Who has the best mobile penetration data? Not the FCC

As the agency tasked with keeping track of all things telecommunication based one would think that it would be the FCC who would have the most accurate numbers regarding wireless penetration in the US. It turns out that this isn’t the case in fact the source of the more reliable numbers found the FCC an unreliable source so it went out and found out for themselves.

Who is this mysterious agency you might ask.

Well it turns out to be none other than the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More precisely it is the statistical clearinghouse, National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), for the CDC that compiles the actual data. It was the NCHS that figured out about six years ago that its stats gathering was suffering from a major problem – the rapid growth of cellphone use and the decline of wired telephones.

As Stephen Blumberg told Jordan Lite from Scientific American

Why is this an issue? Wireless-only folks differ from those who still keep a landline, Blumberg explains. Not only do they skew younger, but they behave differently, too. Introduce those differences into health surveys, he says, and the results are biased.


That said, “even if we control for age, renting, income, education, for family structure, where they live, race — minority individuals are more likely to be wireless only — we still see health differences,” Blumberg says. “Wireless-only [users] are more likely to binge drink, they are more likely to smoke, they’re more likely to be uninsured so therefore, if these wireless-only adults are excluded from these surveys, they may underestimate binge drinking, smoking and the prevalence of uninsured adults. That’s why the CDC is concerned.”

The actual numbers as discovered by NCHS breakdown as follows

  • number of wireless households rose from 3.5 percent in 2003 to 17.5 percent in the first half of last year
  • 6 million adults and 2 million kids were wireless only in 2003 but as of last year 36 million adults and 12 million kids were wireless

This kind of begs the question – if the CDC has better data on wireless penetration what is the FCC doing?