Tablets ResearchU.S. tablet users made much greater use of embedded cellular connections in 2013 than they did in 2012, according to new market research from the NPD Group. 10.4 million tablets made use of embedded cellular connections in the U.S. last year, 46% more than the 7.1 million total for 2012, according to NPD’s latest “Connected Intelligence Mobile Connectivity Report.”

The sharp increase came despite a drop in cellular-capable tablet sales from 16% of total tablets sales in 2012 to 12% in 2013, according to NPD’s Retail Tracking Service.

More affordable data plans being offered by mobile carriers was one of the main reasons explaining the increase, prompting a greater percentage of tablet owners to take advantage of their devices’ 3G and 4G connectivity.

“The fourth quarter was a good one for the top four carriers, with the addition of around 1.5 million new tablet subscribers,” NPD director of Connected Intelligence Brad Akyuz was quoted in a press release.

“Even though AT&T and Verizon captured almost 90 percent of all tablet connections in the market, Sprint had a very good quarter and T-Mobile has a lot of potential with their new data plans.”

Nonetheless, tablets are responsible for much less data consumption than smartphones, NPD found. Just under 1 GB of data per month was consumed by tablets with embedded cellular connections as opposed to 2 GB per month for smartphone users, “showing that tablet cellular data is still the back-up plan, rather than the main connection method.”

“Cellular tablet use is still in its early days and, unlike smartphones, significant tablet cellular use is the exception, rather than the norm,” Akyuz elaborated. “Still, the most important factor is that more people are beginning to try the cellular data option. If they find a compelling use case we will see these use patterns grow aggressively.”

Outside embedded cellular connections in tablets, the number of cellular connections made via mobile and smartphone hotspots is increasing at a healthy pace, according to NPD’s latest report. 7.8 million consumers are using their tablets to connect to the Internet via cellular hotspots, 6 million via smartphone hotspots, and 1.8 million via external mobile hotspot service.

“As more consumers test the waters with cellular hotspot options, and the carriers continue to roll out new trade-in and upgrade programs, there is a far greater probability that consumers will purchase their next tablet with an embedded cellular connection,” Akyuz commented.

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