Mobile revenues flatten even as data consumption ramps up in U.S., analyst says

ARPU and subscriber growth are falling even as data consumption ramps up.

Americans consume more mobile data than users in any other country in the world, according to fresh data from Chetan Sharma Consulting. But growth in the United States from new mobile subscribers continues to bottom out, and revenues are flattening.

The United States is the third-largest market for mobile data worldwide in terms of gigabytes consumed per user per month, behind only South Korea and Finland, the market research firm said in its first-quarter update on the U.S. mobile market. Americans are the most data-hungry consumers in any country with a population of 60 million people or more, and the United States could pass South Korea later this year to become the world’s No. 2 market for mobile data, Chetan Sharma Consulting said.

Much of that growth is related to the recent rush toward unlimited-data plans.

“The average data consumption in the U.S. is likely to cross 6 GB/month by the end of 2017,” the firm said. “The first 1 GB took roughly 210 months. The last one just four months. Overall, the U.S. is No. 1 in total Zettabytes consumed on mobile networks ahead of second-place China by a distance.”

But while consumption has increased, U.S. operators are increasingly struggling to monetize that trend in an intensely competitive market. Quarter-over-quarter revenue from mobile data services shrank among American operators during the first quarter for the first time in 17 years, Sharma’s firm said, and Verizon—the nation’s largest mobile network operator—saw its first-ever decline in services revenue year over year.

Meanwhile, postpaid net additions were negative in the United States for the first time, and net subscriptions for cellular-connected tablets also shrank.

Other ominous signs have emerged in recent months as well: Handset upgrade cycles now average more than 2.7 years, Sharma Consulting said. SMS traffic has declined to levels not seen since a decade ago, and the smartphone market declined in terms of both revenues and profits.

But the blossoming internet of things (IoT) segment offers a glimpse of daylight at the end of the tunnel. Net additions from the IoT and connected cars led new additions to the ecosystem, according to the firm, and the two segments accounting for 55% of all new net connections during the first three quarters of 2016.

“In the first quarter of the year, there was a first-ever decline in tablet net-adds. This made [the] cars category reach 50% of the overall net-adds—a big milestone,” Sharma wrote. “While the ARPUs from such net-adds is quite low compared to postpaid net-adds, it does reflect the changing dynamics in the industry. AT&T dominates the car net-adds by a mile. Overall net-adds have stayed flat and [are] just going through the normal gyrations. Overall, phones still dominate and that’s what generates the bulk of the industry revenue, but IoT is starting to inch up in material impact.”