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Tuesday
Dec132011

Wireless Connection Growth Accelerating; Up 10% YoY

3Q11 Connections: Wireless Connections

After three years of averaging about 6% annual growth rates (in 2008, 2009 and 2010), the wireless industry in 2011 has seen its connections growth accelerate to the fastest rate since 2006, thanks at least in part to the growing popularity of data-only devices like tablets. Through 3Q11, wireless connection growth for the public companies (which comprise the vast majority of the industry nationwide) was 10%. Back in 2005-2006 we measured growth of just under 13% (12.8% for each year); by 2007 increasing handset penetration made for a growth rate that slowed to 9.1%.

But as we’ve been writing for numerous quarters, the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ continued to widen in the most recent quarter. The top-three carriers—Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint Nextel—accounted for virtually all of the growth among the 13 public companies in our sample. Just 3% of the total 4.95m net new connections in the quarter came from other carriers. Notably, AT&T-target T-Mobile has lost customers year-to-date, despite a 126k net gain in 3Q11. AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint posted annual growth rates of 8.6%, 15.6% and 9.4%, respectively, through 3Q11.

AT&T led in terms of net adds in the period, due at least in part to its heavily discounted iPhone 3 promotion, which offered the older model handset for just $50. In its current holiday promos, AT&T is offering that model for $0.99, which could lead to continued strong results in the fourth quarter.

Verizon Wireless saw its net growth decline substantially when compared with the prior two quarters; the nation’s largest provider added 1.4m new customers, down from 2.3m in 2Q11 and well off the 9.9m net adds it posted in 1Q11 when it introduced the iPhone for the first time.

#3 Sprint managed to improve its net adds marginally in the quarter, although it continues to draw most of its growth from lower-value prepaid subscribers while Verizon and AT&T dominate in terms of postpaid subscriber growth.

Among the smaller operators, Hawaiian Telcom’s fledgling wireless operations posted the highest increase on a percentage basis, but Shenandoah Telecom, MetroPCS and Leap Wireless were relatively impressive, with 19.2%, 16.4% and 13.1% annual growth rates, respectively. Shenandoah has benefitted this year from its reworked arrangement with Sprint which allowed it to take control of the Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile subscribers in its markets. Shentel’s prepaid customer base has grown by 75% over the trailing twelve months.

On the down side, Cincinnati Bell, NTELOS, GCI, and United States Cellular were all net losers in the latest quarter. Also to keep in mind, the number of wholesale/resale customers in the sample fell by more than 1m customers in the second quarter due to CenturyLink’s acquisition of Qwest. CenturyLink continues to resell Verizon Wireless service, but does not report its subscriber totals. Those subscribers are, however, already included in the Verizon Wireless reported figure.

 

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