The 3G Myth

Whilst writing my triptych “the only iPhone review you’ll ever need” last week I spent a fair while looking for data that showed actual usage of 3G services in the UK.  I tried various searches in Google and Windows Live (a search engine that has come on leaps and bounds recently and that I really quite like), but most of them returned links to the contents pages of reports published by various doubtless august research bodies, all of whom wanted thousands of dollars to get at the actual data.  All I was looking for were two numbers – how many people have 3G phones and what percentage of revenue from those phones is made up of 3G usage.  I didn’t get either of those numbers or anything close to them.  Sometimes the Internet is absolutely the last place you’re ever going to find a piece of data that you need unless you work out exactly the string of words that someone else has used or you know a specific site where you can find the data based on recommendation, stumbling across it or paid subscription.

Friday’s Evening Standard may have come partially to my rescue(and who said the dead tree industry didn’t have a place any longer?).  There’s a little graph in the top left corner of a page titled “Mobile is the new battleground in internet gold rush”. It shows the following figures for percentage of actual and forecast ownership of 3G handsets by region (the figures are approximate – the scale isn’t very detailed):

  Now 2010
USA 30% (or maybe 12%) 70%
Western Europe 30% (or maybe 12%) 70%
China <5% 25%

I was a little confused I have to say.  The graph clearly shows 2007 figures at around 30% but in the text it says “even today, little more than 12% of mobiles in Western Europe are 3G”.  So it’s one or the other.  Or maybe some other equally made up number.

The focus of the article is really about advertising on mobile phones and, sadly, I don’t mean stickers attached to the ‘phones promoting products but the misplaced idea that I want (I’m sure someone will use the word “need”) banner ads or, god forbid, proximity ads popping up on my phone.

So after spending all those billions on licences, perhaps the mobile phone operators are a little sore that Apple has forced at least one of them back to 2.5G (or even 2.75G if the right upgrades are in place) technology, that is, EDGE.

Wikepedia, ever proving its value as a place to at least get real numbers (although source data/links are not always available) says

“By June 2007 the 200 millionth 3G subscriber had been connected. Out of 3 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide this is only 6.7%. In the countries where 3G was launched first – Japan and South Korea over half of all subscribers use 3G. In Europe the leading country is Italy with a third of its subscribers migrated to 3G. Other leading countries by 3G migration include UK, Austria and Singapore at the 20% migration level. A confusing statistic is counting CDMA 2000 1x RTT customers as if they were 3G customers. If using this oft-disputed definition, then the total 3G subscriber base would be 475 million at June 2007 and 15.8% of all subscribers worldwide”

By that reference, I guess UK penetration is likely nearer 12% than 30%. And this version of the iPhone isn’t going to help increase that.  Keep focused on SMS you operator folks, at a few hundred quid a megabyte, that’s where you’re going to make the cash for a while longer.

I was just sorting out some files today and found some old notes that I’d written on a tablet PC – probably the Compaq one that had a detachable keyboard – and printed out for “safekeeping” (I had terrible problems with that PC – I’m sure they culminated in me throwing it across the room one day as it lost some files for the nth time).  They were for a presentation in January 2003.  I included this graph based on the scribbles in my notes (these were made-up numbers – I imagine I couldn’t find any research back then either) – but I thought that wifi would be bigger than 3G by now and that MMS would be smaller than both (figures are for users not, say, volume of text sent):


And I suppose this graph shows why I’m not in the research industry

3 thoughts on “The 3G Myth

  1. Surely, it was a triple elegy, or a trilogy. Triptych neen! Zeker as ik ben in Ghent geweest!That said, I think the auctioning of the 3G licences was the world\’s biggest hiding of a tax I\’ve ever seen. It could only have been the old gin dog himself.I think the technology is so unreliable that most people don\’t use it at the moment anyway. I\’m sure that when they do, anyone without blue entopic syndrome will be of sufficiently poor eyesight as to be unable to read the small screens anyway.This was my opinion 5 years ago, and it is still. There\’s really only a certain amount of screen real estate, so I\’m certain that mobile devices (if they stay mobile,) will never carry anything more than rich music. Rich video on tiny screens is pointless. I know this is the case because I never see a man in Currys say, \”Don\’t worry darling, I know we can just afford a 1080P 56 in M87, but I only want a pre idtv 640 by 480 plasma. You have a baby instead. We\’ll spend it on that.\”Good tracking down for the article though. Surprised any phone suppliers even release their accounts on the subject.I.

  2. Don\’t be taken in by raw 3G numbers, what we need to know is the ARPU for these subscribers.Remember 3 did a big push to get its numbers up by launching a voice pre-paid service. Could be a big chunk of the of the alleged 12% penetration is masking low value customers who don\’t use the bandwidth available. You cannot infer they are willing to churn to 02\’s outrageous tariffs for the iPhone.High value price insensitive abc1\’s might flock (like sheep) to buy the latest toy, but it will be a long time before Wayne and Waynetta trade in a Domino pizza to do the same.

  3. Excellent comment SW. you\’re right, most 3G users even if they know they have a 3G phone are still using text more than anything else (data-wise I mean), especially as browsing on a small screen is still such a woeful experience for most people. One indicator of that is how 3G phones have changed – when 3 launched every phone had two cameras, one for snaps and one for video calls. Well those died out fast.Getting hold of ARPU numbers by service type is very hard – harder than getting market take-up data I think. I have read figures that suggest £80/head is necessary to break even on the licences versus about £40-45 typical now – but the write-downs of licence costs may have changed that.

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