As Subscriber Growth Slows, The Top U.S. Carriers Rely More And More On Data Revenue

Wireless carriers owe a lot to smartphones and tablets. Thanks to overwhelming adoption of these devices, their customers are sending and receiving vast amounts of data.

Since 2009, the top 4 U.S. wireless carriers have seen their data revenue nearly double. By the second quarter of this year, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile USA combined for roughly $US20 billion from customer data plans.

Verizon and AT&T remain far ahead of the other two, accounting for 70% of all U.S. data revenue this past quarter (their share of data revenue has remained steady over the last four years). The two also account for 65% of the subscriber base.

Bundling heavy data plans with a handset at a carrier-subsidized price has been a key strategy as carriers sought revenue growth and new subscribers. Chetan Sharma claims data fees now make up about 46% of total U.S. wireless carrier service revenue.

But the proliferation of smartphones in the U.S. is starting to slow considerably. Chetan Sharma also claims that U.S. carriers just had their worst historical quarter collectively in terms of subscriber growth, adding only 139,000 new connections in the second quarter.

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Below is a look at subscriber growth performance among the top 4 carriers. Note that the trajectories are much flatter than those for data revenue. The key for U.S. carrier success going forward will be to encourage data usage, as subscriber growth peters out.

T-Mobile led subscriber growth last quarter, for the first time ever. You can see its subscriber numbers shoot up thanks to the merger with MetroPCS, which netted it sequential quarterly customer growth of 30%, or 10 million more mobile subscribers.

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