Ina Fried

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Mobile Data Use Surging, but Tablets Largely a Wi-Fi-Only Affair

Even when tablet buyers opt for a device with the ability to use a cellular network, most are opting to use the device only on Wi-Fi.

In a report released on Monday, analyst Chetan Sharma said that 90 percent of tablets are using Wi-Fi, even though some of those are capable of using a cellular connection. As a result, carriers are a less important factor when it comes to tablet sales.

One key reason is that U.S. carriers don’t allow users to share a data plan with other devices, something that Sharma said should change this year. Those that offer such shared data plans will fare better than those that stick to a plan for each device, Sharma said.

One of the interesting things to watch will be how the mix shifts with the new iPad, which is capable of using high-speed LTE networks and — when enabled by the carrier — of acting as a wireless hotspot. Both AT&T and Verizon said they saw impressive initial sales for the device, with Apple saying it has sold three million new iPads in its first weekend. Apple didn’t say how many were of the Wi-Fi-only variety and how many purchasers paid the extra $130 for a cellular-equipped model.

While tablets may not be gobbling up much cellular data, smartphones sure are. Sharma said that the U.S. cellphone market generated $67 billion in revenue from data, making up 39 percent of overall revenue. Fourth-quarter data revenue alone was $18.6 billion, up 4 percent sequentially and 19 percent from the prior year.

However, monthly revenue per customer — a key industry metric — is tailing off. Data continues to grow, but is no longer offsetting the decline in voice revenue. The U.S. industry saw average monthly revenue per customer drop by 43 cents, as a 52-cent per customer gain in data was more than offset by a 96-cent per customer decline in voice.

Smartphones continue to dominate sales, accounting for two-thirds of sales in the fourth quarter and 80 percent of sales to traditional contract customers.

Some other interesting tidbits from Sharma’s report:

According to Sharma, IBM had the lead when it comes to U.S. mobile patent filings, followed by Samsung, Microsoft, Sony, Qualcomm, LG, Ericsson, Panasonic, Broadcom and RIM. Other big names include Nokia at No. 12, Intel at No. 13, Apple at No. 16, Motorola at No. 21 and Google at No. 23. Among the carriers, Sprint had the most patents granted, with 323 awarded last year.

Sharma forecast that mobile data revenue in the U.S. will total $80 billion this year, up from $67 billion in 2011. Additionally, he said he sees the amount of money generated by mobile data passing the amount of revenue from mobile calling in early 2013.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work