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