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The big four US operators managed to add 800,000 post-paid subscribers in the past three months, but the scales are tipping in T-Mobile's favor.

T-Mobile Not Stealing Customers… Yet

Sarah Reedy
4/3/2014
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Are T-Mobile's "uncarrier" ways helping it steal customers from its competitors? If you follow the boisterous claims of its CEO, you'd think US consumers are chomping at the bit to tear up their contracts and join the magenta movement. But the numbers suggest that's not the case, or at least not yet.

According to the latest consensus estimates for wireless subscriber growth, which T-Mobile US Inc. provided to industry financial analyst Craig Moffett as part of its quarterly survey of sell-side estimates, the industry as a whole gained 800,000 postpaid customers in the past three months.

So where are these nearly one million customers coming from? For now, some could be from the smaller operators, upgrading to a smartphone and a tier-one provider for the first time. Others are likely tablet subscriptions or other non-mobile postpaid users. But, increasingly, these customers have to be coming from other big carriers, which means additions can't stay that high for long.

In fact, I'm surprised they have so far. The level of promotions in the wireless industry has to be at an all-time high. In the past week alone, Verizon Wireless dropped prices on its More Everything plans to match AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s offer of four lines and 10GB of data for $40 per line per month, and today it's offering up 1GB of free data to tablet customers on the plan. (See AT&T Joins Verizon in the Shared Data Pool.)

When you add in Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S)'s Framily plans, and T-Mobile's device financing, lower international rates, free tablet data, early termination fee offer, and the other three's responses to nearly all these moves, it's hard not to foresee a lot of customer grabbing going on. (See T-Mobile to Pick Up 'Evil' Family Fees, Sprint Launches No-Sharing 'Framily' Plans, AT&T Lures T-Mobile Subs With $450 Promise, Look Inside T-Mobile's 'Uncarrier' Transformation, T-Mobile Kills Contracts, Launches LTE Network, and T-Mobile Zeros In on Tablets.)

That said, it hasn't yet erupted into an all-out price war. While the operators have tweaked their offers and repackaged how they price, the actual prices haven't come plummeting down. Their earnings haven't been affected yet either. But going forward, they will likely come at the expense of subscriber growth, if not revenues. (See Verizon's 4G Strength Keeps It Above the Fray.)

Moffett says that consensus expectations for 2014 post-paid net adds have fallen at Verizon from 3.53 million nine months ago to less than 3 million today, and from 1.4 million six months ago at AT&T to 1.2 million today. For Sprint, postpaid subscriber losses in 2014 have more than doubled over the past three months to 617,000. T-Mobile, meanwhile, continues to grow -- from 1.3 million three months ago up to 2.9 million additions expected today. Incredibly, a year ago, T-Mobile's estimates were only for 50,000 postpaid subscriber additions this year. (See T-Mobile Leads, Sprint Suffers in Pricing Wars.)

That growth has to come from somewhere. But as Moffett points out, the estimates have to be off base. He writes, "At Verizon, consensus estimates for churn has ticked up by 2 bps [basis points] over the past three months, AT&T’s has increased 3 bps, Sprint’s, 8 bps, and T-Mobile’s fell by 4 bps. Street estimates, in other words, seem to imply that the TMUS’s subscriber gains are largely coming out of thin air, and that the big four’s recent promotion wars have really only resulted in, well, more customers for everyone."

At some point, that can't last, and it might just take an all-out price war to tip the scales. T-Mobile has made moves in that direction, and Sprint's new boss, SoftBank Corp. CEO Masayoshi Son, has promised one if he's able to acquire the Uncarrier. So far, there's more of price squabble in the US, but as T-Mobile's consensus estimates prove, a lot can change in a very short amount of time.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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RitchBlasi
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RitchBlasi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
4/4/2014 | 12:27:09 PM
Ups n Downs
Yeah mendyK, being Italian and coming from Brooklyn, that meant something else for me too.  :-)

I wonder if the big swing into postpaid could also be a result of adding a new family member onto a family plan instead of going for a pre-paid option.  At around $40 a person, the postpaid plans are rivaling those of MVNOs.  It always amazed me how carriers came up with their numbers, how each might have arrived at them differently, and how analysts projections were always a bit off based on a number of unknowns.  Maybe someone should come up with standards for reporting - like coming up with standards for NFV, LTE, yada, yada, yada.
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
4/4/2014 | 11:35:56 AM
Re: Sprint fires back
"Family terminaton fees" -- that means something different where I come from.
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
4/4/2014 | 11:11:17 AM
Sprint fires back
Like I said, moves are being made on a nearly daily basis. Sprint just fired back, matching T-Mo's offer to pay family termination fees up to $650.

Legere immediately shot back on Twitter (matching your point, mendyk) that T-Mobile's offer is for life, while Sprint's is just a one-time promotion to lure/trick you. Frucked up, he says.

http://s4gru.com/index.php?/topic/5721-sprint-to-pay-etfs-for-a-limited-time/
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
4/4/2014 | 9:25:39 AM
Re: More fun with numbers
True, and even though it's starting to affect subscriber numbers, it hasn't affected the financials of AT&T or Verizon at all, so there's little incentive for anyone but probably Sprint to do so.
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
4/4/2014 | 9:25:38 AM
Re: More fun with numbers
True, and even though it's starting to affect subscriber numbers, it hasn't affected the financials of AT&T or Verizon at all, so there's little incentive for anyone but probably Sprint to do so.
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
4/4/2014 | 9:22:52 AM
Re: More fun with numbers
Sustainability comes down to acceptable profit margins, and also has to take into account corporate factors like debt service. Every company's margin requirements are slightly different, but within a specific industry they tend to aggregate at a more or less common point (at least for the publicly traded companies). That's why it's hard for me to see any effort to differentiate on price as more than a temporary and incremental strategy. But I'm not a multibillionaire with a messiah complex.
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
4/4/2014 | 9:09:40 AM
Re: More fun with numbers
I think the tradeoff of lower prices for poorer quality or some other kind of caveat is something a lot of US wireless users have proven they are willing to make. A number of MVNOs are basing their business on that kind of model. It may always be a niche play, but I think we'll see more business model experimentation. 

And, you're right, flying used to be so much cheaper! Now it's not only more expensive, but a pain with delays and issues every single time. blurgh.
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
4/4/2014 | 9:08:04 AM
Re: More fun with numbers
I understand that his outrage over the unfair wireless prices in the US is just posturing, but he'll have to make good on his promise of lowering prices if the acquisition goes through in some respect or another. What kind of changes in wireless pricing do you see happening that are actually sustainable?
SarahReedy
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SarahReedy,
User Rank: Blogger
4/4/2014 | 9:06:17 AM
Re: More fun with numbers
I think T-Mobile has copped a different attitude than AT&T and Verizon, but I'd say Verizon is the one that's been above the fray. It has responded to some of T-Mo's moves, including most recently with its Share Everything adjustments, but so far has just ignored it or dismissed it as an annoying pest. AT&T has given in a bit more. At any rate, it's been fun to watch!
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
4/3/2014 | 7:23:50 PM
Re: More fun with numbers
We also should remember that Mr. Son lost a boatload of money in the first dot-com bubble. Fortunately for him, he had three boatloads, so no big worries. But his business decisions are not infallible.
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