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CTIA Says We’re Number 1–But In What Exactly?

CTIA LogoThe CTIA–the industry association for wireless carriers here in the US–is spewing their lies creative interpretations of the truth again at the FCC in the form of ex parte communications. What else is new?

In their filing (warning, PDF link) they list 7 areas where the US mobile carriers excel compared to the other “top 10″ countries in terms of Gross Domestic Product, as ranked by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

  • Subscribers
  • Minutes Of Use
  • Revenue Received By Carriers per Minute of Use
  • Top Two Carriers Share of Wireless Market
  • Number of Facilities-Based Carriers with More than One Million Subscribers
  • Amount of Spectrum Allocated for Commercial Mobile Wireless
  • Subscribers Servers per MHz of Spectrum

We might be #1 in 6 of these 7 categories, but what does this mean? Hit the jump for more.

#1 in Number Of Subscribers: Well no duh. I’ve heard my employer state that the U.S. is the 3rd largest market for mobile phones behind China (#1) and India (#2). The CTIA estimates there are 250 million wireless subscribers, which is nothing to sneeze at.

#1 in Minutes Of Use: Do the numbers outside of North America take into account inbound minutes as well, which are free because of the calling party pays system ? Even if it doesn’t, this is a nice statistic, but it doesn’t break it down into how much was paid for each minute of use (e.g. “free” nights and weekend or mobile-to-mobile minutes versus ones that are part of your plan versus overage minutes). That would be a far more interesting statistic.

Revenue Received by Carriers per Minute of Use: I think this could also be subject to creative interpretation. I am going to assume we are talking only voice here and not SMS/data, because I bet the numbers would be REALLY different. The U.S. carriers supposedly derive just $0.04 per minute of use by their customers. That’s because some minutes are “free” and some minutes are really expensive. This communication compares things to Japan, which supposedly makes $0.25 per minute of use–Japan mostly does data, voice is kind of expensive. And, the second place in lowest cost per minute? The only place that gets screwed more than the U.S. does–Canada.

Top Two Carriers’ Share of the Wireless Market: AT&T and Verizon Wireless have 51.7% of the market share between them. This is because we have more “regional” carriers–some of which are actually quite big. Which brings us to the next point:

Number of Facilities-Based Carriers with More than One Million Subscribers: Supposedly, the U.S. has ten carriers with more than 1 million subscribers. Why did they pick this number of subscribers? The CTIA points to this and the previous points as proof that the American marketplace is thriving.

This is a load of crap, and the CTIA knows it. A better question might be: how many choices does the average citizen have access to? It’s nowhere near ten carriers. Thanks to spectrum allocation, the absolute maximum is six. Thanks to consolidation, that number could be far less. Where I live? Four choices, and they’re all the national carriers. Now how does that compare to the rest of the world?

Amount of Spectrum Allocated for Commercial Mobile Wireless: The CTIA admits we could be doing better in this regard, as the U.S. is far behind everyone else in the OECD top ten, except for Canada, Mexico, and South Korea, which serve far less customers than we do.

Subscribers Server Per MHz of Spectrum: Given that we’ve got a quarter of a billion subscribers and 294 MHz of spectrum allocated for mobile phone usage, that means we’ve got over 850,000 subscribers server per MHz of spectrum. Considering that 294MHz of spectrum includes spectrum that’s not currently available for use–about 60 MHz of spectrum at 700 MHz plus 90 MHz of AWS spectrum–it’s actually more like 1.77 million customers per MHz of spectrum. And you wonder why you can’t hold a call on the interstate?

What’s are the takeaways here?

  • We are efficient in spectrum usage, but only because we have to be. I suspect those attempts at being “efficient” are largely responsible for lousy coverage and dropped calls. Well that and the NIMBYs that need to be slapped upside the head with a clue-by-four.
  • What about data and SMS usage? These reports seem to focus on voice. What if you compare the data and SMS calls across these 10 countries? Who do you bet will come out on-top? It won’t be the U.S.
  • Lots of carriers does not translate into lots of choices for the average consumer.
  • I question whether or not they were able to do a proper apples-to-apples comparison with respect to voice charges between the 10 countries. Not all minutes are created equal.

I think the CTIA found a few data points that ‘prove’ their point, yet there is plenty of negative customer experience to put into question whether or not the U.S. carriers are able to effectively serve their customers. I’d say many people say no, what say you?


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