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America's insatiable wireless appetite

In many ways, the release of the first iPhone 10 years ago launched the smartphone era. Since then, mobile data consumption has skyrocketed and, in the process, helped turn wireless companies into digital media conglomerates.

By the numbers:

  • Mobile data traffic has experienced a nine-fold increase since 2012 in North America, and it has the highest smartphone and 4G network adoption rates of any region worldwide, according to GSMA.
  • In 2016, there were 291 million unique wireless subscribers in North America, representing 80% of the region's population.
  • There are now more mobile subscriptions in the U.S. than people.
Data: CTIA,GSMA Intelligence, The Mobile Economy: North America 2017; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

Follow the money: In revenue terms, North America is estimated to be a $250 billion market this year, accounting for more than a fifth of global operator revenue. It also ranks way up there in terms of early adoption and mobile engagement — aka the amount of time consumers spend on their mobile phones — making it a very attractive market for companies to launch new media and e-commerce services, video content and interactive applications.

  • Biggest boost: Engagement among users in the U.S. is consistently higher than in other developed countries, with the highest engagement rates in digital commerce and entertainment. This reflects the rapid growth of services like Amazon Prime and Netflix.
  • Biggest drag: But while engagement is way up, traditional mobile revenue is way down. The market is saturated, with smartphones accounting for 80% of wireless connections. To win over customers, carriers are offering free perks. AT&T announced Tuesday it would give subscribers free HBO service, following T-Mobile's offer to give free Netflix to customers last week.

Buying spree: That underscores the need for U.S. carriers to diversify beyond their core business, giving rise to conglomerates that cross multiple businesses.

  • AT&T is gunning to be a media and entertainment provider with the acquisition of DirecTV and proposed bid for Time Warner
  • Verizon is moving into the digital media and advertising space, combining its Yahoo and AOL assets into Oath.
  • T-Mobile and Sprint are still mostly wireless plays, but have potential for partnering with others (or merging with each other).

Spectrum quest: The demand for bandwidth-heavy mobile services means carriers need more airwaves, even after they've collectively spent upwards of $60 billion in recent years to acquire them. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Tuesday that the agency is looking at increasing access to airwaves for 5G build-outs. (He also suggested, again, that getting rid of net neutrality rules would speed up network deployment—a notion that's disputed by net neutrality proponents.)

Wireless divide: Rural areas often don't have choice of wireless providers or speeds that give them access to the growing number of content-rich services like streaming. In fact, 20% of U.S. square miles are still without wireless coverage at all, Pai noted.

  • The FCC is currently evaluating whether wireless broadband is sufficient to meet Americans' everyday broadband needs.
  • "That's one question we're asking: To what extent we should think about wireless as a complement or substitute for fixed broadband?" he said, while also acknowledging that wireless wouldn't necessarily cut it for "heavy-duty downloading" of video.

The bigger picture: The ubiquity of wireless devices and growth of mobile media consumption is also turning what used to be seen as purely social apps — think Snapchat and Facebook — into sophisticated producers of original video content tailored for the mobile screen.