CTIA: 123% annual data traffic growth underlines spectrum crunch

U.S. wireless customers love their data, which is precisely why the industry needs more spectrum, according to CTIA.

The trade group's semi-annual survey of service providers reveals that wireless data traffic grew by 123 percent in one year, registering 866.7 billion MB at the end of December 2011 vs. 388 billion MB a year earlier. Helping drive that consumption was a 43 percent increase in the number of active smartphones and wireless-enabled PDAs during the same period, with 111.5 million of the devices in use at the end of 2011. "With almost 95 percent of these devices capable of transmitting wireless data, Americans' voracious appetite for anywhere and anytime mobile access is why the wireless industry needs more spectrum," said CTIA.

The survey also estimated the number of wireless-enabled tablets, laptops and modems in use at the end of 2011 as 20.2 million, a 49 percent increase over December 2010's number of 13.6 million. However, the overall number of active data-capable devices rose only 9 percent year over year to 295.1 million.

At the end of 2011, the United States counted 331.6 million wireless subscriber connections, an increase of 7 percent from a year earlier. The wireless penetration rate was almost 105 percent, because people often have multiple accounts and/or multiple devices, including smartphones, tablets and e-readers.

The study further found that during 2011, minutes of use grew 2 percent to 2.296 trillion and the number of sent and received text messages rose 12 percent to 2.304 trillion. However, MMS lost some of it appeal, with the number of MMS messages sliding by 4.4 billion to end December 2011 with 52.8 billion vs. 56.6 billion in December 2010. Perhaps that indicates that sharing pictures via social media such as Facebook and services such as Instagram and Pinterest are making MMS increasingly passé.

The average local monthly wireless bill for voice and data also slipped, coming in at $47 for December 2011, down from $47.21 during December 2010.

CTIA said mobile providers' capex rose 2 percent during 2011 to $25.3 billion. Since 2001, wireless providers have invested $246 billion in capex.

The 2009 FCC shot-clock ruling that requires local governments to decide on tower-siting proposals within specific timeframes got a shout out from CTIA, which credited the rule with helping 2011 show the largest annual increase of operational cell sites. The industry ended 2011 with 283,385 sites, or 30,299 more than at year-end 2010.

"We look forward to working with all of the interested parties to quickly bring more spectrum to auction so our members may purchase it, continue to invest and create jobs and ensure wireless U.S. consumers remain enjoying the world's best wireless products and services," said Steve Largent, CTIA president and CEO.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration last month identified 95 MHz of spectrum in the 1755-1850 MHz band that it said could be auctioned off once it is wrested away from current users such as the military, law enforcement, NASA and the Pentagon in a process that could cost $18 billion over a decade. In November 2010, NTIA identified an additional, separate 115 MHz of spectrum now currently in the hands of the federal government that could be used for wireless broadband.

For more:
- see this CTIA release
- see this Twice article

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