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Has T-Mobile US discovered phones for the elderly?11 Aug 2017

An older phone user peers at a smartphone

The American network  has announced a “Baby Boomer” tariff, but the more you look into it the less it looks like something which understand seniors and the more it looks like just another price plan with a marketing spin. It’s an unlimited plan limited to people over 55. I guess if you are 35 you do think that 55 qualifies as phones for the elderly.

My initial thought, when I heard of the plan was that it was a response to the spectacular sale of Great Call the San Diego company which runs Jitterbug, a company much like Fuss Free Phones in that it has a suite of services to make using mobile phones easier for older people.

So I looked through the details of the T-Mobile announcement on its mobile phones for seniors offer and there were no services. No one to talk you through how to use your phone, no telephonist service. Nothing. The tone of the announcement  is “we don’t patroize you by making it easy to use.”.

The contention is that today’s seniors are all super tech savvy and using smartphones and not big button mobile phones. T-Mobile cites three sources for this. The US Census, A Nielsen report and its own research.

The census only gives the number of people over 55. That in itself is an odd choice of figure. It looks as though it has been chosen to give the answers T-Mobile want. We live in an age where life expectancy is to at least 85, so defining people by a third of their life seems to be aiming a bit broad. It’s quite common to aim 65+ but even that is old thinking.

T-Mobile says that 73% of  people over 55 are using a smartphone. That doesn’t smell right with what I know of the market, where I’ve seen Forrester figures that say only 50% of people over 65 have any form of mobile. Even that is skewed because if you ask a husband and wife if they have a mobile they might both say they have when in fact they share one between the two of them.

Looking back at the source figures Nielsen says that 68% of people over 65 have a smartphone and it’s significantly the lowest smartphone demographic, but it’s still twice the number I’d expect, and the devil is in the detail. You need to look at the methodology. Nielsen says “Nielsen’s Mobile Insights is a monthly survey of 30,000+ mobile subscribers aged 13+ in the U.S. Data is collected primarily online and also via in-app mobile”.  So the numbers are self-selecting.  What percentage of people using an app have a smartphone?  It’s not a reliable way of reaching people who don’t have a smartphone or a phone at all. So for all the bluster in the T-Mobile announcement about not being patronizing, all it’s saying is “You are old, have a discount on our standard services”.

There is a rule in journalism. If the headline poses a question “Does xxx do yy?” the answer is usually “No.” So has T-Mobile US discovered phones for the elderly?

Simon Rockman