Cellular phones are now common enough that the phrase from a few years ago, "Guess where I'm calling you from," is rarely heard these days. In fact, it's conceivable that in a few years, households without cell phones may be in the minority, depending on businesses' interest in increasing penetration among middle- and lower-income households.
"If you define cellular phones in a broad sense as any portable wireless phone, which I think most of the public does, we expect growth to continue," says Jerry Thomas, president and CEO for Decision Analyst, Inc. "There's no reason cellular phones won't achieve the same penetration rate as home-based phones, which is over 90 percent."
Currently, 43.8 percent of households have a cellular telephone, up 11 percent over two years ago, according to Decision Analyst. Cell phone ownership seems to correlate with higher incomes-households with annual incomes of $50,000-plus have the highest penetration rate, at 61.7 percent, while 43 percent of households bringing in $30,000 to $50,000 have a cell phone, and 23.8 percent of households earning less than $30,000 a year have one.
Income does not seem to be the sole influence on cellular phone ownership. If it were, the most use would occur at ages 45 to 54, the peak earning years. While it is high at this point, at 50.1 percent of households, it's just as high among respondents aged 35 to 44, at 50.6 percent. Another sign young adults may be more apt to get a cell phone is that 46.8 percent of households with respondents age 18 to 34 had a cell phone, compared with 33.8 percent of those aged 55 or older.
Part of the variation in ownership may be due to advertising and marketing efforts to different segments of the population. "The rapid growth in ownership for cellular phones has a lot to do with the fact that there is a tremendous amount being invested by the industry to convert people," says Thomas.
Cell phones appeal to people on the go, according to Decision Analyst. Time-challenged young adults may be trying to squeeze in calls whenever they can. Regional differences in cell phone ownership may be partially explained by another reason people get them. About 47.7 percent of households in the car-happy rural/suburban South have a cellular phone. The differential might also be explained because there are a lot of young people in the South, says Thomas, and they are more likely to try new technology.
Anxiety about crime and other security issues is also driving the cell phone boom, although Thomas notes that there's more to the concept of security than simply crime prevention. "Security can mean being able to call if you break down on the highway at two in the morning," he says. "Crime rates can fluctuate in a broad range without having an effect on cellular phone ownership."
Regionally, the West places second in cellular phone penetration, at 43.3 percent, followed by the Midwest, at 42.5 percent, and the Northeast, at 40.1 percent.