I said this day would come, and I have been monitoring early numbers as they have started to emerge. Still, it took me by surprise that we’ve already hit the moment of passing the milestone. Its time to stop calling our device a mobile ‘phone’ (or cell ‘phone’ etc). The primary use of our mobile device is no longer voice calls!

No, its not that we download apps or surf the mobile internet (those days will also come some day in the future). But the first non-voice service has now passed globally the number of total users that indeed exceeds the number of voice users. I am of course talking of Short Message Service i.e. text messaging.

The History Lesson
NTT i.e. Nippon Telegram and Telephone, Worlds' First Telecom CorporationThe modern mobile telecoms industry was born in 1979 when NTT of Japan launched the world’s first cellular mobile telecoms network in Tokyo. A few years later several other countries launched more of these ‘first generation’ cellular networks like the Nordic/Scandinavian countries, and later even the USA got into the act with that famous Motorola phone sold by Ameritech in Chicago in 1983.

The only kind of service we could use on a mobile phone (cellular phone) was ‘voice calls’. It wasn’t until GSM came along from 1991, the first digital network and what we now call the ‘second generation’ or 2G network (launched in Finland by my former employer Elisa/Radiolinja) that introduced the technical ability to do ‘mobile data’ services – the first of which was obviously SMS. While some engineers sent SMS messages from PCs to mobile phones, the first consumer SMS, as a person-to-person message, from a mobile phone to a mobile phone, happened also in Finland on that Elisa/Radiolinja network in December 1993.

Nokia mobile phone branded Mobira Cityman 150, it worked on NMT-900 networkSo for the first 14 years the only thing we could do were voice calls. And it was legitimate to call it a cellphone or mobile phone. But from late 1993, the transition started, and SMS started growing globally from 0% ‘active users’ in November 1993 to what we now measure as 83% globally.

Some national SMS usage levels include leading countries such as 98% of Finnish mobile phone subscribers and 99% in the Philippines, to 91% in China, 89% in the UK, etc. Laggard nations like the USA which was very recently in the low 70s in its SMS adoption rate, have been catching up rapidly and latest data from Pew in 2011 says 88% of US mobile subscribers are also now active users of SMS text messaging vs 70% that Pew counted just a year before. But there are countries still catching up like Canada where the level is now at 68% according to the CWTA in 2011.

In order for SMS to overtake voice calls as the most used service on mobile, we do need to see a decline in voice call usage, else SMS could only in the perfect case ‘tie’ voice calls for 100% usage perhaps. As we have seen a steady erosion of voice calls, especially replaced by SMS text messaging, and increasingly in lower income markets and customer segments, from the youth to the unemployed.

Previous analysis reported on individual ‘voice usage’ stats as they have emerged from very sporadic random countries over the past decade, but the trend has been solid, starting from 100% and counting down. By 2009 we found three major country surveys from Lightspeed Research that reported percentages from 11% in the UK to 13% in the USA to 30% in India among subscribers who had stopped using voice calls altogether.

At that time while the trend was clear, the usage levels of voice had not fallen even in the UK yet to below SMS usage levels in 2009. And that Lightspeed survey did not explicitly ask about SMS usage, it asked only about voice calls, so it was not really a valid comparative study.

We haven’t seen any international survey of mobile services usage that could measures the national populations, to give national results of both voice usage and SMS usage, that would allow us to compare them side-by-side, in the same methodology, to any meaningful population size.

Ofcom Releases the Voice vs. Text Research
That changed this week, as we received the brand new Ofcom study of international telecoms markets. They surveyed 5,636 consumers in six major countries on three continents and part of the usage survey were questions ‘do you use SMS on your mobile phone’ and ‘do you use voice calls on your mobile phone’ And for the first time we have solid comparable measurements.

The countries are all in the ‘Industrialized World’ and are Australia, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the USA. They found SMS usage levels from a low of 64% in the USA to a high of 86% in Australia. They also found voice calls ranging from a low of 68% in Italy to a high of 80% in Germany. The population-weighed average of the six countries gives an average SMS usage level of 71.52% for SMS, vs 71.48% for voice calls. So these percentages are ‘per capita’ and not ‘per subscription’ by which more often SMS usage levels are reported. The actual human consumer ‘per capita’ measurement is more accurate obviously, as it ignores the phenomenon of multiple subscriptions and multiple phones on the same person. And we have massive news! We have JUST passed the tipping point.

First, on the measurement, if you prefer to use the statistic of ‘per subscriber’ rather than ‘per capita’ – then the subcription-weighed numbers are even more strongly in favor of SMS ie 72.4% vs 71.5%.

Secondly, while these six countries count only 8% of the planet’s population and only half of the people living in the Industrialized World – the remaining countries are strongly weighted in favor of SMS migration. First on the Industrialized World, major countries like Japan and South Korea for example have long since passed the point where more subscribers use SMS than voice calls. And for the Emerging World markets we do not have very strong global data, but for example the India statistics are quite well indicative, that two years ago the voice usage level had already fallen to 70% of all mobile subscribers. It will have fallen much more since then and similar stats are at least anecdotally true of China, Russia, Brazil etc.

The Mobile PHONE is dead, Long Live Mobile!
Not only is the primary need of a mobile today for most people SMS text messaging, rather than voice calls - but now, as of December 2011, in terms of total mobile users worldwide, that transition has also now happened. I will be doing more analysis as I dig through my various data sources and as I update my annual statistical volume for this industry, the TomiAhonen Almanac where I will have my ‘formal’ and final number for both SMS and voice call users at the end of 2011. But my preliminary number for SMS is about 83% and the voice number is likely to be roughly in the 80% – 82% range on first look. Feel free to report on these phenomena, and unless where reported from other sources, any data here are source: TomiAhonen Consulting December 2011.

For those who still are not sure they fully understand the most widely used communication technology on the planet – back in 2010 SMS had more than twice the total number of users than all of the internet and more than 3x the total number of television sets in the world – you may want to read my ‘primer’ blog about the basics of SMS text messaging. Please note, obviously the numbers for SMS (and MMS) have grown since.

About TomiAhonen Consulting
If you need all the latest stats for the mobile industry, you can always rely on TomiAhonen Almanac. I always release the new annual edition around the end of January, so the TomiAhonen Almanac 2012 is expected to be released in about a month from now. It only costs 9.99 Euros so its a total bargain for the more than 90 tables and charts that it contains. For those who now buy the previous edition (the 2011 Almanac) with less than a month to go till I announce the next edition – I’ll give you both for the price of one. Get the 2011 Almanac now in December, and for the same price, I’ll send you the 2012 Almanac also when that is released.