Is 2013 the year mobile data becomes bigger than voice?

On the webpages of Gigaom we’re constantly talking about mobile data, the mobile internet and mobile broadband, but the mobile carriers have always lived in a voice-centric world. The importance of smartphones and LTE can’t be ignored, but the fact remains voice always has been the principal source of the mobile carriers’ paychecks.

We’re approaching a crossover point in the U.S., however, at which data becomes a bigger revenue driver than voice. According to a new report from Chetan Sharma Consulting, that crossover point will likely be the current quarter. For the third quarter, data accounted for 48 percent of all U.S. mobile industry service revenues, and that percentage is growing quickly. Carriers took in $22.8 billion from data in Q3, up 5 percent from the previous quarter and 15 percent year over year.

Voice data converging Sharma

Verizon(s vz)(s vod), AT&T(s t) and Sprint(s s) have all crossed over the 50 percent mark already, while T-Mobile(s tmus) and regional carriers are catching up, Sharma said. Because the holiday quarter is always a big one not only for smartphone sales but data plan activations, U.S. carriers are easily on pace to haul in $90 billion in mobile data revenues. If that happens, Sharma said, voice revenue will officially begin receding in the rearview mirror, and 2014 will the be the first full year that mobile data took in more money than voice.

It’s easy to see this trend playing out in the carriers’ pricing plans and network operations. AT&T and Verizon are no longer segmenting voice and SMS in their plans any more – if you buy a smartphone the only thing you really get to pick is how big a bucket of megabytes you’ll need. T-Mobile and AT&T are shutting down large portions of their 2G GSM capacity to make way for more LTE bandwidth, while Sprint shut down its voice-centric Nextel network completely. Though voice may have been carriers’ bread and butter until now, data long ago overtook voice as the primary source of traffic.