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With pent-up demand, competitive intensity in wireless primed to detonate

A recent survey conducted by the financial analysts at Cowen shows that 43% of wireless customers in the US intend to purchase a new phone in 2021. That's up from 30% at this time last year, during the first round of coronavirus lockdowns.

As a result, the stage is now set for a scramble for new customers among AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon during the remainder of this year, the analysts wrote in a note to investors. "With COVID-19 lockdowns potentially easing/abating and a likely incrementally more competitive environment year-over-year in 2021 ... all of the Big 3 carriers have noted the expectation for increased jump balls in the back half of the year," they argued.

Others agree.

"The competitive intensity in the market is certainly increasing. All the providers have to make their subscriber targets, while the biggest pool of potential new customers – switchers from other carriers – has decreased," wrote analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics in response to questions from Light Reading, noting T-Mobile's acquisition of struggling No. 4 provider Sprint could reduce the number of customers seeking alternative providers.

Entner pointed to a number of new promotions and offerings from some of the biggest providers in the industry that highlight the new competitive landscape:

  • Verizon this month began offering up to $1,000 in discounts for customers' used phones, including those with cracked screens. "Traditionally, customers who wanted to trade in their phones, either as part of an upgrade with their existing carrier, or because they were changing carriers, could only trade in phones that were working, with intact screens; non-working or cracked phones had little to no trade-in value," the financial analysts at Evercore explained in a recent note to investors. "Verizon has changed their policy on this."
  • T-Mobile is now offering a free 5G phone coupled with inexpensive 5G service plans. The company also moved all its Sprint customers onto unlimited data plans.
  • AT&T began offering a free iPhone 12 to new and existing customers late last year. The operator promised to continue to leverage that aggressive promotion throughout 2021.
  • Comcast is now lowering costs for Xfinity Mobile customers who tack on additional lines of service. The change is significant, according to the financial analysts at New Street Research, because "Comcast is [now] priced at a discount to AT&T and Verizon across all lines, and at a discount to T-Mobile except for four-line plans."

"All of this is great for consumers as the providers are offering better plans," Entner wrote.

The potential for increased competition will undoubtedly be a hot topic of conversation next week. Verizon and AT&T are scheduled to release their first-quarter financial results on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

However, according to the analysts at Evercore, investors shouldn't expect any Q1 fireworks.

"Wireless customer activity was relatively muted again in Q1, with AT&T remaining the most aggressive player in the market, particularly on the retention front," they wrote in a note to investors.

Overall, the analysts expect T-Mobile to capture 38% of new customers in the first quarter, followed by Verizon at 29% and AT&T at 23%. The analysts said cable operators such as Comcast should snare 10% of gross new customer additions during the period.

However, the analysts said that the tranquility of the first quarter likely won't last.

"That period of relative quiet may be coming to an end, however, as both Verizon and T-Mobile ramped up their promotional activity in April, with T-Mobile also taking steps to lower churn in the legacy Sprint base," the Evercore analysts wrote.

One final data point comes from the Cowen analysts' survey: 36.1% of postpaid respondents said they have owned their phones for more than two years. The firm said the figure was the highest they've ever recorded.

As a result, they argued that a potentially large number of US smartphone owners will be looking for new phones, and potentially new carriers, during the remainder of this year.

"We do believe that we could see an increase in upgrades in 2021, specifically in the back half of the year as the economy potentially fully reopens," they wrote. "It is also worth noting, to the extent we see continued attractive promotional offers by the carriers (we've previously noted we expect to see increased competitive intensity in 2021), including high trade-in value for older devices, we could also see upgrades accelerating."

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— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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