While there are a huge number of emerging markets out there, such as India and Africa, there are also a large number of markets that are utterly saturated, where most consumers are already on board the mobile data bandwagon and own a smartphone or tablet, or even multiple devices. In these markets, finding opportunities for profit growth can be a matter of thinking outside of the box for carriers. With most consumers in the United States already signed up with a smartphone and a data plan to go with it, smartphone growth is beginning to lose its edge compared to data plan growth on other devices. In fact, one third of all of the new data plans that carriers wrote up in the U.S. were actually for cars, beating out new smartphone signups in the first quarter of 2016. In a market where data plan revenue is up roughly 17-percent year-over-year since the beginning of 2015, that number is fairly significant.
According to data from the major carriers in the U.S. compiled by Chetan Sharma Consulting, mobile-to-mobile communication, such as endpoints used for enterprise outfits, made up about 14-percent of total growth for carriers, while tablets only represented 23-percent. Smartphones sat at 31-percent, clearly leading most other devices, but which have lost their edge to connected cars, a niche which represented 32-percent of total new data plan growth across all carriers in the United States. With connected cars on the rise, it’s not terribly surprising to see them steal the show in the first quarter of the year. While some cars offer up Wi-Fi for passengers driven by 4G LTE, other cars boast connected systems like Android Auto or OnStar, and yet more have nascent self-driving tech, such as Tesla’s cars, that often requires a data connection to pull down things like mapping data, traffic data and crowdsourced A.I. Tablets, having hit a wall back in 2014, take their place as the least popular consumer data plan centerpiece, placing less than 10-percent ahead of device-to-device connections, mostly in enterprise. While smartphone growth is still fairly high, seeing it dethroned in a market as saturated as the United States, especially by the increasingly popular connected car subset, is also no big shock. This may well indicate overall market trends for the whole year, if not for the foreseeable future.
In the midst of all this, the number of total subscriptions in the United States is expected to breach 400 million before the end of 2016, while the average revenue per user is below $40 across all carriers combined for the first time, and churn is hitting all time lows. On top of all of that, the FCC’s 600 MHz spectrum auction will soon be in full swing, giving carriers the chance to expand. All of these factors combined, make right now a very strange and new but also opportunity-filled time for U.S. carriers. Getting an edge in nascent markets now could be the difference between top of the heap and struggling in the very near future.