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As Verizon and AT&T Battle Over No. 1 Spot, Do Users Care?

For wireless carriers, being No. 1 in the U.S. is about bragging rights, but for mobile users, does the carrier market race even matter?

Verizon, AT&T, mobile carriers, customers

Verizon Wireless has been leading the U.S. mobile carrier race for several years, with 108.2 mobile customers in its last quarterly financial report. AT&T is in second, with 86.2 million mobile customers.

But here's the rub—those totals only are right if you look at Verizon's and AT&T's postpaid (contract) and prepaid customers. Those are the only customers Verizon reports on each quarter.

AT&T, on the other hand, also reports its postpaid and prepaid customers, but it combines those with what it calls M2M and virtual network subscribers, which are "machine to machine" business subscribers who use the AT&T network for things like point of sale terminals and similar devices.

With those figures combined, AT&T says it has 121.8 million mobile customers.

Since Verizon doesn't include M2M and other subscribers in its figures, comparing the actual totals is difficult.

Meanwhile, Sprint and T-Mobile follow behind with 57.1 million and 56.8 million customers, respectively.

So what's it all mean?

For the carriers, it is likely all about bragging rights for which can one can say they have the most users. For users like you and me, it likely doesn't matter which mobile carrier is No. 1.

Chetan Sharma, a mobility management consultant, told eWEEK that the actual rankings are "a matter of interpretation on how you look at the data." The difference in the figures from AT&T and Verizon reflects that, he said. And to make things more confusing, one can look at the mobile carrier subscriber numbers for all of North America, which would give the lead to AT&T, since it recently acquired a Mexican mobile company, adding to its North American user totals, he said.

Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said AT&T wants to include its M2M and other users because the company dominates that market.

"AT&T looks far larger overall but still trails Verizon pretty substantially, in the reports I've seen, purely in terms of prepaid and postpaid customers," said King. "Some folks also point out that the relative value of wholesale wireless services in terms of driving monthly revenues is minuscule in comparison to prepaid/postpaid services, like Internet access and SMS. So AT&T's decision to include those customers in its count is little more than a PR exercise."

Another analyst, Rob Enderle of Enderle Group, said he's doesn't think that the whole race for supremacy in the mobile carrier wars makes one iota of difference to end users. More than anything, it exists only for bragging rights by the carriers, he said.

"What you want to measure is the quality and breadth of coverage, not the number of folks on the network, at least as a positive," he said. "I think we should ignore customer base unless we are investors. The stats we should focus on are value, customer satisfaction, network coverage and network load."

I agree. I don't care if my mobile carrier is the biggest or the smallest. I just want the phone to work when I make a call. Don't we all?