Who's Winning The Mobile Internet Race?


America’s wireless carriers — AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), Sprint (S), and T-Mobile (DT) — all want their customers to spend money on mobile Internet service. Who’s on top?

That’s not the easiest question to answer, based on the different ways carriers report their mobile Internet revenue. Some carriers include all of their subscribers. Others only report “postpaid” subscribers; customers who sign long-term contracts and pay monthly bills. This inflates the numbers. It also means we don’t have apples-to-apples stats to look at.

So now that all the Q4 results are in, how’d the carriers do last quarter?

AT&T said its postpaid subscribers spent an average $16.30 per month on data, up $1.60 from Q3.
Verizon Wireless said all of its subscribers — including prepaid, who spend less — spent an average $13.86 per month on data, up $0.56 from Q3.
Sprint Nextel said its postpaid subscribers, including Nextel walkie-talkie subscribers, spent an average $14.50 per month on data, up $1 from Q3.
Sprint CDMA subscribers — excluding Nextel subscribers, who spend less — spent an average $17.75 per month on data, up $1.25 from Q3.
T-Mobile said all of its subscribers — including prepaid — spent an average $9.30 per month on data, up $0.56 from Q3.

So: Sprint’s CDMA segment is still the best. But AT&T’s broader, postpaid numbers crush Sprint’s. And AT&T made the biggest gain — $1.60, or 11% sequentially. Why? Probably because of strong Apple (AAPL) iPhone sales and more smartphone sales. AT&T’s numbers look good.

The problem with the inconsistent data: It’s possible that Verizon is even stronger that AT&T.

When AT&T and Verizon both used to report data revenue across all of their subscribers, Verizon outperformed AT&T every month. But this quarter, AT&T changed the number it reports, offering only postpaid data revenue (higher), while Verizon reported data revenue across its entire subscriber base, including prepaid (lower). So we really don’t know if it did better than Verizon or not. (Either way, Verizon’s stats will probably slip next quarter, once it includes the 10 million or so subscribers it acquired from Alltel. Those subs spend less money on data service than Verizon subscribers.)

What we do know: T-Mobile is still the lowest of the four nationwide carriers. Why? A lot has to do with the fact that it didn’t start rolling out faster 3G service until late last year.

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