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US Wireless Data Market Update - Q3 2009

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Executive Summary

The US wireless data market grew 5% Q/Q and 27% Y/Y to exceed $11.3B in mobile data service revenues and thus exceeded $10B for the third straight quarter. As we mentioned in our Q1 2009 research note, given the strong growth in data revenues and overall service revenues, the worst is over for the US mobile industry. The US market touched 25% penetration of smartphones in Q3 2009, a new milestone.

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 has stayed 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. The US subscription penetration was approximately 91.3% at the end of Q3 2009.

As we mentioned in our last three 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 two quarters along with better than expected Q1-3 2009 earnings from corporations, the mobile industry is back on track. While the structural flaws in various industry segments remain, the outlook for the Q4 2009 and 2010 remains bright and we are expecting the overall data revenues to now increase by over 30% compared to 2008 with a record-setting Q4.

Q3 2009 reported a 3.5% increase in GDP compared to the 1% decline in Q2 and 6.4% decline in Q1, thus marking the official (technical) end of the recession. 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. Note: For a detailed discussion of the US wireless industry in recessions, please see 2008 US Wireless Market Update.

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 47.7.

What to expect in the coming months?

The high unemployment has slowed the growth in the data card segment but the smartphone consumers have more than picked up the slack. Also, as expected, there was a shift from postpaid to prepaid in some user segments. For example, for T-Mobile, prepaid accounts for almost 20% of their customer base compared to 17% from an year ago. 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.

In fact, the churning in the last few quarters has distanced the top two (AT&T and Verizon) and the next two (Sprint and T-Mobile) by the biggest gap in the history of the industry. By the end of 2009, this gap will rise to 36% compared to 28% at the end of 2008 and 21% in 2002.The "Rest" category has essentially diminished from the market dropping from a dominant 43% market share in 2002 to 12% in 2009.

The trend of the landline replacement by Mobile continued in Q3 2009, now reaching almost 25%. In the third quarter, messaging growth slowed down. The messaging volume was up only 4% and messaging revenues were up 3% QoQ. 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 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." We will have more on this subject in the coming days (You can also read our RCR Wireless columns on the subject - Defining Mobile Broadband and Solutions for the Broadband World).

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 Q3 2009 US wireless data market is:

Service Revenues (Slides 11-12, 17, 19)

  • The US Wireless data service revenues grew 5% Q/Q to $11.3B in Q209. Compared to Q308, the data service revenues grew 27%.
  • Verizon and AT&T accounted for 80% of the increase in data revenues in Q3 2009.
  • The US mobile data service revenues crossed $10B for the third straight quarter and stays ahead of Japan and China by a distance.
  • AT&T experienced the most growth with over 6% increase Q/Q followed by Verizon and Sprint at 5%.
  • Verizon's data revenues exceeded $4B/quarter only inches behind the global leader of over 10 years NTT DoCoMo.
  • AT&T and Verizon now account for 68% of the market data services revenues and 61.5% of the subscriber base.
  • The average industry percentage contribution of data to overall ARPU is now 28%. US market is likely to touch the 30% mark in 2009 though it might not quite eclipse it.
  • 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 $0.14. Average voice ARPU declined by $0.57 while the average data ARPU grew by $0.43 or 3%.
  • Verizon led in (blended) data ARPU with $15.59 followed by AT&T and Sprint. In terms of % contribution, Verizon exceeded 30% to become the first US operator to do so. It was followed closely by AT&T and Sprint respectively. T-Mobile also exceeded $10 in data ARPU for the first time.
  • AT&T experienced something unique - an increase in voice ARPU (for the first time in 10 quarters). The voice ARPU increased $.03 in Q3 2009.

Subscribers (Slides 16-18)

  • In Q309, the US market added approximately 2.7M new subscriptions down 1% from Q109.
  • The number of data subscribers has been on the rise with Verizon leading the way. At the end of Q309, 67% of US subscribers were using some form of data services.
  • The messaging volumes in the US market now average almost 568 messages/subscriber/month or at the frequency of almost 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  again led in Q309 with 2M net-adds, edging its friendly rival Verizon which added 1.2M net subscriptions. Sprint lost 565K.
  • T-Mobile lost customers for the first time in its history. It lost 77K customers in the quarter.
  • The 3G penetration in the US stays at a healthy 43% in Q309. 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.
  • The gap between the top two (AT&T and Verizon) and the next two (Sprint and T-Mobile) is at its maximum. By the end of 2009, this gap will rise to 36% compared to 28% at the end of 2008 and 21% in 2002.The "Rest" category has essentially diminished from the market dropping from a dominant 43% market share in 2002 to 12% in 2009.

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 20% 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.


  • Nokia sold 100M+ units in Q3 2009. Samsung again had a solid quarter with over 60M devices sold inching its market share to almost 21%. LG Electronics at 11%, Sony Ericsson at 4.9%, and Motorola at 4.7% rounded up the top 5.
  • The third quarter was again dominated by blockbuster launches of smartphones. Androids have been invading the industry en-masse and 2010 looks to be a terrific year for consumers and competition.
  • 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, Hotspots, WiMAX, LTE, and others.

Policy and Regulations

  • Q3 also marked the start of an intense FCC scrutiny of the wireless industry. In outlining the four key principles of a) looming crisis of spectrum shortage b) removal of red tape c) enforce net-neutrality and d) open Internet, things have already started to change in the US Wireless Industry. Google has played the game of Armadaian tactics with Kasparovian acumen. The impact of the codified principles (and the subsequent court battles) can have a significant impact on not only the US wireless industry but the global ecosystem as well.


  • 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 2 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. 
  • The App vs. Mobile Web debate is getting intense. 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 control points and the revenue models? 
  • While there has been much consternation around the word "Open," one is hard pressed to find a consistent definition what it might actually mean. One could provide access to one API and declare themselves an open heretic while others could end up opening up their business more than needed and yet be accused of being closed. Clearly, the degree to openness is in the eye of the recipient. There is no black and white, just shades of grey and that's where the battles will be won and lost. In the end, it is all about "access" to the market and the "freedom" to earn profits. Rest is noise.
  • It is worth debating as to what can be mandated to be open, do the rules apply just to the operators and OEMs, or we should extend the courtesy to software platforms, search indices, aggregated user profiles, billing engines, etc.
  • It is also becoming obvious that we need to redefine the device categories. Featurephones are no longer dumb terminals, many empower the users with smartphone functionality. Devices like iPhone, Droid, Pre no longer fit the smartphone stereotype, they need a separate category for themselves - appphones, ddhmvcs (data devices that happen to make voice calls), platformdevices, mobilecomputers, geniusdevices, agilechips, astuteconceirge, you get the point.


  • Not surprisingly, Venture capital market experienced a continued decline in 2009, with companies announcing $1.5B in financings vs. $3B for the same time period. (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 in Q3. India crossed the 500M mark for telephone penetration (wireline + wireless) of which 472 are mobile subscriptions. In terms of net-adds, India has outpaced China for the last 16 months. The Indian market added almost 155M vs. 101M in China during the last four quarters. (more discussion on the international market in our global market update next year)

We will be keeping a close eye on the trends in the wireless data sector in our blogtwitter feeds, future research reports, and articles. The next US Wireless Data Market update will be released in Feb 2009. The next Global Wireless Data Market update will be issued in Mar 2010.

Watch out for our end of the year survey and commentary on global wireless markets and trends for 2010.

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.


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Missed an article? All articles can be found here.


 Upcoming Events

Notes from recent events PARC, CTIA, NAB, TiE, Mobilebeat, GigaOM, Mobile Breakfast Series
Nov 16 and 17 Mobile Marketing Forum, LA. Chetan will be participating in a Mobile Analytics Workshop and a Mobile Analytics Panel
Nov 16 Mobile Northwest, Seattle
Dec 4 Mobile Breakfast Series, Seattle. The Impact and Evolution of Mobile Broadband (w/ Om Malik, Scott Richardson, Ken Denman, Charlie Martin, Pankaj Kedia) Seattle. Register

In addition, Chetan will be doing some private briefings to carriers, content providers and enterprise solution providers

 Upcoming Research

Nov State of the Broadband Nation
Jan 2009 Year End Report and Predictions for 2010
March Global Wireless Data Market Update 2009

Missed an update? All research notes can be found here.

© Chetan Sharma Consulting 2001-2009. All Rights Reserved.
Chetan Sharma Consulting is a consulting and advisory firm helping companies in the mobile and voice communications sector. Our expertise is in developing innovation-driven product, business, and IP strategy. We've helped companies like NTT DoCoMo, China Mobile, Samsung, KDDI, Motorola, Alcatel-Lucent, Sony, Virgin Mobile, KTF, Sprint Nextel, Reuters, Disney, Qualcomm, Motricity, Reliance, BEA, HP, Merrill Lynch, Cincinnati Bell, Bain, SAP, Vulcan, American Express, and many others. What can we do for you?


If you have questions or suggestions or feedback on this subject or on the wireless & mobile industry at large, please contact us at - we look forward to hearing from you.

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