Company / division: T-Mobile
Sprint and T-Mobile Holding Informal Merger Talks (May 12, 2017)
New Narrative: T-Mobile is Winning in US Mobile (May 6, 2017)
When I launched this site fully earlier this year, there were 49 “narratives” reflecting many of the prevailing narratives about various aspects of the tech industry, which provide context for the individual items on the site each day. Today, I’m adding the first new narrative since launch, and the narrative is titled “T-Mobile is Winning in US Mobile“. Now, it’s worth noting as a reminder that the narrative titles don’t reflect my views, but rather the prevailing narratives in the industry, whether right or wrong. Subscribers can read the new narrative essay on this topic and my evaluation of the prevailing narrative on the narrative page linked above. I’ve also gone back and tagged 26 earlier news items with this new tag so that there’s a history there now, including several posts from the last couple of weeks, with many of the older posts available to non-subscribers as well. As with each of the other narratives, there’s also a forum topic for anyone who’d like to discuss the narrative and the essay, available to subscribers here. Lastly, this narrative also forms the subject of this week’s Narrative Video, which subscribers can also see on the narrative page.
T-Mobile this morning announced plans to roll out 5G services nationally starting in 2019 on the 600MHz spectrum it acquired in the recent FCC auction. T-Mobile is here taking a different tack from the other US operators and many international operators, which are instead using high-band millimeter wave spectrum to test and eventually roll out 5G. T-Mobile’s approach is very much more incremental in nature, not providing the kind of dramatic speed and latency benefits which have been associated with previous generational shifts in mobile, in contrast to the fiber-replacement services being tested by AT&T and Verizon. On the other hand, T-Mobile will be able to claim that it has widespread 5G coverage long before the other carriers, which will have to roll out the infrastructure-dense high-band version much more slowly. There’s a danger that T-Mobile’s more modest ambitions for 5G set low consumer expectations for the technology and that other carriers will have to work hard to raise those expectations with their own rollouts, and there’s a certain irony to the prospect of T-Mobile building a network with the broadest coverage but lower speeds given its current reputation for providing a fast but not ubiquitous LTE network. Some of the other non-speed-related aspects of 5G will still be realized, which should allow T-Mobile to launch some interesting new IoT services, which will helpful as its growth from phones continues to slow. See also my longer comment for media here.
T-Mobile released its Q1 earnings today, and there were quite a few familiar trends: strong revenue growth, improving margins, and lots of talk about how awful TMO’s competitors are. But this quarter also saw a return to the slowing subscriber growth we saw in the first half of last year, which is indicative of T-Mobile’s business today: it’s doing very well within what’s a rapidly slowing market with very little additional headroom. All four of its major customer categories (postpaid, postpaid phones, prepaid, and wholesale) saw lower net adds year on year. In the case of both prepaid and wholesale, the decline was signifiant, and wholesale net adds were negative for the first time in recent memory. T-Mobile said it did very well against AT&T in the quarter, which means for AT&T itself to have done well overall it will have had to hold its own much better against Sprint (which hasn’t yet reported) and Verizon (which has, and had a horrible quarter). T-Mobile continues to invest very heavily not just in spectrum but also in store expansion – it’s now targeting 3000 new stores this year, split evenly across its T-Mobile and MetroPCS brands, up from 2500 at the start of the year. So far, the strategy continues to work reasonably well, but there’s a ceiling on growth in the categories T-Mobile targets, especially with Verizon and AT&T getting back into unlimited, so I’m curious to see how much growth slows in 2017, though it appears margins are going to continue to improve anyway (though they’re still way below those of the two big carriers).
via T-Mobile (PDF)
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.
A few weeks back, T-Mobile announced it was rolling out LTE-U on its network, but it made little difference because no-one had a device that could take advantage of it. As I said then, phones with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chip were likely to be among the first to support the functionality, and today T-Mobile confirmed that the Samsung Galaxy S8 will be the first device. It also touted several other related LTE technologies which will make the phone operate faster on its networks than competitors’. It still feels like an exaggeration to call it a gigabit-class smartphone though, as T-Mobile does in this press release – I very much doubt anyone is going to see sustained gigabit speeds in real-world usage.
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
T-Mobile Continues to Boost Capacity for Customers with LTE-U Launching in Spring 2017 – T-Mobile (Feb 22, 2017)
T-Mobile has been touting LTE-U as a potential extension of its current LTE capabilities for several years now, but needed FCC permission to begin actually deploying the technology, which operates in some of the same bands as WiFi. It now has that permission and will apparently begin rolling out the technology to customers in the Spring, though none of the devices currently in T-Mobile customers’ hands actually support LTE-U – those will start arriving later this year, CTO Neville Ray told me. The technical marketing lead for Qualcomm’s LTE and 5G modems tells me that devices carrying the new Snapdragon 835 chip and X16 LTE modem will support it. So until there’s widespread adoption of new devices capable of supporting the technology, and widespread support in the network, this isn’t going to have much consumer impact. In the meantime, there’s good marketing fodder here about being first (as with Verizon’s 5G announcement earlier).
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 US Reports Q4 2016 Results (Feb 14, 2017)
T-Mobile reported its Q4 results this morning – the last of the major US wireless carriers to do so – and as usual it’s beating all the others handily on postpaid phone subscriber growth and making decent progress on growing its margins. It added several times as many postpaid phone subscribers as any other carrier, but in other categories like tablets and “connected devices” (think cars, machine to machine, connected utility meters) others were ahead, with AT&T leading the market in both those categories. T-Mobile says it has seen much higher porting ratios (the ratio of subscribers won versus lost from a particular carrier) against Verizon this quarter, which would help explain the latter’s rapid shift in stance on unlimited plans. T-Mobile continues to be quite a bit smaller than the big two, and that’s a big driver of its lower margins, but the fact that it’s willing to take those lower margins enables it to win subscribers with aggressive pricing, especially since its network performance and coverage is constantly improving. I continue to be skeptical that T-Mobile’s strategy is sustainable over the long haul – it’s very focused on phones, which aren’t growing much anymore, and hasn’t invested as its two largest competitors have in newer growth categories, but for now it continues to capture lots of attention and make the other carriers look bad.
via T-Mobile (PDF release)
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.
The headline here is strong growth, though compared to last year’s results there aren’t huge differences. Total branded net adds were actually down slightly, largely because of lower mobile broadband (tablet) net adds, while wholesale adds were up slightly (these may both have been caused by a shift of subscribers from retail to wholesale last quarter in connection with a Walmart deal), and overall net adds were up slightly too. As the traditional phone market slows down, it’s going to be tougher for T-Mobile to keep driving growth in net adds, and it doesn’t yet seem to have cracked new categories beyond phones, which continues to be my main concern about its longer term prospects.