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Friday, July 18, 2008

Double-counting and half-counting mobile broadband

I'm up into my neck in a spreadsheet model of mobile broadband adoption & device usage at the moment.

An interesting paradox is currently bending my mind:

- some mobile broadband subscriptions will be "double-counted". One subscription might cover multiple devices, particularly for non-SIM technologies like Mobile WiMAX. So one individual user might have a single WiMAX "account", but have 2 or 3 separate devices permitted to use it (eg laptop + personal media player + in-car system) . A similar scenario might be people who SIM-swap between multiple devices, or share a 3G USB modem or mobile-backhauled local router.

- some other mobile broadband subscriptions will be "half-counted". One device might have access to multiple network accounts or technologies. So a laptop might have embedded WiMAX, plus an HSPA modem. Or a single operator may operate multiple network technologies, and use 802.21 in the connection software, to attach the device to whichever is available at a given location.

The easy option is to design the model to ignore these effects, and assume they're just minor or will cancel each other out. But the current roughly 30% mismatch between cellular user & subscriber data suggests that's an oversimplification too far.

Edit: The more I think about this, the more complex it gets. One of the other issues is going to be the possibility to get "ad hoc" access to WiMAX, and maybe even HSPA/LTE in the future, in the same sort of way that you can get one-off access to WiFi hotspots. If I go on a trip to 5 countries with a mobile-enabled laptop, and sign up for 2 days' WiMAX with local providers in each place - or buy a local prepay data SIM for HSPA - does that count as 5 "subscriptions"?

One thing's for sure... we're all going to have to be very wary of reported statistics on mobile broadband. I've just realised I've already got 4 subs myself - a 3 HSDPA dongle, a 3 prepay SIM in a smartphone, a new HSDPA featurephone with flatrate data on O2, and a T-Mobile 3G SIM which is actually in a 2G device.

Edit 2: No, I've got 5 subs. I forgot I'd been given another temporary week-long HSDPA modem & SIM in February by the GSMA in Barcelona. Although that one may no longer be counted as "active" depending on Telefonica's definition of churn.... See what I mean about the stats?


Ram said...


As long as you pay separately for your 4 accounts (which I assume you do), what is the issue in counting them as 4 "subscribers"? The context of a "subscriber" is relevant if the "subscriber" is paying for a service. This is what the operator cares (as a result the vendors and the mobile ecosystem), right?


Dean Bubley said...

Makes a lot of difference when calculating ARPU, doing comparisons with fixed-line broadband, estimating opportunities for devices & new services and so forth.

Also makes it tricky for marketeers at the operator to understand potential underserved markets if the penetration figures are misleading.

So at the moment I pay around £60 a month in total, 2 through my business and one personally. There's no way I'd ever sign up to 4 "content" plans as well as data access, though.

Sure, I'm an unusual example, but the point I'm making is that the subscriber data will be very "dirty" ie you can't just assume that

1 sub = 1 person = 1 device

Conversely, if I was a vendor selling laptops, I'd ignore total # of mobile broadband "subs" as a reliable indicator of the demand for, say, embedded-3G laptops.


David said...

Interesting point, and likely to become much more important with growing multiplicity of subscriptions.

BTW I believe that operators don't count temporary SIMs (eg the ones sold for a couple of months use to tourists when on holiday) in their subscriber figures. Thus your Barcelona special wouldn't count. This makes their ARPU look better too.

I'd also differentiate between subscriptions and subscribers. This is important when calculating share of wallet (e.g. your subscriptions are with different operators - whats it worth for one operator to capture all your ARPU). But it also reinforces the slight abuse of industry statistics you've mentioned before - e.g is it 3.3Bn subscribers or subscriptions that we celebrate in mobile globally today?

And this will become more important as operators need to tie in multiple subscriptions from related people for customer care and billing purposes.