By Josh Zagorsky on December 8, 2015
When I had my first cellphone back in 2007, a friend texted me “sup.” My mental reaction was, “Not cool, dude- that cost me ten cents!” But those days are history for most Americans. The question is: how many? The percentage of Americans with unlimited texting plans is something nobody seemed to know the answer to, so we did some research and calculated it ourselves.
People using our text message survey platform sometimes ask us what percentage of people in the U.S. have unlimited texting. This is a serious concern, because researchers worry about non-response bias from participants who get charged per message. Just two years ago, scientists used Instant Census to power a 5-month population study, and they compensated participants up to $100 to make sure that even if people were paying 20 cents per text message, they would still come out ahead of what their carrier billed them.
Several years ago it was standard practice for U.S. cellphone carriers to sell plans with a fixed number of text messages (and steep overage fees). But in the last few years, “Unlimited Talk and Text” has become an increasingly common phrase. My personal theory is that because a text message has almost zero marginal cost to phone carriers, the carriers were simply charging for minutes or messages because that was a way to price-differentiate customers based on usage. Now that most plans include mobile data, gigabytes of data have become the main price differentiator, so carriers can simplify their pricing and appear generous by offering unlimited calls and texts.
We dug through the publicly-available 10-Q (quarterly) and 10-K (annual) financial reports for all major U.S. cellphone carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular). The financial reports list the number of prepaid and postpaid cellphone connections each company has. All postpaid plans at those five carriers include unlimited texting, and some prepaid plans do too.
We also looked at MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators), companies that sell cellphone service but don’t operate their own cell towers (they rent bandwidth from one of the big four carriers). By far the largest U.S. MVNO is Tracfone, which also owns a number of other MVNO brands including Net10 Wireless and Straight Talk. Tracfone’s plans are all prepaid without unlimited texting, but some of its subsidiary brands offer unlimited texting plans. There are other MVNOs, but they have much lower subscriber counts: the largest we found numbers for were Republic Wireless with 300,000 subscribers (0.1% of the cellphones in the U.S.) and Ting with under half that. MVNOs we didn’t count might add about 1% or 2% to the total number of cellphones in the U.S., but some of them offer unlimited texting as well, so they would have an even smaller impact on the final calculated percentage of phones with unlimited texting.
Once we had the total numbers of postpaid and prepaid subscribers with each carrier, we made high and low estimates for what proportion of prepaid subscribers had unlimited texting.
Our estimate is that between 83% and 92% of U.S. cellphones have unlimited texting, and our best guess is that the number is 88%.
One small problem is that an unknown number of people in the U.S. use more than one cellphone, often one for work and one for personal life. Our data gave us 320 million total cellphone connections in the U.S., which is almost exactly the same as the number of people. The Pew Research Center calculates that 92% of U.S. adults own cellphones, but we don’t know what portion of children own them (it’s probably lower, especially among 0-6 year-olds). So it could be that a high single-digit percentage of Americans have two cellphones.
The main takeaway is that if you’re sending a text message survey, odds are nearly 90% that any given U.S. cellphone number has unlimited texting. And even among plans that don’t include unlimited texting, a large portion still offer a fixed number of texts that the subscriber may not have exceeded. Given that, there’s probably a less than 10% chance that someone is actually paying for each message you send them. Download our data and calculations here.
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