AT&T Starts Using 5G in Marketing for LTE Services (Apr 25, 2017)
Verizon today announced its Q1 2017 results, and they completely explained the company’s unexpected and rapid reintroduction of unlimited wireless plans in the quarter. Before it reintroduced those plans, it was on a trajectory for by far the worst postpaid phone losses it’s ever seen, and even with the little bit of growth it saw after the launch, it still had its worst quarter ever by some margin. Tablets also shrank for the first time ever, which in turn led to the company’s first-ever postpaid net losses in a quarter. Churn was up, average revenue per account was down… this was a terrible quarter for Verizon, only salvaged partly by the unlimited launch. Q2 and the rest of the year should be quite a bit better, but it’s clear that Verizon has been suffering recently, most likely at the hands of both T-Mobile and Sprint, which has explicitly targeted it in its advertising. Outside the wireless business, things weren’t that much better – wireline revenues were fairly flat, while margins improved a little. But there’s really no growth driver in the business at the moment, as essentially every part of the business is flat or declining, though the whole thing is still highly profitable.
Comcast Introduces Its Mobile Service (Apr 6, 2017)
Comcast today finally unveiled the wireless service it’s been working on for years off the back of a long-standing agreement to use the Verizon Wireless network as the underlying carrier. It should be a compelling offering for at least some customers, especially the premium 25% or so of its base to whom Comcast will offer preferential pricing. However, the unlimited offering caps out at 20GB per month before throttling kicks in, whereas the traditional carriers’ throttling kicks in at higher points and only in times of congestion, making Comcast’s unlimited in name only. WiFi is a major selling point from Comcast’s perspective, but I’m very skeptical that it’ll be a big part of users’ experience, given how few hotspots Comcast actually has in places where people spend time out of residential neighborhoods, and the fact that WiFi is often now slower rather than faster than LTE. Comcast is going to keep costs down by selling online and in its existing stores and marketing through existing channels, as well as keeping bad debt expense down by marketing to existing customers who pay their bills on time and offering only auto-billing on credit cards. Comcast will likely sell this service to up to 10% of its base in the next couple of years, which will be a nice boost to its revenues and profits, but will make only a tiny dent in the overall US wireless market – 10% penetration of its broadband base would be just 2.5 million customers, which is less than the number of new customers the big four carriers added last quarter alone.
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.
AT&T wins FirstNet network contract – RCR Wireless News (Mar 30, 2017)
This contract has been in the works for an extremely long time, and even now the award was almost derailed by a lawsuit from a losing bidder. The concept of FirstNet arose out of incidents like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which general purpose communication networks were knocked out or overwhelmed and first responders were left without interoperable means to communicate with each other. AT&T has therefore won the contract to build a national communications network for first responders alongside the traditional mobile network it operates. That’s worth a good chunk of money up front but should also lead to a decent revenue stream over the long term too – and it had better, because AT&T is apparently going to be spending $40 billion to build and maintain the network over the next 25 years.
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.
This is an interesting but not altogether unexpected step. There’s an analogy here to Amazon’s discounted Echo-only music service, which takes advantage of the same limitations to offer a lower price for something that would normally cost more. GM is now offering $20 for unlimited data, which is the same as it used to charge for 2GB of in-car WiFi data. AT&T continues to sell in-car connectivity to carmakers at a rapid rate – about a million subs per quarter – but these subs are mostly extremely basic at the outset, covering just in-car telematics for a few dollars a month. Only if subscribers actually start buying the additional features such as OnStar and this kind of in-car WiFi does AT&T start to generate a more meaningful revenue per user, so being more aggressive about the pricing, especially as AT&T reintroduces unlimited plans for its own services, makes a lot of sense. And of course since GM gets a cut, it’s strongly incentivized to sell these services too.
I think there’s actually more going on with these new plans than most of the coverage I’ve seen suggests. Firstly, the unlimited plan AT&T currently sells is going away as an option for new customers, so these two new plans are AT&T’s unlimited offer going forward. Secondly, I suspect it’s also going to lead with these over its tiered data plans going forward, even though those tiered plans will remain available for at least a while. What’s really happened here is that AT&T jumped in quickly by opening up its existing unlimited offer two weeks ago when Verizon opened that can of worms, but this is the offer it really wants to put in the market from here on out. And that’s important, because when AT&T opened up its offer, that had two implications: no more benefits from bundling AT&T and DirecTV service, which had been an important driver of net adds for DirecTV, and a cap on revenue per user for those switching to unlimited. These new deals restore the benefit for bundling with DirecTV (it’s now a $25 bill credit every month), and provide a structure which allows for an up-sell over time between two tiers of unlimited service. That allows AT&T to continue to differentiate on its unique selling point, which is wireless-TV bundles, while also creating the idea that all unlimited isn’t created equal. For now, there’s basic unlimited with SD video and a 3Mbit/s speed cap, and then premium unlimited with tethering, the bundle discount, and HD video. That opens the door to other unlimited tiers or options down the line as well, and therefore increasing ARPU over time. I do think competitors are going to aim at that 3Mbit/s speed cap in their advertising, and if you look at the details of these plans they’re still overly complex, but these new plans should definitely help AT&T sell both more wireless and TV subs.
5G Schedule Moves Up to 2019 – PCMag (Feb 27, 2017)
As I expected, 5G seems to have been a big theme at MWC this year, with lots more marketing type announcements but also some actual products being announced, albeit ones which should technically be described as pre-5G. The headline here is a bit funny, because of course it’s in these companies’ interests to suggest 5G is more imminent than previously thought, but it’s not up to them how quickly the technology gets deployed – that’s entirely up to the carriers, and I’m still very skeptical that we’ll see 5G available to more than a handful of locations before 2020 in the US (or probably anywhere else). And of course the idea that Qualcomm’s 5G modem would premiere in an iPhone seems laughable – Apple has been deliberately slow to adopt both previous wireless generations (3G and 4G), because the early trade-offs between performance and battery life make early entry unappealing. I don’t see that changing with 5G. But as a previous piece suggested, 2017 is going to be the year of pre-5G commercial trials, which is an important step along the path to eventual mainstream rollout and adoption.
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).
Though the headline doesn’t do it, the article itself makes appropriate use of quotation marks around “5G” – there is no official standard for 5G yet, so everything being rolled out or trialled in the meantime is pre-5G based on companies’ anticipation of what the standards will say. We’re very much in the marketing phase of 5G at this point – for the reasons just stated, no-one can actually roll out 5G yet, and everything that is being rolled out is very much in the trial stages rather than production rollout, but that’s not stopping companies like Verizon from issuing lots of press releases about it as a way of establishing perceived leadership in this space. As with previous generations of mobile technology, there are multiple phases that need to happen before real people start seeing real benefits in real numbers: the standards have to be finalized, network equipment vendors need to release standards-based equipment, carriers have to deploy that equipment into their networks at scale, and most importantly end user or customer premise devices need to begin incorporating the technology. We’re years away from mass deployment still. The good news is that LTE has tons of runway left ahead of it in terms of increased speeds; the bad news is that we’ll all get so bombarded with 5G marketing in the interim that many people won’t recognize it when it actually arrives.
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.
AT&T Expands Access to Unlimited Data (Feb 16, 2017)
Well, that didn’t take long at all – at the beginning of this week neither of the two largest US wireless carriers offered unlimited data plans to all customers, and by the end of the week both will. This has financial implications for both carriers, though they’re hard to predict – both have had unlimited customers before but have been slowly weaning them onto tiered data plan, and taking the limits off again could lead to dramatically higher usage especially if many users switch to these new plans, which are fairly aggressively priced. At AT&T, though, there’s another impact, which is that it has been using unlimited data as a marketing strategy to drive DirecTV subscriptions, because that was the only way to get on one, but that will now go away, so we may see lower DirecTV net adds going forward (AT&T added 1.2 million of these bundled subs in Q4, and had almost 8 million at the end of the year). Next quarter’s earnings season for the wireless carriers will be very interesting – it’s going to be one of the hardest ones to predict in a long time.
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)
Verizon joins the unlimited wireless data party – USA Today (Feb 13, 2017)
The challenge for the two largest US wireless carriers has been to strike an appropriate balance between responding to the price-based competition from the smaller carriers and preserving revenue per user and margins in their massive existing bases of customers. On the one hand, failing to respond aggressively enough to competitive moves risked customer losses, and on the other responding too aggressively risked reducing revenue per user and margins for the base. On the whole, AT&T and Verizon have chosen to be more conservative, largely preserving prices while tinkering at the edges with temporary promotions and in AT&T’s case using its prepaid brand Cricket to compete more aggressively on price. But that conservatism has come at a cost – AT&T has seen postpaid phone net losses for two years now, and Verizon’s phone net adds have also dropped considerably below past levels, though their margins are better than ever. This move today by Verizon suggests that it’s finally reached a point where it doesn’t feel it can hold off any longer on unlimited plans and intends to compete more aggressively. That will likely be good for subscriber numbers, but potentially bad for margins as it caps revenue per user upside from a data plan perspective. I’m not yet convinced that AT&T needs to follow suit with broad-based unlimited data plans – I think they’re happy to keep their all you can eat plans limited to DirecTV customers, at least for now.
via USA Today
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.