AT&T and Orange highlight mobile data boom

News on operators from both sides of the Atlantic highlights once again how important data-heavy web devices have been to carrier resilience during the downturn. Orange UK reported a 500% leap in dongle-based subscriptions in the past year, while AT&T claims that, although it has lost its place as number one US cellco to Verizon, it is now the leader in smartphones.

Orange's fifth quarterly Digital Media Index (of consumer behaviour) points to an explosion in data services uptake, with dongles the main driver. Data consumption on its network doubled in the 12 months to the end of February, with dongle usage rising by 4,125% in the year and handset data by 108%. The total number of gigabytes downloaded has reached 386,000 per month.

At the end of March, there were 3.82m Orange UK subscribers with 3G handsets and/or dongles, with subscriptions to the latter up by 504% year-on-year. Unsurprisingly, the main application drivers were music, video, games and social networking, while the key commercial driver has been increasingly attractive pricing.

The Orange Music Store saw an average of 381,000 full tracks downloaded per month in the first quarter of 2009, up 38% on the previous quarter, while mobile video was up by a similar percentage, with 2.33 million videos downloaded in Q1. The number of games rose 8% to 771,278 in the same period, while the number of monthly unique users on social networking sites leapt by 48%.

Paul Jevons, director of products, portals and services at Orange, said,  "an explosion in the number of mobile applications and new embedded laptops will boost mobile data demand even further in the coming months." Data now accounts for almost 25% of Orange revenues.

Over the pond, AT&T had 11.8m smartphone customers in March, according to research from comScore, more than double the 5.1 million scored by Verizon/Alltel. This gives AT&T a huge 47% of all US smartphone subscribers, with Sprint and T-Mobile having 4 million and 3.7 million respectively. Like most commissioned research, comScore used AT&T's own definitions – which included what the carrier calls 'quick messaging phones' in the category of smartphones or 'integrated devices'.

About half AT&T's customers now use devices that fall into these categories, with the cellco pointing to the recent expansion in its HSPA coverage, and its ongoing upgrade to the 7.2Mbps version of the network, as well as its network of 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots (support for which is bundled into many devices and data subscriptions), and some high profile advertising campaigns.

AT&T also believes it helps to be ahead of the curve with certain key smartphone devices, reminding us that it was the first US carrier to launch a 3G BlackBerry phone (the Bold), and Windows Mobile and Symbian smartphones for 3G. It now offers five full open operating systems, nine devices with Wi-Fi capability and five touchscreens.

Although AT&T's strong results in recent quarters have been heavily reliant on its star handset turn, the iPhone, it is known to be trying to cling on to its exclusive and may be attempting to put its data eggs into more baskets. It hardly mentioned the Apple phone in its comments on the new research on data uptake, and instead pointed to the Bold and the Nokia E71x as central to its smartphone strategy. However, the iPhone still accounts for half of AT&T's smartphone sales.

Rethink Wireless