Wireless Intelligence Sees Surge in 3G Mobile Devices

The majority of mobile devices being offered to customers around the world are now compatible with WCDMA-based 3G networks, according to new research from Wireless Intelligence. 3G devices now account, on average, for two thirds of operator device portfolios in mature markets, and almost half of the devices offered by operators in emerging markets.

The increasing selection and availability of 3G devices is due to improved 3G network coverage, lower device costs and a focus on mobile broadband services, the study finds. Dedicated data-only mobile broadband devices, such as dongles and laptop datacards, represent around 15 per cent of the total devices offered by global operators.

Wireless Intelligences handset portfolio research was conducted in the opening quarter of the year, spanning 36 key mobile operators in 19 countries around the world. The study is based on the handsets offered by operators via their online retail stores, so does not reflect unit volumes or sales to end users. Despite the rise in compatible handsets on offer, 3G still only accounts for around a third of operator connections in mature markets, and one in 10 in emerging markets. According to the data, total global mobile connections reached 5bn at the beginning of July, with 3G (WCDMA) connections accounting for 11 per cent (approx. 550m) of the total.

“Its taken a long time for 3G devices to come-of-age as they have often suffered from high prices and poor design, but generous operator subsidies and unlimited data plans have helped to boost adoption in recent years,” says Joss Gillet, senior analyst at Wireless Intelligence. “Our new research shows that most mobile operators around the world are now heavily promoting 3G-capable devices, in order to tap into new mobile data revenues and push into mobile broadband.” 

According to the study, Sweden is the worlds most advanced 3G market. Over 90 per cent of the devices offered by leading Swedish operators TeliaSonera and Telenor Sweden are 3G-enabled, and both operators have more than half of their total customers migrated to 3G. This is significantly higher than the 3G share of total connections in Western Europe, which stands at 36 per cent. Western Europe is also leading the way in HSPA, the faster version of WCDMA typically used for mobile broadband. The faster technology now represents 46 per cent of the total WCDMA (family) connections in the region, compared to 30 per cent a year ago.

The study notes that, on average in mature markets, the vast majority of 3G devices offered by mobile operators are HSPA-enabled, with only 5 per cent of devices supporting only standard WCDMA. Meanwhile, in many emerging markets where fixed-broadband penetration is very low, HSPA networks typically provide the first means for consumers to access the Internet.

Despite the rise in 3G devices, most operators are still supporting widely-deployed GSM/EDGE (2G) networks via more affordable EDGE devices. According to the study, EDGE-enabled GSM devices account for 25 per cent of operator handset portfolios in mature markets, and 36 per cent in emerging markets. In many cases, EDGE is still seen as a substitute for WCDMA networks, as it benefits from better network coverage.

“In order to see 3G device portfolios grow to a level close to the most advanced Swedish benchmark, network coverage will have to improve considerably in many markets,” says Gillet. “Even though only one third of devices catalogued by operators are GSM, the 2G networks still account for around two thirds of connections in mature markets, and as much as 90 per cent in many emerging markets.”