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10 Most Popular Questions on the U.S. Wireless Industry

In this dynamic and constantly evolving wireless industry, we’ve accepted the fact that there is no “final” draft in our Wireless Industry Overview ...or any of our industry overview documents. Instead, we’re always updating these “living” documents.

But while the industry keeps changing, as the head of research, I’ve noticed I’m consistently asked the following questions.

  1. What does the word “penetration” refer to in the wireless industry?
    Penetration is the number of active wireless subscriber units divided by the total U.S. and territorial populations (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands). At year-end 2010, 96 percent was the number of active units divided by the total population. Of course, since so many people are now using more than one wireless device (tablet and phone, anyone?), it’s entirely possible for penetration to reach above 100 percent. That doesn't mean that every single person really has a wireless device, but it does mean that the number of active devices may soon be more than the total population. Stay tuned for the release of our next survey at Enterprise & Applications on October 11!
  2. What should consumers do with old cellphones and chargers?
    Many companies have programs that promote the recycling of old cellphones and other wireless devices. Visit to find more information about your carrier’s recycling program. All major carriers and many others will accept any device or accessory at their stores, regardless of which carrier provided your service. Don’t forget to erase your personal information before you make a donation.
  3. What do “direct carrier jobs” and “wireless carrier payroll” mean?
    “Direct carrier jobs” refers to the wireless service providers’ employees, consisting of direct sales employees (full-time sales employees) and other employees (full-time employees including all administrative personnel). Thus, direct carrier jobs do not include employees of third party firms such as manufacturers or sales agents. The term “wireless carrier payroll” actually comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Employment and Wages. They report several figures for telecom industry payroll, including wages for wireless jobs. But their numbers are incomplete because they don’t account for the entire ecosystem or even the entire wireless carrier workforce. I explain more about some of the issues with the BLS numbers in a recent blog post.
  4. How is the semi-annual survey conducted? What’s the methodology?
    We send the survey to wireless service providers around the country, asking them to report (to the accounting firm that handles the survey) a variety of key metrics (total subscribers, total service revenues, data revenues, average local monthly bill, number of employees, number of cell sites, etc.). Once the accounting firm totals the data, the submissions are destroyed, and no company-specific information is retained. Only aggregate, anonymous data is retained and provided by the accounting firm to CTIA.
  5. How do you calculate the average length of a call?
    The survey asks companies to report to the accounting firm that handles the survey the total number of billable calls and the total number of billable minutes for the six month survey period. The average length of a call is calculated by dividing total billable minutes by billable calls. The accounting firm sends the final aggregated total figures for MOUs, calls and the average length of a call to CTIA. In 2010, the average local length of a call is 1.7 minutes.
  6. How many text messages were there per day in 2010?
    There were 5.9 billion text messages sent and received every single day in 2010.
  7. Are there any third party organizations that know how many subscribers each carrier has?
    The publicly traded companies provide the number of subscribers they have on their quarterly reports and press releases. We do not track this information.
  8. What is included in the average monthly bill?
    The average local monthly bill was $47.21/month as of December 2010, which excludes roaming (but that would be a couple of dollars at most). It includes voice and data services (including Internet access, texting, music, games and other downloads). Taxes and fees are not included (e.g. 911, federal or state USF charges or state or local sales taxes), and they are not reported to us.
  9. What is the history of wireless data traffic?
    Unfortunately, we haven’t kept track of companies that track wireless data usage over time.As part of CTIA’s semi-annual survey, we asked service providers to report the data traffic in 2009. For the six-month period July-December 2009, the reported total was 108 billion MB. January-June 2010, it was 161 billion MB. From July-December 2010, it was 227 billion MB. Total data traffic grew 110 percent year-over-year. ABI Research produced a report that includes U.S. wireless carrier statistics in 2009. Cisco also produced a global report with information regarding traffic that can be located here. We track the growth of text messaging. Wireless carriers in the U.S. handled more than 2 trillion text messages and more than 388 billion MB of data in 2010. The volume of text messages exchanged by customers in the last half of 2010 totaled more than 1 trillion. Compare that number to the 49 billion text messages consumers exchanged in the last half of 2005.There is no doubt that there is growth in total data traffic. I explain more in this blog post.
  10. Where can I find more statistical information about the wireless industry?
    In addition to our semi-annual survey, we provide:

Together with our Public Affairs department, we developed a Wireless Industry Overview that looks at the industry’s economic impact using a number of third party organizations facts. For folks who want an abbreviated version of the Wireless Industry Overview, we also offer The Wireless Industry Facts: An Independent Review.

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