Mobile data volume exceeds voice traffic for the first time

A new report on worldwide mobile phone use released this week confirmed what many observers are witnessing first hand: People are using their phones more for sending and accessing data than for voice calls.

According to a report released by telecom consultant Chetan Sharma, 2009 marked the first time when the global monthly data traffic exceeded global voice traffic. It was also the first time total global wireless data traffic exceeded an exabyte of data, he said, based on an analysis of reports provided by telecom carriers across the globe.

If the recent pace continues, he said, 2010 will see more than two exabytes of data transmtted to mobile phone users in North America and Western Europe. An exabyte is about 1 billion gigabytes.

Sharma also predicted that the total number of mobile broadband connections will exceed the number of fixed connections in 2010.

Carriers collectively report servicing 4.6 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide, or about 68 percent of the world’s potential customers, according to Sharma’s report. He estimated that global revenues from subscribers accessing mobile data reached $220 billion last year, or about one-fourth of all mobile revenues worldwide. However, data revenues were unable to offset declines in voice revenues, he said, so overall revenues stayed flat at around $1.1 trillion, primarily because of the recession in most of the world’s markets and fierce competition.

Sharma noted that the debut of the iPad is symbolic of the bigger transformation taking place in mobile communications with the growth of connected consumer electronic devices.

"Most popular CEDs will have connectivity" in the next few years, Sharma said. At the same time, “we are also approaching the start of a phase where pricing of access will start to morph--we will see the introduction of family data plans …and the ability to connect multiple devices to the same (broadband) plan,” he said. He also expects more granular use plans, where consumers will pay by the session, or the day, or the week, as well as by the month or year.

That will put new pricing pressures on carriers as the number of connected devices per consumer increases, and will likely result in carriers adjusting their pricing more on the basis of average margin per user, or per connection, than typical plans today.

The move to data continues to unfold unevenly around the globe, Sharma observed.

On a nation-by-nation basis, the U.S. extended its lead over Japan as the most valuable mobile data market in terms of service revenue; China ranked third. Among individual carriers, Japan’s NTT DoCoMo continues to dominate the wireless data industry, recording more than $16 billion in data revenues in 2009. It was followed by Verizon Wireless, China Mobile, AT&T, KDDI, Sprint, Nextel, Softbank Mobile, T-Mobile USA, O2 UK, and China Unicom.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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