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AT&T and Verizon are about to put the squeeze on subscribers

Updated Jun 21st, 2013 4:13PM EDT
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Noted mobile analyst Chetan Sharma has released his latest U.S. Wireless Market Update. It’s a grim road map to rising smartphone ownership costs for most Americans. AT&T and Verizon Wireless now hold 65% of the U.S. mobile subscribers. Since 2009, Verizon has added about 15 million new contract subscribers, while AT&T gained about 8 million. Sprint and T-Mobile have lost roughly 5 million contract subscribers each over the same period. This is why you will wake up one beautiful morning next autumn and discover yet another new surcharge or rate hike by the Big Two — their power continues to wax.

One trend illustrated by Sharma is strikingly ominous: the revenue American operators derive from new subscribers has dropped to just 2% of their overall sales. In the year 2000, it was still over 20%. This means that there is no sales growth to be had from chasing new customers; all the upside is now in squeezing more money from existing subscribers. The new family plans pushed so hard by leading carriers effectively lock in entire households for good. Once you have two to four people on one family plan, switching carriers becomes prohibitively cumbersome.

Smartphones now represent 85% of all handset sales in the U.S., soaring far above the global average of 50%.

So AT&T and Verizon have increased their market share decisively since 2009; they no longer get meaningful revenue from new subscribers, so they don’t need to offer attractive new price plans; they no longer can increase sales by pulling feature phone buyers into smartphones; and they are successfully locking people into near-permanent family plans.

The only road to revenue growth is now increasing the monthly bills of existing smartphone subscribers. That’s you and me.

An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that U.S. smartphone penetration now sits at 85%. It has been updated to reflect that 85% of new handsets sold in the U.S. are smartphones.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.

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