According to new findings from analyst firm ABI Research, only a quarter of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad tablets shipped in the first quarter featured support for 3G networks. That number is significantly lower from previous quarters and just below the industry average of around 35 percent.
"In 2010, the 3G modem attach rate was 40 percent globally," wrote ABI analyst Jeff Orr. "The presence of a 3G modem in media tablets was exceptionally high compared to other device types--17 percent for netbook PCs and just over 2 percent for laptop PCs--even though those platforms reached all-time attach-rate highs as well. Activations on the mobile network, however, are surprisingly low for media tablets, according to leading operators."
The findings are notable considering the wireless industry is eyeing tablet sales as a mechanism to concurrently grow the addressable market for handset players and drive additional data revenues for wireless carriers. However, sluggish sales of 3G-capable tablets (both the CDMA and the GSM variety) could lower the enthusiasm in the space. Further, lethargic activations of 3G services by tablet owners could remove the incentive for operators to offer monthly, contract-free data plans for the gadgets.
However, the ratio of 3G connections to Wi-Fi-only connections varied wildly depending on the vendor. Around 25 percent of Apple's iPads shipped with support for 3G connections, but fully 100 percent of Samsung's Android-powered Galaxy Tab tablets featured 3G support. Around 88 percent of the 250,000 Xoom Android tablets shipped by Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) supported 3G wireless connections, according to ABI.
Orr explained that Apple was mired in a transition to the iPad 2 while Samsung and Motorola's figures were skewed by lack of Wi-Fi-only models in most or all countries. "In the first quarter of 2011, Samsung and Motorola availability was limited to mostly 3G," Orr wrote. "Motorola's Xoom didn't start shipping until February and only in partnership with Verizon Wireless and Best Buy in the U.S., which restricted its market reach. Samsung initially targeted network operators as its primary sales channel for Galaxy Tab."
Orr said both Motorola and Samsung began selling Wi-Fi-only tablets in markets across the world starting in the second quarter of this year.
Thus, the ratio of Wi-Fi-only iPads to 3G-capable iPads is the one to watch, considering Apple staked out the tablet market last year and sold fully 4.7 million iPads during the first quarter. ABI's Orr said 6.4 million media tablets shipped in the first three months of the year, and he expects somewhere between 40 million and 50 million will ship for the full year 2011.
Orr concluded that Wi-Fi tends to be "good enough" for most users, and that 3G/4G support is desirable primarily as an insurance policy and only activated when needed. Indeed, most carriers offer month-to-month tablet service plans.
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