The many ways wireless carriers changed in 2012

If anyone bought into the whole 2012 “end of the world” thing, it sure wasn’t the big guys in the mobile industry. This year ushered in all kinds of changes, from how phone contracts work to who was in charge of companies. 2012 seemed like more of a building block year than anything, with changes put in place to be expanded on in future months and years. This is probably the year that you got a new phone, maybe from a new carrier, with a brand new subscription structure that connects to a newly built wireless network. Let’s take a look back at the big changes 2012 brought.


New plans focus on data, for better or worse

In an impressively forward-thinking attempt to build phone contracts in a way that accounted for the increasing popularity and use of smartphones and wireless networks, some of the biggest mobile network providers decided to move away from call and text minutes and instead charge for data usage. Not wanting to seem too on top of things, though, the new plans were structured in a way that took a flow chart and instruction booklet to understand. AT&T and Verizon set up their subscriptions to be priced based on data usage, making texting, and phone calls essentially free. Because they’re both built on the idea of sharing data across many devices, the system managed to do little good for people that still use their phones as, you know, phones. Many cried out for the return of their unlimited data, something now treated like an expiring natural resource. While there’s fear this route only serves to hurt consumers, it appears it’s a path we’re destined to go down.

Expanding arm of LTE keeps reaching for more

The biggest reason for the new approach to data distribution is the ever-expanding coverage of 4G LTE networks and constant sales of 4G ready phones. The impressively fast wireless network has popped up all over, starting in major markets and expanding across the map. Verizon and AT&T are in a race to cover the entire U.S. with 4G LTE access, while other companies slowly get involved in attempts to keep up. Building the infrastructure for a 4G network is a long and expensive process, but lagging behind can cost companies subscribers. Just ask Sprint. 4G has become so important that even the smaller players like Cricket are committing to it to stay competitive. American phone owners should be grateful, though. The UK is just starting to get it’s very first 4G network up and running.

Big bets on NFC

One of the biggest winners in mobile this year was Samsung. It turns itself into one of the top dogs in phones and solds piles of units. Part of its success might be attributed to Near-Field Communications (NFC). It’s the technology that powers the S Beam feature on the Galaxy handsets and it’s likely to be a lot more prominent in coming years. Samsung seems to be proving the worth of the otherwise uncertain idea, something that will surely please the folks behind mobile wallets and retailers that embrace them. Google is in on this investment, because … why not? It’s not the only one, though. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile joined forces to create Isis, which also launched this year in a few markets. While mobile wallets appear to be the most common use for NFC, who knows where else we’ll see it pop up in the future?

Foreign investments and mergers

America is a huge market for mobile, but there’s not a ton of competition. The big guys keep getting bigger and the little guys get absorbed by the ever-growing belly of major providers. With money to be made and competition to be created, it’s time for American consumers to get served a platter of mobile cuisine from around the world. It’s no surprise that Softbank, one of the biggest non-American phone providers and one known for buying up companies, put cash on the table for whatever is left of Sprint. Those scraps don’t come cheap, as the purchase cost Softbank $20.1 billion. The influence of the Japanese company could serve consumers well, or it could just be Softbank looking to make a couple extra bucks in a bigger market. While Sprint got a Pacific influence, MetroPCS is getting more of a European vibe after agreeing to a merger with Deutsche Telekom owned T-Mobile. Putting together the fourth and fifth biggest mobile companies in the United States, we’ll look for Deutsche Telekom to build an affordable alternative to the big guys with the Frankenstein-like creation of the fused T-Mobile and MetroPCS.

New faces in old places

When a company is subject to merger or takeover, it’s expected to see some new faces pop up on the board of directors. It’s not too often you see changes when things are going well, though. Despite being the most profitable company in the history of ever, Apple decided it needed some new blood after a good but not great year. With the pressure on, Apple decided to dump Google and make it’s own map app, and counted on Richard Williamson to direct the app to success. He, much like the app he help designed, missed the target destination. Williamson got the boot shortly after the iOS 6 change over, but he wasn’t the only one out the door. He wasn’t the only one, as software chief Scott Forstall and retail boss John Browett were sent packing as well. Apple’s headed in a new direction despite success, which is a problem Research in Motion wished it had. The maker of the Blackberry had two CEOs step down at the start of the year, handing over the reins to Thorsten Heins. If 2013 is the year of the Blackberry or if a different fruit-based phone company stays on top, we’ll likely be looking back at 2012 and saying how great those moves were.

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