Category Archives: equipment sales

LTE doesn’t drive Korean smartphone penetration any longer

2013 ended with over 1 billion smartphones sold – a new record. But mature market operators should look at Korea as a projection of what will come: It is the world’s most advanced LTE market based on penetration and usage levels.

Korea smartphone LTE dev 2011 2013

The operators in Korea – SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus – are continuing to sell a lot of LTE equipment to its customers, even though sales slowed somewhat during 2013. But whereas the sales of LTE equipment earlier led to a lift in overall smartphone penetration, it looks as if it’s not going to drive smartphone penetration very much longer: See how the three top curves in the graph slow down even though the LTE curves go up.

Note: LG Uplus hasn’t yet stated overall smartphone penetration for Q4 2013. Non-LTE smartphones are soon phased out of LG Uplus.

In the world’s most advanced LTE market, LTE seems to run out of fuel. Existing smartphone customers do upgrade to LTE smartphones, but the overall smartphone penetration in Korea doesn’t climb above 70% [SK Telecom holds 50% of market, KT 30% and Uplus 20%]. If we extrapolate, the LTE penetration will equal the smartphone penetration during 2014 – more or less.

For mature market operators believing in LTE’s ability to take smartphone penetration levels beyond the 70% level observed today in countries like e.g. Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Australia, the UK and France this is bad news. The Korean development indicates that LTE as such is not enough.

The situation resembles 2007 – before the arrival of the iPhone. Incremental improvements had made products from e.g. Nokia the best ever, but disruption was needed to create new growth. iPhone was the catalyst in 2007. The mobile world – including Apple – are back into incremental improvements and the current products are the best ever. From where will the innovation come that creates new growth in mature markets?

Why the smartphone growth is over (for smartphones as we got to know them)

Smartphone penetration vs GDPAn amazing growth story comes to an end: Smartphone penetration isn’t really growing any longer in mature markets. Smartphones are still sold in high volumes, but the difference is that they’re now primarily sold – subsidised or not – to existing smartphone owners, who upgrades.

In 2007, there was an untapped demand for smartphones. With penetration rates approaching 70%, this demand is now fulfilled.

Also maturing markets show signs of saturation – at penetration levels less than 20% – since income level is proven to be the primary factor behind smartphone penetration.

The need for the 30 USD smartphone crystallises from this analysis. But operators must also upgrade networks for mobile data – and make mobile data hassle-free also for prepaid customers.

Download analysis: tefficient public industry analysis 11 2013 Smartphone penetration

Why operators should refrain from handset sales

Teeter signThe first mobile operators have already reached the tipping point where handset revenue exceeds service revenue. The only reason why the average handset revenue isn’t higher than 14% of total revenue is subsidisation: Handset cost averagely stands for 30% of operator OPEX.

The increase in handset sales is bad news for the EBITDA margin of operators. Even with a positive gross margin on handset sales, total EBITDA margin is diluted. The issue is deeper than handset subsidisation: Even when at its best, handset retail is a low margin business. Should operators opt-out?

Download analysis: tefficient public efficiency analysis 3 2013 Handset sales