mobile devicesThough still strong, wireless subscriber growth is slowing in the U.S., according to wireless operators surveyed by consulting firm PwC. According to the survey,  wireless is nearing saturation, with the U.S. market having “reached a level where most of the addressable market has a mobile device and service.”

The maturing mobile industry is at an inflection point with price and value conscious subscribers consuming more data services requiring continuous and significant network investments from operators,” Pierre-Alain Sur, PwC’s global communications industry leader, was quoted in a press release.

“Carriers need to find the right balance of finding innovative ways to retain and attract subscribers, creating shareholder value, while investing significantly in their networks. As a result, many are turning to new growth areas such as multi-device data plans, machine-to-machine (M2M) subscriptions and greater customization of service plans for new revenue sources.”

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Average tablet connections rose 43% in the U.S. year-over-year fueled by greater demand for mobile services from businesses and consumers, improved network connectivity and demand for more data, according to PwC’s “2012 North American wireless industry survey.”

Smartphone sales to postpaid customers rose sharply to 60% of new device sales in 2012 from 46% in the 2011 survey. They represented 70% of postpaid upgrades in the 2012 survey, up from 40% in 2011’s.

Android was the most widely use mobile operating system as of end June, representing an average 81% of prepaid customers and 55% of postpaid subscribers.

The percentage of prepaid wireless subscribers held steady at an average 25% of total service revenues, according to the PwC survey. PwC attributed the lack of growth to a combination of a maturing market, mobile subscriber penetration in excess of 100% and “rebounding recessionary consumer purchasing behaviors.”

Another highlight from the report is the continuing downward trend in mobile voice usage and the ongoing upward trend in mobile data services. Average minutes of use (MOU) per postpaid subscriber dropped from 720 MOU per month in 2011’s survey to 673 in this year’s.

Also of note is wireless operators continuing to make the transition to 4G technology in order to support rising demand for mobile broadband services across devices, “as well as to support demand for new services, such as video chat and mobile TV,” PwC highlighted.

Eleven of 13 carrier respondents “had their own cell sites using 4G technology, compared with 46% in the 2011 survey.” On average, 65% of carriers’ cell sites used 4G technology in this year’s survey as compared to 46% last year, while 60% of the subscriber base was covered by 4G technologies in 2012 compared with 53% in the 2011 survey.

Eight of 12 of responding carriers in the 2012 survey said they have plans for or are in the process of decommissioning network assets. “Driven by the complexity and cost of maintaining multiple technologies, more carriers are preparing to decommission their older networks as more subscribers continue to upgrade more quickly to new devices,” said PwC partner and managing editor of the North American wireless industry survey Shara Slattery.

“Pressured to make the most of existing spectrum, network operators and equipment vendors are considering new approaches to network deployment including focusing on small cells and finding better ways to make valuable legacy assets be available for reuse.”

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