Survey: Around 15% of activations are phones that customers bring with them

child kid flip phone (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)
Unlocked phones allow customers to swap SIM cards to switch carriers. (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)

A new survey looks at the percentage of customers who bring their own device with them. And, the results reveal, most customers don’t purchase their device elsewhere. Instead, they usually opt to purchase a phone through their carrier.

According to a survey of 35 retail representatives conducted by Wave7 Research, roughly 13-17% of customer activations occur on “bring your own” (BYO) devices.

“Some 35 reps were asked to estimate the percentage comprised of BYO activations at their store,” Wave7 wrote in a recent research note to subscribers. “The percentage was only 13% at Verizon, but was in the 16-17% range at the other carriers. Answers vary widely by store, with Verizon answers coming in as low as 1% and as high as 40%. A Verizon rep complained about competitors putting locks on phones, while another Verizon rep noted the $150 BYO promo, but said he sees few activations via this offer. iPhones seem to have disproportionate switcher activity.”

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Citing carrier representatives, the Wave7 report added that customers bring their own device for a variety of reasons, including switching from another carrier or activating a used device or one purchased through Amazon or Best Buy. The report also noted that customers often run into problems in activating their device, including finding out that the device doesn’t support a particular carrier’s network technology or spectrum bands.

Regardless of the reason, the figures represent another data point in the market for “unlocked” wireless devices. Such devices aren’t tied to a particular carrier and are instead added to a customers’ existing or new wireless account, often by that customer installing a SIM card from their carrier.

Historically, carriers have tied their services to the devices they sell, partly in order to control customer experiences, partly in order to ensure their customers get devices tuned to the carrier’s network, and partly to prevent that customer from easily churning to another carrier.

Carriers have made efforts to make it easier for customers to activate unlocked devices. For example, trade association CTIA in 2013 announced the nation’s top carriers agreed to simplify and standardize their policies on unlocking cell phones and tablets. And in 2016, T-Mobile launched a promotion encouraging customers to purchase an unlocked version of Google’s Pixel phone and then activate it on the carrier’s unlimited data plan; the offer essentially was a challenge to Verizon, which continues to have an exclusive deal with Google to sell the Pixel and Pixel 2.

But finding concrete numbers on the unlocked device space remains challenging. Most operators keep such statistics to themselves, though NPD reported last year that the market for unlocked phones reached 30 million users, accounting for 12.5% of overall phone sales.

A growing market for unlocked, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) users could represent a boon to smaller phone manufacturers that don’t receive marketing support from the nation’s wireless network operators.