Mobile Customers, Accounts, Lines, Devices: What are We Counting?

For whatever combination of reasons, Verizon Wireless has been outpacing AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile US at adding net new “customers” since about 2010. That is especially crucial as overall net additions are shrinking since the end of 2011.

Perhaps 90 percent of all new net additions now are taken from another service provider.

All that might raise a question: will Sprint and T-Mobile US take share from each other, from AT&T or from Verizon Wireless? It’s a hard question to answer, in part because the subscriber figures actually do not quite add up in a logical way.

Verizon Wireless, for example, added 1.1 million net retail connections, including 927,000 retail postpaid net connections, in the third quarter, to grow total retail connections to 101.2 million connections, up 5.5 percent year over year.

Some 95.2 million of those retail connections were postpaid connections.

If AT&T, T-Mobile US and Sprint report third quarter results in line with their second quarter reports, we might expect T-Mobile US to add a million customers, AT&T to gain half a million and Sprint to lose about half a million.

So we might expect about 2.5 million net adds at Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile US, with Sprint losing about half a million. In other words, about two million net accounts would be added, of which possibly 1.8 million represent market share shift.

So where are those customers coming from? One suspects the issue is “accounts” or “users” rather than “customers.” That is about the only way to explain the numbers.

To be sure, the shift of postpaid users to prepaid is a complicating factor, but it seems likely that the carriers are reporting something more akin to “connected devices” (phones, tablets, data cards) rather than customer accounts (which often are family or shared plans) or “lines” (connected phones).

Those estimates assume the third quarter results from T-Mobile US, AT&T and Sprint will be about the same as their second quarter results.

T-Mobile US added 1.1 million customers in its second quarter of 2013, for example.

In its second quarter of 2013, Sprint lost about 520,000 net customers, though it gained 194,000 postpaid customers. AT&T, in the second quarter of 2013, gained a net 632,000 customers, including 551,000 postpaid customers.

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