Sprint’s Virgin Mobile Goes iPhone-Only in Relaunch (Jun 22, 2017)
I’ll start with my usual caveat on so-called “gigabit” wireless services: though theoretical throughputs on devices with the new modems being discussed here can reach gigabit per second speeds, the real-world experience is going to be a fraction of that. In other words, even if the reporting in this article is correct, Apple isn’t going to be missing out on true gigabit speeds any more than the other device vendors will have them. The second caveat is that even the more realistic speeds will only be available where carriers have upgraded their networks to support them, which will be far from everywhere for the near future. With those caveats out of the way, though, Apple will be one of the few device vendors out there without these faster modems in its devices over the next year. However, as the article rightly points out, Apple has rarely been willing to put cutting edge new modem technology in its devices at the same time as others, generally preferring to wait for the technology to mature before deploying it, as it notably did with both 3G and LTE. There is, of course, this time also the added complication of Qualcomm being the only supplier with a gigabit modem ready to go, and the fact of Apple’s very adversarial relationship with Qualcomm and its decision last year to introduce Intel modems. I’m inclined to believe the reporting here is accurate, but I’m not sure it’s really all that significant – in real-world experience, there will be very little difference for many customers over the next couple of years, and Apple will almost certainly jump on the gigabit modem bandwagon next year, likely through Intel.
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 CDC runs a twice-yearly study to determine how many households use landlines and how many use mobile phones only. That might seem like a strange thing for a government department responsible for studying disease to look into, but it first began doing so to determine whether its surveys needed to start including mobile respondents, as landline-based surveys were going to become less representative of the overall population over time. Well, those landline households are now less than half the overall population, while mobile-only households are now the majority, which has significant implications for polling and especially political polling, where automated dialing often hits only landline households. But the new numbers (and the trend over the last many years) are also a great illustration of how even technology that was once ubiquitous and considered essential can be displaced by something else, even something that on the face of it seems inferior in several respects (in this case, call quality, expense, the need to charge a battery, and so on, though all these things have improved over time). That’s worth remembering when looking at today’s dominant technologies and companies – there’s no reason to believe they’ll stick around forever either.
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.
AT&T Starts Using 5G in Marketing for LTE Services (Apr 25, 2017)
AT&T announced today that it’s bringing what it calls 5G Evolution to over 20 metro areas by the end of the year, starting with Austin. However, as I’ve said before, 5G itself hasn’t been standardized yet, so the best anyone can claim to have today is pre-5G technology. But what’s more worrisome about this AT&T announcement is that it’s actually using that 5G Evolution brand as an umbrella term that includes some technology that has nothing to do with 5G, notably the faster LTE technology in the new Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+. What we’re starting to see is the same marketing-led muddying of the water over a new wireless generation we saw with 4G a few years back, when Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T all used the term 4G to describe non-standard 4G network technologies (WiMAX and HSPA+ specifically). We’ve also already seen the gigabit LTE label thrown around, and though it’s technically accurate in terms of maximum throughput, it’s likely to disappoint consumers who actually use it. While carriers might want to steal a march on competitors, this does nothing for consumers, who will likely require significant education when real 5G does launch without being further confused by labeling non-5G technology with a 5G-related moniker. It also means that when 5G does launch, consumers will wonder what they’ve been using all this time, making it hard to develop strong marketing messages around real 5G. I’m hoping this doesn’t spread, but past experience suggests it will.
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)
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.
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.
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.