US surges to near global lead in mobile data

Consumers in the U.S. are second only to Sweden in using data, according to analyst Chetan Sharma

U.S. consumers are among the world's most voracious consumers of mobile data, motivated by the country's homegrown technology industry, according to analyst Chetan Sharma.

The average U.S. mobile data user will be consuming 675MB of data per month by the end of this year, said Sharma, founder of Chetan Sharma Consulting. That forecast average will be second only to that of Sweden, which he estimated at 760MB per month. The figures were part of the consulting firm's second-quarter report, released on Thursday.

The U.S. has already surpassed the Philippines to achieve the highest use of SMS (Short Message Service). U.S. consumers sent and received an average of 664 SMS messages per user, per month, in the second quarter. The Philippines, long the world's leader in SMS, now has an average of 560 text messages per month.

In the second quarter, mobile data revenue in the U.S. rose 5 percent from the previous quarter and 22 percent from a year earlier to US$16.2 billion, Sharma said. Meanwhile, average revenue from voice services continued to fall.

At this rate, U.S. mobile operators will be bringing in more revenue from data than from voice by early 2013, Sharma predicted.

The change in the country's status from once being considered a relative mobile laggard has much to do with the fact that Apple and Google, purveyors of the two most popular smartphone platforms, are based in the U.S., Sharma said.

"The epicenter has been Silicon Valley," Sharma said.

Smartphones are much more popular in the U.S. than globally, with 55 percent of all mobile devices sold being smartphones. The worldwide rate is 27 percent. In addition, because Apple's iOS and Google's Android started in the U.S., the app stores for those platforms are still weighted toward software that appeals to Americans, he said.

The way carriers sell services has also affected U.S. mobile data use. For example, consumers in other countries are more often on plans that limit the number of texts they can send and receive. So users in the Philippines and the Netherlands, for example, are finding it more economical to buy a data plan and send messages via Facebook and other social networking services, Sharma said. U.S. carriers have been moving toward plans with no limit on messages, and on Thursday, AT&T announced it would discontinue all but its unlimited plan.

Meanwhile, U.S. carriers have been among the leaders in rolling out faster network technologies including mobile WiMax, HSPA+ (High-Speed Packet Access) and LTE. "From a network perspective, the U.S. has been ahead of major markets," Sharma said. Verizon said this week that its LTE network reaches a majority of the U.S. population.

Against the backdrop of a strong and growing mobile data business, Hewlett-Packard's decision on Thursday to drop its WebOS products was unfortunate, Sharma said. He thinks the company was trying to drop low-margin product lines but dropped WebOS too soon.

"You have to give it some time. You can't just launch a product and expect that it'll do wonders for you in a month," Sharma said. The key to success is the ecosystem around a mobile platform, and here HP failed, he said. "Fundamentally, the mistake was not investing enough ... in getting developers on board."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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