The Pending Obsolescence of Handset Penetration Rates

With the mobile penetration rate in the U.S. nearing 100 percent, we’re seeing plenty of stories about how we’re approaching (or already at) at the saturation point. But as I note in my weekly column over at GigaOM Pro, I’m beginning to wonder exactly where that saturation point is — and how much longer “handset penetration” will really matter.

For as we’ve seen in a host of other markets, 100 percent penetration is no ceiling. Analyst Tomi Ahonen pointed out a few weeks ago that the U.S. penetration rate for the full year of 2008 (the latest World Bank statistics) was 89 percent — 84th among all countries. Some emerging markets even ranked ahead of the U.S., including Thailand and Algeria.

The impetus for such high rates can vary wildly from region to region, so there are reasons to think that the U.S. may have a lower ceiling than other markets when it comes to mobile usage. But there’s also a new class of connected devices that’s just beginning to come to market.

The success of the iPad 3G underscores the untapped market for a device that’s neither laptop nor phone but leverages a constant connection to a cellular network — and it’s just the beginning. The notion of handset penetration rates, then, will become obsolete as the mobile industry expands to a wide variety of gadgets that aren’t phones. Like ARPU — which is still a key metric in the industry — it will provide just a glimpse of the market rather than a broad view. So instead of arguing about what kind of handset penetration rates we should expect to see in the U.S., we should be talking about the penetration rate of connected devices — and how much higher that will be than mere phone usage. Read the full post here.

Imaage courtesy Flickr user The Intrepid Traveler.