US Wireless Data Market Update – Q1 2009

US Wireless Data Market Update – Q1 2009

US Wireless Data Market Update – Q1 2009

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Executive Summary

The US wireless data market grew 5% Q/Q and 32% from Q108 to reach $10B in mobile data service revenues. It marked the first time the US market has crossed the $10B milestone. Given the strong growth in data revenues shown by the top carriers and the increase in service revenues overall, it appears that at least for the time being that the worst is over for the mobile industry. In summary, the recession has been all but a tiny blip (from the service revenue perspective) in its growth trend and the US mobile market has weathered the downward spiral in economy better than its counterparts in other developing nations.

The US subscription penetration went passed 90%. While the flailing economy hit certain segments of the wireless ecosystem hard esp. the infrastructure and handset segments, consumers haven’t really pulled back on the mobile data overall spending. Additionally, the CAPEX spending will stay strong in 2009 given the activity around 3G/4G deployments and trials. As expected, the data card subscriptions were hit the hardest and there was an increase of prepaid subscribers which dropped the overall revenues for some of the carriers.

As we mentioned in our last research note that this time around, the fate of the US mobile industry is more closely tied to the overall economy compared to the previous recessions. As the consumer sentiment improved over the last couple of months along with better than expected Q1 2009 earnings from corporations, the mobile industry seems to be back on track. While the structural flaws in various industry segments remain, and the economy is a crisis away from the double dip, the outlook for the remainder of 2009 remains bright and we are expecting the overall data revenues to now increase by 24% compared to 2008.

US Wireless Industry in Recession – The light at the end of the tunnel might not be of the oncoming train

Note: For a detailed discussion of the US wireless industry in recessions, please see 2008 US Wireless Market Update.

The % GDP change dropped from 4.8% in 2007 to 2.3% in 2008. Q4 2008 reported a drop by 6.2% QoQ in one of the sharpest declines in the last quarter century. Q1 2009 reported a 6.1% decline. On an yearly basis, the GDP is expected to change by 3.2% for 2009 and the service revenues are expected to  account for 1.13% of the US economy by year-end.

As mentioned in the previous report, while in the past, the recession hardly impacted the wireless industry, this time around; it is going to be more tied to the recession. In the past couple of months, the consumer sentiment has improved and the Q109 earnings have been better than expected. While there are still many structural flaws in the financial and housing industries and the unemployment is at a 25 year high of 8.9%, consumers are feeling better about the economy and their own prospects in it. Most companies are being optimistic but cautious.

So, what does this mean? Well, the markets can still be volatile, but overall the market seems to be feeling better about the economy than it was in February. The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index experienced a significant jump to 39 (relative scale of 100) from being at an all-time low of 25 in February.

Given that consumer sentiment is improving, it appears that US mobile data market is all but back from the recession. While some segments within the mobile industry might be suffering, there has been an increase in spending overall.

What to expect in the coming months?

We noted in our Q3 2008 note that we will get a better picture of the impact of the recession on the wireless industry in Q109 as it was the first full quarter after the seasonal holiday quarter. There are two micro trends that are clear. First, as expected, due to the high unemployment, the data card segment took a hit. It will recover in due course as more of the workforce comes back over in the next 18 months.

Also, as expected, there was a shift from postpaid to prepaid in some user segments. For example, for T-Mobile, prepaid constituted 61% of the net-adds in Q109 up from 57% in Q408 and 25% in Q108. It is not clear if the good times will bring back the prepaid subscribers to the postpaid realm or like the consumers who are canceling their landline connections and moving to mobile, these customers will get used to savings and the prepaid lifestyle.

It is quite likely that 50-60% of such consumers don’t go back to postpaid thus permanently lowering the ARPU base for such customers and carriers who have experienced more postpaid to prepaid shift will have to make up for the lost revenues someplace else (or maybe they can hire Oprah to send a tweet to her followers to upgrade to Postpaid. It will crash the system but increase the ARPU).

Rising unemployment continues to accelerate another trend – landline replacement by Mobile which reached almost 22% by Q109 (of course this benefits the mobile industry). This trend is irreversible and requires fresh thinking.

Messaging continues to grow. The messaging volume jumped 27% and messaging revenue was up 7% QoQ. The data access (excluding data card) including flat rate data plan subscriptions have also show significant strength lately. In addition to smartphones, we are also seeing increased mobile data activity amongst feature phone users.

The positive factors are helping negate the negative factors and given the strength of 3G and smartphone adoption, the increase in activity on the appstores front, and in general, a better awareness of mobile data services and applications amongst consumers, any decline due to the loss of data card revenue and postpaid transition to prepaid accounts has been taken care off. In particular, Verizon and AT&T have done really well. Smartphones remain a bright spot, which in turn has a direct positive impact on the data revenues. Even with the decline in handset sales, smartphone segment will continue to increase in 2009 accounting for almost 30% of the overall device shipments.

We are likely to see continued price and margin pressure on subscription plans and as a result, voice ARPU will continue its downward trend and data ARPU will become a more prominent factor of the ARPU mix by the end of 2009 reaching over 30% of the service revenues.

This will lead to new business and pricing models for e.g. some will find the low flat rate pricing untenable in the long-run without a fundamental rethink of the network and business architecture.

Coming back to the 2009 forecasts, we are raising our estimates for the mobile data service revenues to $42B for the year. 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 Q109 US wireless data market is:

Service Revenues (Slides 11, 18)

  • The US Wireless data service revenues grew 5% Q/Q to $10B in Q109. Compared to Q108, the data service revenues grew 32%.
  • It marked the first time the US mobile data service revenues crossed $10B. It is also the first time any country has reported a $10B quarter (for mobile data services).
  • Thanks to the Alltel acquisition, Verizon’s data revenues grew the most – 18% QoQ and 46% YoY. AT&T experienced a 39% lift while T-Mobile reported a 24% increase in YoY data revenue growth.
  • Last quarter AT&T surpassed Verizon in data revenues for the first time since 2005 and in Q109 Verizon duly took many of titles back from AT&T becoming the number 1 carrier in almost all the categories.
  • AT&T and Verizon now account for 68% of the market data services revenues. Sprint had a fourth consecutive quarter of data revenue growth.
  • The average industry percentage contribution of data to overall ARPU is now $26%. US market is likely to exceed the 30% mark in 2009.
  • The top four US carriers are now a permanent fixture in the top 10 global operators by mobile data service revenues occupying #3, #4, #6, and #8 spot respectively. Apart from NTT DoCoMo and China Mobile, Verizon Wireless and AT&T are the only two other operators generating more than $3B in quarterly mobile data service revenues.

ARPU (Slides 12-15)

  • Overall ARPU decreased by $0.91. Average voice ARPU declined by $1.17 while average data ARPU grew by $0.26 or 2% and couldn’t negate the drop in voice ARPU.
  • Sprint led in data ARPU with $15 followed by Verizon at $14.16. In terms of % contribution, Verizon led with 27.91% followed by AT&T at 27.2%.

Subscribers (Slides 16-17)

  • In Q109, the US market added almost 3M new subscriptions down 33% from Q108.
  • The number of data subscribers has been on the rise with Verizon leading the way. At the end of Q109, 62% of US subscribers were using some form of data services.
  • The messaging volumes in the US market now average 485 messages/subscriber/month or at the frequency of a message/sub every 1.5 hours. The leading messaging nation is Philippines where consumers routinely send a message/hr on average.
  • In terms of net-adds, Verizon led in Q109 with 1.3M net-adds, edging its friendly rival AT&T which added 1.2M net subscriptions. Sprint losses reduced to 180K subscribers.
  • With its Alltel acquisition, Verizon became the number one carrier in the US easily overtaking AT&T. It now has 86.6M subs and secured the bragging rights to being the biggest operator in the Americas.
  • The 3G penetration in the US went past 40% in Q109. Verizon led the pack while T-Mobile is slowly expanding its 3G coverage. The growth in 3G and smartphones is helping offset some of the downward pressure on the data revenues and overall ARPU.

Applications and Services

  • Non-messaging services continue to grab 50-60% of the data revenues for the US carriers. For the first time the non-messaging share exceeded 60%.
  • The flat-rate pricing movement that was started by Willcom in Japan which moved to Europe became more prevalent in the US market with industry wide flat-rate pricing plans that included data. All the major carriers seem to be offering flat-fee access plans for most of the new smartphones being introduced in the market. Approximately 17% of the consumers have flat-rate data plans. We will see a further acceleration of this trend aided by the recession.
  • There are probably 18-20 sub-segments within mobile data services and consolidation looms. While the valuations are still high for rapid consolidation, we think that due to recession pressure, the M&A scene is starting to heat up.
  • The usage and data consumption trends are enabling carriers to accelerate their 4G plans and develop long-term business and technical strategies (I will be moderating a panel on “The future of Broadband” at the “Future in Review (FiRE)” conference on May 20th in San Diego where some of the best minds on broadband will be debating the evolution of our industry)
  • The appstores battle is intensifying with OEMs and carriers are announcing their plans and some of them are opening their wares to woo the developer community. In the midst of the appstores hoopla, Apple announced the passing of the 1 Billion download mark with increasing number of developers participating the ecosystem. The new functionality being released with 3.0 is going to take the battle up a notch. The clear-cut business model of 30/70+ split is attractive to the long-tail of developers. While there is no dearth of applications, findability remains a challenge. Also, appstores are changing the monetization strategies for content and application developers (I will be moderating the panel “Wireless Monetization” at TiECON on May 16th in Santa Clara)
  • Slowly but surely, mobility is becoming pervasive across industry verticals. Mobile Health looks very promising and the impact could be global. (I will be participating in a conference on mHealth being held in San Francisco on May 22nd by UN Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, UCSF Global Health Services, Berkley Engineering, Cisco, and NetHope)


  • After selling over 100M units for seven straight quarters, Nokia slipped to 93M handsets in Q109, still more than the next three players combined but an 18% drop from Q408 nevertheless. Samsung and LG have been really gaining on their rivals in the past year and are now at #2 and #3 respectively. Motorola and Sony Ericsson with 6% share each round up the top five.
  • While Apple has been stealing all the press, RIM upped the ante by claiming leadership in the smartphone wars by outselling Apple in the first quarter of the year.
  • The growth in smartphone usage is also putting pressure on the networks which are not able to handle the load during peak times in certain cities thus forcing carriers to look for alternate strategies to satisfy the demand for broadband – metered billing, UMA, Femtocells, Hotspot buys, WiMAX, LTE, and others.
  • Rest of 2009 is eagerly awaiting the release of Palm Pre, several Android handsets from HTC, Samsung, Motorola, and others, Windows devices along with follow on of Danger devices, new model(s) of iPhone, and other touch screen devices.


  • Not surprisingly, Venture money in the mobile sector experienced a rapid decline. Compared to Q108, venture financing declined by 58%. (Source: Rutberg)
  • In a sign of convergence battles to come, T-Mobile’s @Home and various Femto cell initiatives are taking hold. Cable operators are also aggressively seeking triple-play by providing the wireless component of the service.

We will be keeping a close eye on the trends in the wireless data sector in our blog, future research reports, and articles. The next US Wireless Data Market update will be released in Aug 2009. The next Global Wireless Data Market update will be issued in Sept 2009.

Your feedback is always welcome.

Should you have any questions about navigating or understanding the economic and competitive icebergs, please feel free to drop us a line.


Chetan Sharma

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