The Growing US Smartphone Base

In my job, I have to keep track of many different data sets. Among them are the numbers regularly put out by big analyst firms as well as specialists like Comscore and Kantar Worldpanel. Comscore in particular puts out one of the few data sets which is intended to quantify the base of smartphones in the US on a regular basis, but it has always seemed to be a little off. As well as these various data sets, I also track the US wireless operators closely and that provides a different way of looking at the US smartphone base — which ends up being quite a bit bigger than Comscore suggests.

Comscore’s figures

Comscore regularly reports the number of smartphones in use, the total number of mobile users, and the penetration of the total market by smartphones. The featurephone and smartphone numbers from these reports are shown in the chart below:

Screenshot 2015-05-08 17.07.52

The trend here is absolutely correct: the overall number of phones isn’t growing that much (though it is growing more than Comscore suggests), but smartphones make up an ever-increasing proportion of the total. Comscore has total phones at around 243 million as of the end of March.

Figures derived from the wireless operators

Meanwhile, the US operators, in their financial reporting, provide a rather different picture. They don’t all explicitly report the number of smartphones they serve, but they do provide enough information we can get very close to an accurate figure. I track the four largest operators in particular: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Tracfone, and Verizon Wireless. My estimate for the total number of smartphones and feature phones on these operators is shown in the chart below:

Screenshot 2015-05-08 17.12.12

As you can see, the broad pattern is similar, with limited growth in total, and smartphones growing steadily as a proportion of the total. But the total number is quite a bit higher than Comscore’s number, as you can see when we set the two smartphone data sets side by side:

Screenshot 2015-05-08 17.02.17

The difference is around 40 million smartphones, a fairly significant discrepancy between the two. And, although these five operators account for the vast majority of US mobile subscribers, they don’t account for all of them – we need to add a few million more for the various smaller carriers in the market.

Why so different?

What’s behind the difference in these two data sets? A look at Comscore’s methodology helps to illuminate the situation. Here’s the methodology statement from Comscore’s latest press release:

MobiLens data is derived from an intelligent online survey of a nationally representative sample of mobile subscribers age 13 and older. Data on mobile phone usage refers to a respondent’s primary mobile phone and does not include data related to a respondent’s secondary device.

First, Comscore’s data is survey-based. There’s nothing wrong with surveys per se – they’re often the only way to discover certain patterns. But it’s always a proxy for the real thing, which is of course what the wireless operators report. The wireless carrier data doesn’t give us breakdowns between operating systems, but it’s a great way to arrive at an overall market size. There can always be flaws in survey methodologies, including leaving out certain populations and thus under-representing them. Second, Comscore’s survey only includes those over 12 in the US population. Given that kids are getting phones younger and younger, that certainly doesn’t capture the whole US mobile population. The US Census Bureau indicates there are 20 million kids aged 10-14, of which roughly 60%, or 13-14 million, are likely 10-12 years old. Not all of these have smartphones, obviously, but some proportion does (and some even younger kids do too), so this may be part of the problem. Third, the Comscore survey only asks about users’ primary phone, which means it undercounts all those devices which are secondary devices, whether that’s a work device, a cheap smartphone for use in the car, or some other phone used in addition to the main one. Given how many people use both work and personal devices, it’s entirely possible this also significantly under-represents the overall phone (and smartphone) population in the US.

Does this matter?

The question, of course, is whether this matters? Should we just throw out the Comscore data as defective? Or can it still be useful? The shortfall is certainly an issue. If you were relying on Comscore’s data to forecast the total iPhone market in the US, for example, you’d end up with about 80 million users, while there would be just under 100 million Android users. But we already know that Comscore is under-counting the total smartphone market by around 35-40 million, so each of these numbers might be 15-20 million higher in practice. That’s important if you’re trying to get an accurate gauge. The next question is whether the split between operating systems is accurate, or whether that’s defective too. That’s harder to ascertain through other sources and Kantar and other data seems to bear out similar trends in broad terms, so I’m inclined to believe it’s fairly accurate. But I take it with at least a pinch of salt on the basis that I know the overall data is flawed. I think the key, ultimately, is not to rely on any one data point, but rather to find as many data points as possible that either corroborate or contradict one another, then synthesize and aggregate them to arrive at the best possible picture of reality. That’s an ongoing challenge and it will never produce perfect results, but it’s the only way to do this properly. Relying on a single data source, especially one with significant flaws, is always a dangerous business.

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Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

7 thoughts on “The Growing US Smartphone Base”

  1. Thanks for delving into this. As you note, Comscore only looks at primary phone, so I’d guess many with business-provided phones are not counted. How big is enterprise market in terms of phones?

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