Company / division: Sprint
Charter Says it Doesn’t Want to Buy Sprint (Jul 31, 2017)
There were lots of reports over the weekend that Sprint and Charter were approaching a tie-up, just after the end of the exclusive negotiating period between the two and Comcast which began just over a month ago. However, Charter has now come out and said that it’s not interested in buying Sprint, which isn’t necessarily the deal being discussed, but is as close as Charter can get to saying it’s not interested in any deal, given that it has a fiduciary responsibility to keep the door to potential acquisition offers open. It’s been fascinating to watch this latest round of SoftBank-driven Sprint merger mania, because whereas last time Sprint was to merge with another player (T-Mobile), it was the US government that shot it down. This time around, the biggest barrier is a lack of willing partners. T-Mobile is certainly far less in need of the merger now than it arguably was several years ago, while the cable companies may well want to merge with a wireless industry, just not the weakest of the big four US providers. Sprint has the poorest network, the poorest financial performance, the lowest overall subscriber growth, and the least subscribers of any of the big four operators, making it the least attractive merger partner of the four, with T-Mobile much more enticing at this point. It’s still possible that SoftBank will try to buy Charter, and if the price is high enough that Charter’s management will feel they have to accept the offer, but it’s clear at this point that this will happen against their stated wishes, which will make any merger process that much more challenging than it would already have been.
Jay-Z, one of the principal owners of the Tidal music streaming service, released his latest album, 4:44, on the service last night through a partnership with Sprint, which of course recently invested in the service and gave its subscribers six months’ free access. The intent was clearly to get more people to sign up for the service, while rewarding Sprint customers, but the effect was to aggravate many others who assumed they could merely sign up for the service after the album dropped and then found that it wasn’t available, at least right away. In addition, the exclusive seems pretty porous, and potentially short-lived: iHeartRadio has been streaming the album and will continue to do so for the first day, while Apple Music is reportedly getting the album a week in too. That’s a reflection mostly of the realities of the industry: though Jay-Z and Tidal’s other owners might like the idea of boosting subscriptions through exclusives like this, the reality is that the service has a tiny fraction of global streaming users, and over the long term Jay-Z and other artists are best served by the broadest possible distribution, especially given that he can’t pay himself for the exclusive in the way Apple has paid for them in the past. Exclusives generally seem to be waning as a source of differentiation for music services, but for Tidal its connection to artists (several of whom have been owners) has always been a major selling point. But if even its artist owners aren’t willing to stay the course on exclusives for more than a few days, it doesn’t have much hope of ever reaching significant scale, making the Sprint investment more of a temporary lifeline than true salvation.
Sprint’s Virgin Mobile Goes iPhone-Only in Relaunch (Jun 22, 2017)
Sprint Offers 6 Months of Free Tidal HiFi to Subscribers (Jun 9, 2017)
Sprint and T-Mobile Holding Informal Merger Talks (May 12, 2017)
The FCC recently held an auction of spectrum to be freed up by broadcasters and made available for wireless services, in the 600MHz band, which is well suited to long-distance and in-building coverage. T-Mobile was the only wireless carrier among the big winners, with the two largest carriers having cleaned up in the previous auction, and a cash-constrained Sprint sitting this one out too (AT&T did win licenses worth $900 million, but T-Mobile spent $8 billion). The other big bidders were DISH, which spent nearly as much as T-Mobile ($6.2 billion), and Comcast, which recently announced its wireless service based on Verizon’s network but could eventually launch its own network. Though T-Mobile has always crowed about how much spectrum it has per customer, that was always more of a reflection of its smaller number of customers rather than a massive spectrum trove, and it lacked low-band spectrum. It has now made big strides in solving that problem, and plans to put at least some of that spectrum to work right away (though much of it will be unavailable for several years while the broadcasters go through the process of vacating it, with much of that unavailable spectrum covering the densest markets). It’s also worth noting that no phones in the US today support the 600MHz band – that support is likely to come early next year with a new Qualcomm modem, so even if T-Mobile does put a third or so of its new spectrum to work this year, it won’t do anyone any good until then. So, if you’re a US wireless customer today, none of this makes any difference for now, and it’ll only make much of a difference a year or several down the line if you’re a T-Mobile customer (or in limited cases an AT&T customer). Or as and when Comcast and DISH decide to put that spectrum to use.
There were reports earlier this week that Sprint was ditching its 50% off promotion, which has run since 2015, and it has now confirmed that news. Instead, Sprint is now focusing exclusively on unlimited services, ditching its tiered plans as well, and offering a $10 per line discount through June 2018 on new plans, making them in some cases 30-40% cheaper than equivalent Verizon or AT&T plans. Sprint’s 50% off plan became untenable when the two larger carriers reintroduced unlimited plans, because in practice under the promotion Sprint had seen most customers keep their spend at the same level as at their previous carrier while moving to a higher speed tier, which isn’t possible when switching from unlimited, meaning Sprint really would be charging 50% less for the same service. Instead, then, it’s competing on price in a less dramatic way going forward, but it’s worth remembering that price discounts in wireless have a direct correlation to perceptions of network quality. As such, these ongoing price discounts are a recognition that Sprint can’t be competitive unless it’s charging quite a bit less than competitors, because of poor perceptions of its network, perceptions that are unlikely to change at its current historically low network investment levels.
CTIA, which is the industry association that represents the largest US wireless carriers, is arguing before the FCC that it shouldn’t be subjected to new rules on sharing data it collects on its users. The carriers have argued that Google and other online service providers aren’t subject to the same rules (those companies are regulated primarily by the FTC rather than the FCC) and so for consistency’s sake the carriers should be treated the same way. This is really about a technical definition of the word “sensitive” – clearly the kind of data being talked about here is indeed enormously sensitive, but the real question is how disclosure of that data is regulated. This matters because, for example, AT&T as a fiber broadband carrier in certain parts of the country has offered a service discount for customers who consent to tracking of their web browsing history and so on, something which it argues Google does all the time without explicitly asking for users’ permission to do. What the carriers are arguing here is that it should be allowed to continue to do this kind of thing without having to ask users to opt in first. The carriers look likely to win given the current hands-off policy stance of the FCC, which means more erosion of user privacy for users, but the proper approach would be for the FTC and FCC to work together to craft a set of consistent rules that would apply to all players that get access to similar data, rather than each regulating in a vacuum.
via Ars Technica
The reintroduction of unlimited plans by AT&T and Verizon in February makes this one of the least predictable periods in the recent history of the US wireless industry. The presence of unlimited plans at Sprint and T-Mobile and their absence at the two larger carriers has been a defining characteristic of the market for so long that the rapid turnaround is likely to lead to quite a bit of change in competitive dynamics and growth rates. Here’s the first evidence of that in the form of comments from Sprint’s CFO at an investor conference that churn will be stable rather than down this quarter as originally anticipated. T-Mobile hasn’t really commented yet, but has been introducing a set of promotions throughout the second half of the quarter in an attempt to keep its own growth going at previously expected rates. The impact in Q1 will actually be a little muted because the changes didn’t kick in until halfway through the quarter – it’s in Q2 and the rest of the year where we’ll see the biggest impact, though the exact scale and nature of that impact is still up in the air.
SoftBank eyes Sprint, T-Mobile deals – CNBC (Feb 17, 2017)
This isn’t a huge surprise – ever since Donald Trump won the US presidential election in November, the odds of a deal involving Sprint and T-Mobile have gone way up, because the incoming administration is likely to be much friendlier to consolidation. However, that’s no guarantee that a deal will get done – last time around SoftBank was the driving force behind the deal and very keen to control the resulting entity, whereas at this point it seems a lot less committed to its US wireless adventure. At the same time, T-Mobile USA is performing much better as an investment for Deutsche Telekom, making it less likely to sell. One option would be for Deutsche Telekom to take over Sprint, but it’s far from clear that it wants to (and it would certainly be awkward regardless given TMO CEO John Legere’s constant belittling of Sprint). Then, of course, there’s the question of whether a merger is a good idea. On the one hand, scale continues to be enormously important in the market, and Sprint and T-Mobile have a big disadvantage here, but on the other T-Mobile has been pretty well anyway by itself, while Sprint has been doing far less so (or growing by sacrificing margins and revenues). And it will be very hard to argue that a merger at this point would be good for competition, even with Republicans in charge at the FTC, DoJ, and FCC.
T-Mobile likes OpenSignal, Speedtest.net, and other network testing services and apps which rely largely on reporting from users’ devices, as opposed to the industry’s traditional reliance on professional testing services like RootMetrics. And the reasons are obvious: T-Mobile consistently puts in a much better showing in these reports than it does on the ones used by the rest of the industry. On the basis of this OpenSignal report, it looks like T-Mobile is basically tied with Verizon for the network available in most places and at the highest speeds nationally. That totally flies in the face of the reporting done by the professionals (see this RootMetrics report for H1 2016), and also goes against official coverage numbers from the other carriers.T-Mobile reasonably make the claim that the OpenSignal results are from real people actually using its networks throughout the country, not from testers only going to certain places, but self-selecting surveys of any kind are always unreliable. The reality is that T-Mobile has caught up a ton over the last few years with the two big carriers, but it’s still behind in coverage and quality, and you’ll see far more people complaining about their T-Mobile coverage than AT&T and Verizon customers do. Perception also lags reality – T-Mobile still has a reputation for poor coverage and quality even as the true gap with the big guys narrows.
Sprint Continues Year-over-Year Growth in Net Operating Revenues and Postpaid Phone Net Additions with Third Quarter of Fiscal Year 2016 Results – Sprint (Jan 31, 2017)
Sprint reported its results this morning, the third of the four major US wireless carriers to do so (see AT&T and Verizon comments – T-Mobile reports on Valentine’s Day). Sprint is going through something of a renaissance lately, though only in relative terms. It’s still the smallest and least profitable of the big four, but has made lots of progress improving churn and therefore improving its customer growth numbers. The focus for both T-Mobile and Sprint is postpaid phone growth, and they’ve led the market there lately, while AT&T grows strongly in prepaid and things like connected cars, and Verizon tries to hold onto the customers it has without sacrificing margins too much through price wars. This is a fiercely competitive market, and one with relatively little growth in traditional phones. Sprint has done well to recover here lately, but has also begun to grow more strongly in connected devices (cars, machine-to-machine, and so on), while its prepaid business is falling apart (it removed over a million subscribers from its rolls in Q4 due to a change in churn standards, on top of the hundreds of thousands it reported as official prepaid subscriber losses). There’s a long way to go still for Sprint to turn itself around, not least on its network performance, where it continues to argue that it can produce the best network while spending far less on network capex than any of its competitors.