Rural wireless subscribers are high value customers. Those of us working within the competitive carrier ecosystem already know this, but a recent survey commissioned by the Competitive Carriers Association shows it by the numbers.
This past summer, CCA with the help of Current Analysis surveyed more than 400 rural wireless subscribers, and found that more than 80% of rural subscribers who have recently purchased, or plan to purchase devices within the next three months will purchase a smartphone. Among respondents who made $25,000 a year or less, over 70% will buy a smartphone.
Close to 40% of rural wireless consumers surveyed feel they have less choice when it comes to devices and service plans as compared to their urban counterparts. So if rural consumers at all income levels are willing to purchase the most sophisticated and expensive devices, why do they have fewer device choices?
Rural consumers have fewer options because many rural and regional carriers continue to have trouble accessing the latest devices. Working on behalf of more than 100 competitive carriers across the United States, CCA has made it a priority to work with policymakers in Washington, D.C., to ensure this problem is solved for the benefit of both the carriers and consumers. CCA and its members know that access to devices is key to retaining current customers and attaining new subscribers. In other words, it is key to their survival. Several critical policy issues including device interoperability and access to spectrum greatly effect a carrier’s ability to access devices. For consumers in rural areas to truly reap the benefits of robust broadband service and for rural and regional carriers to compete, policymakers must address these issues.
North America’s competitive wireless carriers represent handset buying power of more than $10 billion – a significant opportunity. In addition to policy considerations, it is time for device manufacturers and retailers to understand the breadth of the competitive wireless market and the needs and behaviors of consumers outside major metro areas.
More than 40% of rural wireless subscribers either use wireless service exclusively, or plan to eliminate their wireline service within the next year. Looking ahead, it is safe to assume that relatively soon, at least half of the households in rural America will rely solely on wireless services for voice and data.
In many important aspects, rural markets in the United States are mimicking European and developing markets around the world when it comes to wireless usage. No one can deny that in many global metro markets, mobile device usage is far higher than in metro U.S. markets.
In smaller, less-developed markets, often the wireline infrastructure – which is costly, and requires a lot of physical equipment – is not as robust, reliable or available as in larger, established markets. Therefore, wireline services may not deliver the experience consumers want or deserve.
Enter wireless services. In under-served areas, marketing the service does not require convincing people to move from wireline services they know and trust to a new, wireless service. They are already clamoring for mobile service and the newest devices coming to market.
As part of all of this, rural consumers have likely not invested in wired computer systems at home. Mobile devices, which cost less than PCs and are far more portable, represent their on-ramp to the Internet. As a result, consumers in these markets are purchasing sophisticated wireless devices, regardless of their income level.
With all of this opportunity, competitive carriers still find themselves fighting for access to high-end phones. And nearly half of the consumers in smaller markets feel like they have less access to the devices they want and are willing to buy.
It is time for policymakers, handset manufacturers and retailers to recognize that smaller wireless markets offer an enormous growth opportunity. I invite manufacturers like Apple, BlackBerry, HTC, Nokia, Samsung and others to pursue opportunities with rural and regional carriers. As the data shows, if you build it – and provide the devices to use it – subscribers will come.
Steven K. Berry is president & CEO of Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) the nation’s leading association for competitive wireless providers serving rural, regional and nationwide markets in the United States. The licensed service area of CCA members covers more than 95% of the nation.