Carrier Desire for More Data Fees in Conflict with Consumer Price Sensitivity

In the regular torrent of data and reports streaming across my desk there were a number of interesting findings recently that indirectly addressed the issue of mobile consumer price sensitivity. The first came from Google's recent consumer study with Compete about how mobile phone buyers shop for handsets and what influences those purchase decisions. 

Google found that after carrier network quality/reliability the primary consumer considerations were the cost of data and voice plans and the price of handsets.

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Source: Google-Compete (Q3 2011)

Then came Chetan Sharma's latest Global Mobile Market Update, which is trove of charts about a range of mobile issues: smartphone adoption, carrier revenues and mobile IP among others. He underscores the now familar point that carrier voice revenues are flat to declining while data is driving growth. Partly as a consequence, most carriers have moved away or are trying to retreat from unlimited data plans.

Sharma asserts that mobile phone plan fees now represent "50% of the [consumer] household IT budget." That was quite striking to me. Also in the "household IT" category are landlines, cable TV and Internet access. Carriers want to drive up fees; consumers want to hold them down. 

Another interesting, related piece of data from Sharma's slides is one that shows how most consumers that have bought iPads or other tablets have opted for WiFi only devices (63%) -- undoubtedly a cost saving move. Even a majority of those who've bought carrier-enabled devices have not activated those carrier plans. In other words, according to the data, only 12% of tablets are running on carrier networks. 

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Source: Chetan Sharma April 2012

This choice is absolutely about minimizing fees that consumers are paying for Internet access. They're paying for access at home, they're paying for access on their smartphones -- and many families have multiple people on data plans. It thus makes sense that they'd say "no" to a third Internet access tariff for tablets. 

Verizon in the US is rumored to be readying a multiple device family data plan. We'll have to see how much data it allows and how much it costs. In theory it's a compelling solution. 

However the carrier imperative to extract more data charges and fees from consumers as other revenues decline will bump up against consumer price sensitivity and resistance to price increases. Market competition will also limit the carriers' ability to raise prices in the future.