October greetings from Seattle, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Dallas. While this was a very heavy travel week, airline schedules were friendly and I was able to make it home to see Jesuit College Prep (where my son is a senior and varsity offensive lineman) end the 49 conference-game-winning stranglehold of Dallas Skyline. The Dallas Morning News sports section headline in the lead picture says it all. While the team thought that this might be the year, it took a come-from-behind touchdown with 1:06 left in the game to convert excited hopes into stunning reality. Friday Night Lights in the Lone Star State – there’s nothing quite like it.
This week, we will cover the other five top events of the quarter. Thanks as always for your comments and suggestions.
A Special Invitation
On Monday (tomorrow, for most of you reading this), there will be an 11 a.m. ET call featuring Roger Entner (Recon Analytics), Jan Dawson (Jackdaw Research), Charles Golvin (Abelian Research), and myself. We are going to touch on a variety of topics (Title II, handset selection strategies, overall industry dynamics) and there should be some time at the end for Q&A. The call is free. Please register here to get all of the details.
A Special Tribute
We lost a wireless industry titan in September. Roger Linquist, founder of MetroPCS and a friend to many Dallas entrepreneurs, passed away mid-month at the age of 77. His obituary says it all – odds beater, hard worker, risk taker, pioneer, family man. Nearly all of the former Metro PCS employees I talked to over the past two weeks loved working with Roger, and everyone had a story to tell. He will be missed in the Dallas business community and throughout the wireless industry.
The Remaining Top 10 Events of the Third Quarter
Last week, we covered five events/ trends that will impact third quarter, total year, and 2016 results (these are in no particular order):
- The announcement and launch of the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus, which included significant network radio improvements for T-Mobile (700 MHz band 12) and Sprint (specifically carrier aggregation). On Monday, Apple announced that sales surpassed 13 million units at launch, and a big reason for this (besides including China as an initial launch country) was the increased phone upgrade activity at T-Mobile and Sprint. Update: With the exception of T-Mobile (now with iPhone 6S delivery dates as long as eight weeks), wait times for new iPhone 6S Plus devices have stabalized.
- FCC approval of Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon’s California, Texas, and Florida properties.
- FCC starts shot clock on the Charter/ Time Warner Cable/ Bright House Networks merger.
- Altice announces its intention to acquire Cablevision for $17.7 billion including debt. Update: Despite the volatile market, Altice was able to quickly raise funds to finance the Cablevision acquisision. More details here.
- Samsung announces the Gear VR (Virtual Reality) for $99 starting in November.
Five Additional Industry Shaping Events
- The end of subsidized wireless phone pricing (for all devices – sort of). In mid-August, Verizon announced that they were scrapping their current pricing plans for newer, simpler ones (total plans were reduced from 22 to 5 – see nearby picture of current device plans). In the process, they also ended two–year contracts and subsidized phone plans. Verizon’s emphasis on keeping their pricing process consistent across distribution channels seemed like a tip of the hat to T-Mobile and a dig at AT&T, the last of the big 4 wireless providers to actively offer device subsidies.
For those of you who have been regular Sunday Brief subscribers, the end of handset subsidies is not a surprise. Market trends were already pointing towards a non-subsidy world:
- Higher end smartphones were becoming more expensive than a $199/ $99/ $1 structure would allow. The iPhone 6 Plus, introduced last year, seemed to test a price point that was a bit more than the mass market could pay, especially for a family of four or more devices. $25-30/ month per device seemed to be a better alternative, and an additional $3.34/ month for 30 months is a lot easier sell than $100 upfront for the 16 to 64 to 128 GB upgrade.
- The cost to produce lower-end smartphones (as well as the availability of reconditioned mid-range smartphones) began to reduce the value of a free phone when paired with certain wireless plan types. For example, the HTC Desire 626 is an LTE-capable device with an 8 Megapixel camera, 2000 mAh battery, and up to 1.5 GB of RAM – a good phone for browsing and low data-intensive tasks like email, Angry Birds, and Pandora. Its current list price at AT&T is $184.99 – two years ago, that price would have been $329 or higher. As the costs between the highest-end phones began to rise ($700-900) and the lowest-end phones began to fall (from $300-350 to below $200), one plan could not fit both types of subsidies. It made perfect sense for the industry to detach device from service payments.
- It didn’t hurt that the wireless carrier with the most success in 2014 and through the first two quarters of 2015 had been solely promoting subsidy-free plans. Verizon was not pioneering, but merely following T-Mobile’s freshly plowed ground.
Subsidies have died, and it’s going to hurt Best Buy and others who depended on them to drive sales. Couple this with the continued rollout of Amazon’s Prime Free Same-Day Delivery and Sprint’s Direct 2 U plans, and the real losers from this change are wireless retail distributors.
- Increased marketing and differentiation of borderless plans. In mid-August, AT&T revamped their Mobile Share Value plans and began to include unlimited talk and text to Canada and Mexico in their $100 (15GB) and up plan types. This came on the heels of T-Mobile’s July 9 announcement of “Mobile Without Borders” plan that includes free calling, texting, and 2G data to Mexico and Canada for all Simple Choice customers.
If you are not a frequent cross-border traveler, these changes are not going to change your decision to use one carrier over another. For the 30 million US wireless customers who routinely use their device in a country different from the United States, the changes initiated by T-Mobile (global reductions in roaming voice rates, and inclusion of free messaging) and accelerated by AT&T (unlimited borderless calling to Canada and Mexico for $100 and up data buckets) could not come at a better time. Perhaps the airport SIM card dispensers will go the way of airport payphones.
- The slow but steady expansion of Google Fiber. In August, Google announced that San Antonio would join the ranks of Google fiber cities starting in 2016. In September, Google announced that three additional cities – Irvine (CA), San Diego (CA), and Louisville (KY) would join the ranks of potential markets for Google Fiber. Nearby is a full map of all of the markets Google has either deployed, is in the process of deploying, or has entered active discussions (interestingly, none of Google’s announced areas overlap with the post Frontier-sale Verizon FiOS footprint).
Google learned a lot from their first deployment in Kansas City (MO and KS). As this Fast Company article points out, having fast Internet speeds is not as important to many low income neighborhoods as it is in wealthier locales. Google’s 75% penetration in higher-end fiberhoods is great, but 30% in poorer sections of the Kansas City metro represents a real challenge.
Their cable and telco competitors are catching up. Comcast is already offering 2 Gigabit per second speeds (symmetrical) in a few neighborhoods in Atlanta (and growing), and Time Warner Cable is ramping up its Maxx efforts in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham. AT&T is now obligated (thanks to the FCC’s “concession” extracted during the DirecTV merger discussions) to offer Gigapower services to 12.5 million locations. It will be interesting to see the reaction to these offers when these cities are actually deployed.
- Comcast Goes National. One of the least widely reported stories of the quarter was Comcast’s announcement of the creation of a national services division to serve the needs of Fortune 1000 enterprises. While cable companies have had commercial services divisions (and have had networking interfaces to serve regional needs), the creation of a nationwide organization with the focus of managing in and out-of-territory needs is new and groundbreaking.
Couple this with Comcast’s acquisition of Contingent Network Services, a very reputable managed services provider based out of Cincinnati, OH (a Time Warner Cable territory), and everything is shaping up for a fiber-based competitor to AT&T and Verizon for domestic opportunities IF their smaller cable colleagues (including Charter + TWC + Bright House) agree to provide connectivity at competitive rates. It will also be very interesting to see how Comcast will tackle international connectivity.
- Sprint’s announcement that they will sit out the 600 MHz auction and cut $2-2.5 billion in expenses. After last week’s Sunday Brief went to press, a report emerged in the Wall Street Journal online that Sprint would be sitting out the 600 MHz auction. This has obvious implications to the Reserve Spectrum bidding dynamics (re: reserve spectrum was set aside for smaller carriers). Removing Sprint might also impact the level of interest from broadcasters who equate fewer bidders to lower auction yields. This is more a story about Sprint’s steadfast belief that deploying their current spectrum is a better option for shareholders than buying new, but the effects of Sprint’s decision to bypass the auction have not yet been felt.
On top of this, Sprint announced plans to cut up to $2.5 billion in additional costs out of the business. This comes on the heels of an 11% workforce reduction in the first year of Marcelo Claure’s tenure and complicates the “improve network to #1 or #2” goal (and, from the most recent RootMetrics results in Harrisburg and Scranton (PA), as well as Baton Rouge and New Orleans (LA), Sprint’s speeds are not keeping up with competitors (see more here). The $2.5 billion figure also does not include any positive effects Sprint will receive from increased leasing (less subsidies, less Equipment Installment Plan long-term accounting effects).
If the reductions are headcount-focused, the majority will likely come from one of three sources: Front line employees working in retail stores (a tough decision), network (a really tough decision), and customer service (which has already seen several reductions thanks to simplified pricing plans put in place by Dan Hesse). Sprint’s details concerning how they will reduce costs will likely impact their ability to refinance $2.0 billion of debt which is due in 2016. Details will likely come throughout the rest of this year, but the CFO’s note has certainly raised anxiety levels across the company.
This certainly provides plenty of content for third quarter earnings reports. Next week, it’s time for the “It’s an Android World” semi-annual report as we head into the Holiday shopping season. Until then, please invite one of your colleagues to become a regular Sunday Brief reader by having them drop a quick note to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll subscribe them as soon as we can (and they can go to www.sundaybrief.com for the full archive). Thanks again for your readership, and Go Royals!
Patterson Advisory Group
(816) 210-0296 mobile