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Summary:

While the U.S. wireless industry has been ravaged by brutal price wars when it comes to plain-vanilla voice minutes, carriers big and small have managed to turn in profits and show hefty growth, thanks to growing demand for wireless data services. In the fourth quarter, Verizon and AT&T raked in about $6 billion just on wireless data. Taken together, the results were, as Stacey noted in her post last week, making wireless data looks recession-proof. But a week later, we’re not so sure.

While the U.S. wireless industry has been ravaged by brutal price wars when it comes to plain-vanilla voice minutes, carriers big and small have managed to turn in profits and show hefty growth, thanks to growing demand for wireless data services. In the fourth quarter, Verizon and AT&T raked in about $6 billion just on wireless data. Indeed, as Verizon Wireless CFO Doreen Tobin said on that company’s earnings call:

We are still in the early stages of non-messaging services, with relatively modest adoption rates so far. So, we continue to see plenty of upside potential…and as the proliferation of new devices stimulate demand for more and more wireless data usage. Smartphone sales continue to accelerate…obviously we expect that the ARPU, particularly the data component, will be significantly higher from these devices.

Taken together, the results were, as Stacey noted in her post last week, making wireless data looks recession-proof. A week later, we’re not so sure.

Today, Sierra Wireless, a Richmond, British Columbia-based maker of wireless modems, said it’s cut 56 jobs, or 10 percent of its staff. “Based on the expectation that economic uncertainty will continue for the foreseeable future, we felt it was prudent to reduce our cost structure now, in order to mitigate the potential impact of this uncertainty on our business,” CEO Jason Cohenour said in a press release.

Last week, UBS Research in a research note pointed out that AT&T had 1.25 million 3G laptop subscribers as of the end of the fourth quarter of 2008. Net card additions had fallen 121,000 from the 186,000 additions in the third quarter and 166,000 in the second. This was “likely due to weakening spending at both businesses and consumers,” said UBS. Going forward, severe job losses and overall belt-tightening (including less travel) on the part of companies will reduce the number of 3G laptop subscribers as well. It is going to impact everyone — from AT&T to Verizon to Sprint. (I have contacted Verizon and Sprint about this and will update the post after I receive their details.)

Now take Sierra’s announcement and marry it with slowing sales of 3G laptop connections at AT&T, and we might be looking at the first signs of a wireless data slowdown. The only silver lining for carriers is that demand for smartphones like the iPhone and the BlackBerry Storm, which bring in a lot of data dollars, is still strong — for now!

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  1. Quote “Net card additions had fallen 121,000 from the 186,000 additions in the third quarter and 166,000 in the second. This was “likely due to weakening spending at both businesses and consumers,”

    I don’t think this is 100% true. I think it’s due to the fact that if you go over the 5gb quota, you’ll be socked with insane overage charges. If they want to throttle it after 5gb, I’m ok with that, I’m not ok with paying hundreds of dollars in overages. I’m speaking from the perspective of Verizon’s current terms and conditions of broadband cards.

  2. @Om,

    There is also growing demand for data services on netbooks. For instance, there were widespread reports about
    AT&T’s efforts to offer subsidized netbooks:

    http://money.cnn.com/2009/01/28/technology/netbooks.fortune/?postversion=2009012810

    It seems that there may be some wireless data “legs” in smartphones and broadband netbooks.

    My $.02.

    Best,

    Curtis

  3. @peter,

    I don’t quite understand your point. Decline in net additions has nothing to do with the quota. Either you have a connection or you don’t. It is an issue with all carriers.

    @Curtis,

    We shall see how this effort to subsidize the netbooks works out. I think it is a sign that they are looking for any way to grow data revenues. It is not going to be easy — I think 2009 is a year when wallets remain clamped shut for a while. The smart phones might be a growth area but even then Ma Bell and others would have to look at some price cuts to make these data-centric devices more attractive to a bigger, wider audience.

  4. Om, your figures on “wireless” data seem to be faulty — most likely because you are only counting cellular carriers and failing to include fixed terrestrial wireless broadband providers, or WISPs.

    WISPs cover more than 95% of the population (see http://www.brettglass.com/WISPMap2.gif for a PARTIAL coverage map; it only includes about 1/3 of all WISPs) and pass more homes than cable or DSL. And business is booming — in part due to the economic downturn. Even consumers who already have broadband are deciding to cut off their phone lines and/or ditch their cable service (too many commercials; they’re going with Netflix!) and use a competitive, friendly, local WISP as their connection to the Internet. Why is it that the articles on this site utterly ignore this large and growing segment of the market?

  5. @Brett

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, we were focusing solely on the wireless data in the context of cellular providers and their offerings.

    I am pretty sure WISPs are going to do well and hopefully they will become viable option for connectivity for people who are sick and tired of DSL and Cable companies.

  6. Mukesh Aggarwal Monday, February 2, 2009

    “While the U.S. wireless industry has been ravaged by brutal price wars when it comes to plain-vanilla voice minutes,”

    Really ? Maybe I live in a different US …

    1. Mukesh

      Have you checked what MetroPCS, T_mobile charge for voice and what they charged two years ago? Do you think that the $99 unlimited plans happened because carriers were feeling generous. No — they are result of an unrelenting price war when it came to minutes.

  7. Sorry fella who claims that wisp cover 95 percent of america.. This is a total lie… I cannot even find a wisp in my area at all. Let alone many others in my state (( TN that cover areas in middle TN.. Dickson TN for example in the SE corner.. Is the nexus when it comes to broadband.. or actually there lack of… To claim everyone has choices, when in fact your the only one with them is just misleading and trying to spread ignorance on a wide level…

  8. Actually, there are quite a few WISPs in Tennessee. There are 25 of them listed at

    http://www.wispdirectory.com/index.php?option=com_mtree&task=listcats&cat_id=64&Itemid=53

    and this is not a complete listing. It is possible, but not likely, that you may be part of the 5% we don’t cover yet. But WISPs are growing like crazy…. One of the companies listed at the link above could probably be motivated to cover your area.

  9. Checked the site.. Not even the many surrounding county’s are there any wisps serving the area. These areas are not even remotely rural.. This isn’t making hte 95 percent look too accurate already.. And this is just my area….

  10. Micah:

    Most people don’t realize just how much of the US is covered by WISPs. See the coverage map at

    http://www.wirelessmapping.com/National%20Coverage.png

    which includes only about 1/3 of all WISPs at this writing. There’s a dot right over your area. He or she may not be advertising, because WISPs are becoming so popular that we do not need to. I am getting as much business as I can handle strictly via word of mouth.

    –Brett Glass

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