Feature Article

December 11, 2012

Will Wi-Fi Put Brakes on Mobile Data Growth?

Are smartphone consumers making significant changes in behavior that could slow the rate of mobile broadband data consumption? Given trends that show substantial use of Wi-Fi connections in place of mobile network access, it’s a possibility.

A recent study by NPD Connected Intelligence, for example, tracking usage on 1,200 smartphones, shows a mixed pattern. Android users on Verizon, AT&T and Sprint networks seem to have decreased their use of mobile data networks between April 2012 and October 2012, while T-Mobile USA Android users seem to have increased usage.

Apple iPhone users on all of the networks except AT&T seem to have increased usage. Fierce Wireless notes that the iPhone sample is small, so the results might be an anomaly.

But at least a couple explanations could explain the data. It is conceivable that users are learning to economize by shifting to Wi-Fi access whenever possible. And even where mobile network usage is growing, it is possible the greater consumption is less than it would have been had users not begun shifting access to Wi-Fi.

It is conceivable that new Android users are more budget conscious. And it remains possible that the demographics of Android and iPhone users are different in some material way. A number of surveys have shown that Apple iPhone users are, in fact, wealthier than Android users.

Other studies suggesting iPhone spend more than Android users likewise might be related to differences in disposable income. That pattern was upheld, some studies suggest, on Black Friday of 2012 and also Cyber Monday of 2012.

The NPD data is a snapshot in time, and one ought to be circumspect about what it really means. Nor are consumer preferences, demographics, disposable income or device type the only key variables.

Some of the service providers might be deliberately creating greater incentives for users to switch to Wi-Fi, in some cases allowing users to default to Wi-Fi automatically, which would increase use of the Wi-Fi access method.

With mobile service providers having clear financial incentives to shift users to Wi-Fi, and with a greater move to use of small cell access (especially when those small cells also feature Wi-Fi access), it seems reasonable to assume at least a possibility that smart phone mobile network bandwidth consumption might not grow as fast as some have predicted.

It bears watching.

Edited by Braden Becker

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