US Wireless Data Market Update – Q2 2009

US Wireless Data Market Update – Q2 2009

US Wireless Data Market Update – Q2 2009

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Executive Summary

The US wireless data market grew 7% Q/Q and 30% Y/Y to exceed $10.6B in mobile data service revenues and thus exceeded $10B for the second straight quarter. As we mentioned in our Q1 2009 research note, given the strong growth in data revenues shown by the top carriers and the increase in service revenues overall, the worst is over for the US mobile industry. In summary, the recession has been all but a tiny blip in its growth trend and the US mobile market has weathered the downward spiral in economy better than its counterparts in other developed nations. Of course, recession doesn’t treat all players equally, so, some have had a negative impact and will need more resources and effective strategies to claw back to the their previous market position.

The US subscription penetration was approximately 90.4% at the end of Q209. The current rate of net-adds (subscription) is approximately 3 every second (compared to a net gain in population of one person every 10 seconds). 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, there was an increase of prepaid subscribers which dropped the overall revenues for some of the carriers.

As we mentioned in our last two research notes 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 3-4 months along with better than expected Q1-2 2009 earnings from corporations, the mobile industry is 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 32% compared to 2008 with a record-setting Q4.

US Wireless Industry in Recession – The light at the end of the tunnel is indeed not from the oncoming train

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

Q2 2009 reported a much better 1% decline (compared to 6.4% in Q1). 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 reports, 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 9.4% (though it dropped in July from 9.5% in June), consumers are feeling better about the economy and their own prospects in it.

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 though retreated from June is at a healthy 46.6.

Given that consumer sentiment is improving, it is clear that the 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 is starting to 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 82% of the net-adds in Q209 up from 61% in Q109 and 21% in Q208. 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. The fight for the low-end customer is also having an impact on the traditional prepaid players and the price pressure is reducing their margins.

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 elsewhere.

The landline replacement by Mobile trend continued now reaching almost 24% by Q209. Messaging continues to grow. The messaging volume was up 15% and messaging revenue was up 11% 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. With its expanding 3G network, T-Mobile like its peers has started to benefit from smartphone penetration reaching to 6% of its subscriber base. Overall, the US market will exceed 25% penetration of smartphones in Q3 2009.

The increased use of smartphones and datacards is putting a pressure on carrier networks and accelerating their strategies to deploy LTE/WiMAX. We estimate that by end of 2009, the US mobile data traffic is likely to exceed 400 petabytes, up 193% from 2008. To truly tackle the problem head-on, operators will need to adopt a multi-pronged strategy to manage their traffic more effectively. We discuss mobile data traffic in much more detail in our paper “Managing Growth and Profits in the Yottabyte Era.” (I will be giving keynotes on the subject at the Mobile Innovation Week in Sept and at the ISACA meeting in Oct)

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.

There is also a concerted effort underway to move beyond the traditional subscriptions and expand the mobile universe to wireless-enable other consumer devices (What did your refrigerator say to your microwave while you were gone?).

Coming back to the 2009 forecasts, we are raising our estimates for the mobile data service revenues to $45B 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 Q209 US wireless data market is:

Service Revenues (Slides 11-12, 17-18)

  • The US Wireless data service revenues grew 7% Q/Q to $10.6B in Q209. Compared to Q208, the data service revenues grew 30%.
  • Verizon and AT&T accounted for 90% of the increase in data revenues in Q2 2009.
  • The US mobile data service revenues crossed $10B for the second straight quarter and stays ahead of Japan and China by a distance.
  • Verizon and AT&T experienced the most growth with over 8% increase Q/Q followed by T-Mobile at 6%.
  • Verizon’s data revenues are now almost $4B/quarter only inches behind the global leader of over 10 years NTT DoCoMo.
  • AT&T and Verizon now account for 69% of the market data services revenues and 61% of the subscriber base. Sprint had the fifth consecutive quarter of data revenue growth.
  • The average industry percentage contribution of data to overall ARPU is now $27%. US market is likely to touch 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 13-15)

  • Overall ARPU decreased by $0.23 thus reversing the trend of the last three quarters. Average voice ARPU declined 13-15by $0.45 while average data ARPU grew by $0.68 or 5% and easily negated the drop in voice ARPU.
  • Sprint led in data ARPU with $15.5 followed by Verizon at $14.96. In terms of % contribution, Verizon led with 29.28% followed by AT&T at 28.74%.

Subscribers (Slides 16-17)

  • In Q209, the US market added approximately 2.8 M new subscriptions down 6% from Q109.
  • The number of data subscribers has been on the rise with Verizon leading the way. At the end of Q209, 65% of US subscribers were using some form of data services.
  • The messaging volumes in the US market now average almost 540 messages/subscriber/month or at the frequency of almost at a message/hour/sub thus reaching close to the messaging leader Philippines.
  • In terms of net-adds, thanks to the boost from the iPhone, ATT led in Q209 with 1.4M net-adds, edging its friendly rival Verizon which added 1.1M net subscriptions. T-Mobile net-adds reduced to 325K while Sprint lost 214K.
  • The 3G penetration in the US stays at a healthy 40%+ in Q209. 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. (I will be moderating a panel “Ultraband: A Fast Platform For Innovation” at GigaOM’s Mobilize in Sept. We will discuss the future of broadband and its implications)

Applications and Services

  • Non-messaging services continue to grab 50-65% of the data revenues for the US carriers.
  • 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 18% of the consumers have flat-rate data plans.
  • 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 (We will be discussing the state of the industry and what lies ahead at the inaugural “Mobile Breakfast Series” on Sept 22nd in the panel discussion “State of the Union: Where do we go from here”)
  • 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 1.5 Billion download mark with increasing number of developers participating the ecosystem. The new functionality being released with 3.0 is taking 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 and the industry is trying to figure out what “Open” means in the long-term. (Will be discussing this and more at CTIA in Oct)
  • The App vs. Mobile Web discussion reached a surprisingly new crescendo. The evolution is pretty clear – for the applications that don’t require significant UI resources, it will be better to develop in for the browser, for intensive games, the native platform will be ahead of the browser advances. The location API access on the iPhone browser is breakthrough to have developers start thinking about the webapps. But, what does it do to the revenue model? (I will be moderating two panels on the subject in Nov at the Open Mobile Summit)


  • After falling below the 100M/quarter level in Q1, Nokia rebounded to sell 103M units in Q2 09. Samsung also exceed 50M with a strong second finish at 52M. LG finished a strong third with almost 30M in its bag and Motorola showed signs of strength by selling close to 15M units.
  • The second quarter was dominated by two blockbuster launches of iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre. While iPhone continued to attract new customers, Pre suffered from a less than stellar launch strategy. By lowering the 3G device price to $99, Apple set the new bar in smartphone pricing leaving the rivals scrambling for response. T-Mobile launched another Android device last month.
  • 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 – usage 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 capital market experienced a continued decline in thefirst half of 2009, with companies announcing $1.2B in financings vs. $1.6B for 2H08 and $2.1B for 1H08. (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.
  • China crossed the 700M subscription mark last month. In terms of net-adds, India has outpaced China for every single month of the last one year. The Indian market added almost 140M vs. 100M in China during the last four quarters. (more discussion on the international market in our global market update next month)

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 Oct 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.