Two handsets are better than one. Source: Flickr user recphoto
Mobile penetration in the U.S. reached roughly 94 percent at the end of the first quarter of 2010, according to analyst Chetan Sharma, and the rate is 99 percent for users older than the age of five. It’s no surprise, then, that we’re seeing plenty of stories about how we’re approaching (or already at) the saturation point of sorts. I referred to the phenomenon myself last week in a piece on the rise of the machine-to-machine (M2M) market.
But now I’m beginning to wonder exactly where that saturation point is — and how much longer “handset penetration” will really matter.
There’s no question that growth of mobile is slowing in the U.S. as we approach the point where nearly everyone who can use a phone owns a phone. But as we’ve seen in a host of other markets, 100 percent penetration is no ceiling. As analyst Tomi Ahonen pointed out a few weeks ago, the U.S. penetration rate for the full year of 2008 (the latest World Bank statistics) was 89 percent — 84th among all countries. Surprisingly, some emerging markets ranked ahead of the U.S.. including Thailand and Algeria.
And a look at some more recent statistics is even more eye-opening. The U.K. had reached a penetration rate of 124 percent by the end of 2008, according to The Mobile World, and Estonia last year topped 147 percent. A half-dozen other countries have rates higher than 120 percent — including Germany and Portugal — and Hong Kong currently enjoys 150 percent mobile penetration.
Some of the reasons for such high rates can vary wildly from region to region. Emerging markets have long been rightfully viewed as fertile ground for mobile because of a general lack of fixed-line infrastructures, so in some ways it isn’t surprising to see consumers carrying multiple connected gadgets. In Finland, as Ahonen pointed out, taxes on the personal use of business phones spurred workers to get their own handsets in addition to those supplied by employers. And as mobile data picked up, users with business-owned phones wanted the freedom to use their phones as they liked, prompting them to carry dual handsets.
Some of those issues are irrelevant in the U.S., of course. And that last concern has become less of an issue here, where business users have increasingly taken matters into their own hands, purchasing the phones they want to use and forcing IT departments to manage them. So on one hand it’s conceivable that the U.S. won’t mirror the evolutionary path of so many other markets, finding a lower ceiling.
But there’s also a new class of connected devices that’s just beginning to come to market. The success of the iPad 3G underscores the untapped market for a device that’s neither laptop nor phone but leverages a constant connection to a cellular network — and it’s just the beginning. We’ll see more of those kinds of tablets, but connectivity is also coming to a host of new gadgets. Some of those will be less-visible M2M services that make sure your appliances are well monitored, but many will be devices like cameras or music players. You won’t be using that hardware to talk — at least, not often — but you will be using it over cellular networks. So they’ll be lining the pockets of the carriers who have built their businesses on phones.
The notion of handset penetration rates, then, will become obsolete as the mobile industry expands to a wide variety of gadgets that aren’t phones. Like ARPU — which is still a key metric in the industry — it will provide just a glimpse of the market rather than a broad view. So instead of arguing about what kind of handset penetration rates we should expect to see in the U.S., we should be talking about the penetration rate of connected devices — and how much higher that will be than mere phone usage.