOS and Android. To make any device sell – one needs good and competitive device, distribution channel and marketing muscle, and brand loyalty. I think Windows 8 is genuinely good, is different, and for the first time can stand with its peers (obviously it needs to build a robust apps portfolio and a stronger developer ecosystem).

In the past, while operators, OEMs, and Microsoft announced significant advertising spend, it had almost negligible impact on sales. The actual $ amount spend was tepid, operators didn’t want to be guinea pigs just to prop up a third ecosystem. With Windows 8, things might get better. We can see many more awareness campaigns, more OEMs are launching some quality devices, and operators are warming up to the idea as well. The brand loyalty index for Microsoft Mobile is fairly low and it will take a heavy lift and a few billion dollars of advertising spend to move the needle. The good news is that the devices are shipping at all price points.

Microsoft also made a splash with the first computing device in its history – Surface. Both got a mixed reception from the market. In the US, Nokia is selling 80% of the windows volume making the future of the two companies inextricably tied together. Can the windows ecosystem thrive without Samsung’s support?

Additionally, there has been movement with other OSs like Firefox, Tizen, Jolla, and Ubuntu.

Apple’s dominated 2012 – what’s next?

For 2012, Apple dominated the device sales accounting for 51% of the smartphone sales amongst the top four mobile operators. In Q4, its share rose to 59% of the sales on the back of a successful iPhone 5 launch. AT&T sold a record 8.6M units followed by Verizon’s 6.2M. For the year, AT&T sold a record 21.3M iPhones. So, while globally, Android dominates iOS more than 2:1, the US subsidy model has helped Apple keep its lead from Android. But, will it last? Enough ink has been spilt to answer that question. Undoubtedly, Samsung and others have caught up Apple on device specs and ease of use, even created new categories that Apple didn’t foresee, but, Apple is still the player to beat in 2013. Apple has clearly exposed its Achilles heel – software and services. It will take some heavy lifting to gain back confidence and momentum.

Samsung’s rise

The rise of Samsung and its domination of the Android ecosystem was clearly one of the most captivating stories of 2012. Samsung is making more revenue from Android than rest of the ecosystem put together. Samsung is firing on all cylinders, works better with its distribution partners, and has the bank balance to fight toe-to-toe for its share of the market. It is also in the unique position of having good perch in all the three major screens – mobile, laptops, and TV. But, software and services is also a weak spot for the company. How quickly it beefs up its offerings and how ambitious it is in providing end-to-end solutions will determine its competitiveness in the next 24 months.

Despite setbacks in the IP battles, Samsung continued its march of being the undisputed unit leader in mobile device space. After displacing Nokia in Q1 2012, it continued to dominate in units shipped in 2012. However, Apple dominates both the smartphone revenues and more importantly just crushes the competition on device profits. It has only 6% of the global unit shipment share but over 70% profit share. In tablets, Apple completely dominates the landscape in both shipments and revenue. In fact, 95% of the profits in the tablet segment go to Apple with the remaining ecosystem fighting for the crumbs.

The Fourth Wave has arrived – the shift towards services

If you attended the AT&T developer summit and Verizon keynote at CES this January, you might have noticed the subtle shift from devices/access to services/solutions. In our paper on the topic “Operator’s Dilemma (and opportunity): The Fourth Wave”, I proposed that we need a new framework to think about the next generation of revenue opportunities. The fourth curve opportunities are massive but require a different skill set and strategic approach than the past three curves. It is being widely adopted in the operator community around the world and some operators have started to break out the 4th wave revenues in their financials. We will have more discussion about how things are shaping on the fourth wave in future research papers.

The Patent Battles

In 2012, Samsung had a strong showing not only in the market place but also in the patents area. It edged past Nokia to become the overall mobile patents leader in the industry. IBM and Microsoft also improved their rankings. Nokia, Ericsson, and Alcatel-Lucent slid in rankings. Motorola dropped out of top 10. Not surprisingly, companies who have been around for a while especially in the infrastructure and the platform space lead the overall mobile patents. Samsung has been fiercely building its patent portfolio in both Europe and the US and the efforts have paid off as it has built a significant portfolio and a formidable lead that is likely to serve it well in the coming years.

A more startling observation is the mobile patent grants as a percentage of the total patent grants in a given year have risen significantly for the US market indicating the importance innovators attach to mobile in their business. In the US, one out of every five patent granted in 2012 was related to mobile. Less than a decade ago, this number was less than 10%. The European market has seen lower growth relative to the US market. Roughly one out of every ten patents granted in Europe are mobile related.

We will have a more detailed analysis of the patent landscape of the mobile industry later this month.

The vanishing Tier-2s

The so called Tier-2s in the US market are practically done. For the year 2012, the top 4 Tier-2 operators suffered a drastic 77% decline in net-adds. Combined they added a measly 366K subscriptions. One of the reasons is that the tier-1s are now squarely focused on the prepaid market as a growth engine. Sprint has had a long history in the segment with brands like Boost and Virgin. T-Mobile’s has retooled itself to go after the prepaid and wholesale opportunities. Additionally, the top 2 have also been launching attractive plans for the prepaid segment. That’s why the top 4 added ten times the prepaid subs compared to the next 4 operators. With Metro gone and Clearwire on the blocks, we expect the Tier-2s to lose their relevancy in the market.

Operator M&A – The Rule of Three Strikes Back

Just when you thought the prospects of any major operator M&A slowed down due to the impending US election, T-Mobile announced its acquisition of Metro PCS giving it more spectrum, access to public markets, a good chunk of subscriber base to become a more competitive number 4. Sprint and Softbank followed the announcement with an absolutely brilliant maneuver. It provides Sprint access to capital, economies of scale, and becomes a much stronger number 3, and a global telecom player with scale and ambition. The T-Mobile-Metro merger has been approved by the FCC and we expect Sprint merger to go through as well.

There have been some interesting twists and turns but as we have stated before, the US market competitive equilibrium will be complete when Sprint and T-Mobile get together at some point down the road. As outlined in our research paper on the subject, market forces find their way to get to 3 dominant operators that compete for attention and revenues, rest becomes noise. While the regulators might scoff at the idea, the inevitable market forces will find their way around.

Surface, mini, and the tablet market

Apple launched the iPad mini in 2012 for some of the same principles that Microsoft launched Surface. It is better to be cannibalized by self than by the enemy. Microsoft saw the notebook market shrink and needed a product to stem the bleeding while Apple saw Amazon and Google attack the bottom tier with a different model that poses a credible threat. Tablet market is indeed fundamentally altering computing in many ways. The changing landscape of computing also has impact on the ecosystem and the application development environment. Developers flock to platform reach, ease of access to the marketplace, and the basic economics of a viable business model. Windows as a percentage of computing platforms is shrinking drastically which threats not only the platform but also Microsoft’s other software franchises. Surface is classic blocking and tackling to provide a jolt to the shifting ecosystem. Surface RT was an expected disaster but Surface Pro will see takers in the corporate world. With iPad mini, Apple is attempting to lock the mid-top tier of the tablet market and daring its competitors to just play in the bottom tier that leaves no profit on the hardware and revenue stream from services for a very select few.

2012 – US Highlights and Milestones

2012 provided enough drama and suspense for the year, good enough for a hit Spielberg flick. Here were some of the highlights from the US market:

· Samsung went past Nokia to become the world’s biggest OEM by unit volume

· Qualcomm eclipsed Intel in market cap marking another milestone in the progression of the mobile ecosystem.

· Verizon sold 29M smartphones (with half of them being LTE) and AT&T sold 10.2M in Q4 – all US records.

· Shared data plans were introduced by Verizon and AT&T which have been viewed by the consumers favorably.

· The focus of operator metrics is changing from ARPU to ARPA to AMPA.

· After dealing with the AT&T-T-Mobile merger in 2011, the regulators were back to work with the T-Mobile-MetroPCS and Softbank-Sprint mergers.

· Verizon and AT&T Wireless became the top two mobile operators globally by mobile data revenues.

· US market saw its first decline in both messaging revenues and volumes.

· Smartphones penetration eclipsed the 50% mark.

· Over 42M tablets were sold in the US with more than half being iPads. Globally, Apple went past 100M iPads in cumulative sales making it the fastest computing platform.

· mCommerce started to eclipse eCommerce for some companies.

· Amazon made a splash with its Kindle line of tablets, the sales have been steady. Google’s Nexus devices also got good traction.

· The average number of connected devices per household was over five.

What to expect in the coming months?

All this has setup an absolutely fascinating 2013 in the communication/computing industry. Convergence is everywhere and is leading to a fundamental reset of the value chains and ecosystems. Players who firmly attach themselves to the 4th wave will reap benefits while the ones who miss it will see their fortunes dwindle. We are gearing up for our annual Mobile Brainstorm Summit – Mobile Future Forward on Sept 10th, hope you can join us. Details to come.

As usual, we will be keeping a very close eye on the micro- and macro-trends and reporting on the market on a regular basis in various private and public settings.

Against this backdrop, the analysis of the Q4 2012 and full year 2012 US wireless data market is:

Service Revenues

  • The US Wireless data service revenues grew 3% Q/Q and 17% Y/Y to over $20B in Q4 2012 becoming the first country to have a $20B quarter. For the year 2013, we are forecasting that mobile data revenues in the US market will reach $90 billion.
  • Verizon and AT&T dominated the quarter accounting for 69% of the mobile data services revenue and had 66% of the subscription base.
  • Verizon and AT&T maintained its #1 & #2 mobile data revenue ranking in Q4 2012. Sprint and T-Mobile maintained their #5 and #9 rank in the top 10 mobile data operators list for Q4 2012.
  • For the year, Verizon aggregated an astonishing $28.2 Billion haul from mobile data with AT&T close behind at almost $26 Billion. The mobile data business for the US was around $1 Billion a decade ago.


  • The Overall ARPU declined by $0.15. Average voice ARPU declined by $0.64 while the average data ARPU grew by $0.48 or 2% Q/Q.
  • The average industry percentage contribution of data to overall ARPU is now at the 44% mark in Q4 2012 and is likely to exceed the 50% in 2013. All the top three US operators are over the 45% mark. (For reference, all three major Japanese operators are now over the 60% mark).


  • The US operators added 2.3M postpaid subs and approximately 3M total. It was the lowest net-adds Q4 quarter in the US mobile history (barring the early days of tepid growth)
  • T-Mobile’s postpaid woes continued for the tenth straight quarter.
  • Verizon led the market with 2.2 M net-adds accounting for 73% of the market’s net-adds. It was followed by AT&T at 1.1M, and T-Mobile at 61K. Nextel continues to drag Sprint’s postpaid additions. Sprint is expecting the transition from Nextel to Sprint to be complete in the next few months.
  • For the last three years, at AT&T, the connected device growth had exceeded that in the postpaid segment. In Q4 12, postpaid share increased significantly as the connected device growth slowed primarily due to shared data plans and tablet users becoming postpaid users.

Applications and Services

  • The market is finally starting to see activity in the mobile commerce and payment services as well as in various industry verticals like healthcare, retail, and education.
  • The cloud and security segments have also gained significant traction with incumbents as well as startups launching new initiatives and technologies.
  • Q4 2012 again saw tremendous activity in the mobile commerce and payments space with a lot of announcements from the operators, Internet players, and startups as well as the retailers and the ecommerce players. All are vying for a piece of the mobile wallet. Much more to come in the next 12 months.


  • Smartphones continued to be sold at a brisk pace accounting to almost 84% of the devices sold in Q4 2012.
  • iPhone dominated smartphone sales for Q4 as well as the full year of 2012. In Q4, iPhone accounted for 59% of the total smartphone sales at the top four operators. For the year, its tally was over 51%.
  • At the end of 2012, Samsung now leads in unit sale category both on the world stage as well as in the US. However, profits are a different equation where Apple overshadows its rivals like Gulliver on the Lilliput land.
  • While it is fairly clear that Windows will acquire the #3 spot behind iOS and Android, the journey to a substantial and competitive market share is still ways off. It renewed its entry into the battlefield with Windows phone in Q4 2012 but the sales in the US market were disappointing for just over 1M in unit sales for the full year.
  • Apple’s iPhone sales almost doubled in Q4 from Q3 but the company faces significant innovation and perception challenges as it prepares for its product launches in 2013. 
  • AT&T continues to dominate the connected devices segment with over 47% market share.  
  • Verizon continues to sell more LTE smartphones as its LTE sub tally rose to 21.6M making it the leading LTE operator in the world. AT&T’s and Sprint’s LTE rollouts are gathering steam. T-Mobile is also ramping up its LTE deployment. Expect the “fastest network” marketing to continue for at least another seven quarters. Verizon reported that 50% of its total data traffic is on the LTE network now.
  • There is always a beauty contest amongst operators as to who sold more iPhones. AT&T again bested its rivals by selling roughly 50% of the iPhones in the US.

Mobile Data Growth

  • The smartphone data consumption at some operators is averaging close to 1 GB/mo. Some devices are averaging close to 2 GB/mo. As we move into 1GB range along with the family data plans kicking in, you can expect the data tiers to get bigger both in GBs and dollar amount.
  • While the spectrum debate rages on, in addition to the network and backhaul upgrades, policy management and data offload have emerged as top two solutions that operators deploying around the world. Signaling management solutions like Diameter routing are also getting good traction. However, a long-term video solution is still elusive. As we have been saying in our Yottabyte series of research papers, a comprehensive solution strategy is needed to effectively manage margins/bit.

Intellectual Property/Patents

  • Samsung was the leader in the mobile patents granted in 2012 in the US and that propelled the company to the top ranking in overall patents (1996-2013). Samsung was followed by IBM, Sony, Microsoft, RIM, LG, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Panasonic, Alcatel-Lucent, and Nokia for the top 10 companies by mobile patent grants in 2012.
  • The top 5 categories for patents grants in the US for 2012 were Telecommunications, Digital Multiplexing, Digital Processing – Data Transfer, Digital Processing – Financial, and Digital Processing – Databases.
  • The top 5 filers of mobile patents in the US were IBM, Microsoft, Samsung, Qualcomm, and Sony. Apple made it to top 10 for the first time on the strength of its patents filed in the computer graphics processing category.

Your feedback is always welcome.

Chetan Sharma

We will be keeping a close eye on the trends in the wireless data sector in our blog, twitter feeds, future research reports, and articles. The next US Wireless Data Market update will be released in May 2013. The next Global Wireless Data Market update will be issued in Apr 2013.

Disclaimer: Some of the companies mentioned in this research note are our clients.