Tuesday, May 2, 2017

T-Mobile Goes 5G, It's Expected Except with its 600 MHz

The wireless path for all wireless carriers beyond LTE is 5G. Everyone in the industry knows this.  Conventionally, the spectrum associated with 5G talk has been in the millimeter wave (mmW) realm.  That's why Verizon purchased XO because they had 28 and 39 GHz.  That also can be said with AT&T's purchase of FiberTower (24 and 39 GHz) and its interest in StraightPath (28 & 39 GHz).  There are many on-going trials on the vendor side and carrier side as well in mmW bands.   The width of the mmW spectrum availability is in the order of hundreds of GHz rather than the tens of MHz in each that carriers have today.

T-Mobile has also pursued mmW 5G trials. In September '16, Ericsson announced it achieved 12 Gbps   with T-Mobile in the 28 GHz band.  So with T-Mobile's announcement that it seeks to deploy 5G in the newly acquired 600 MHz spectrum (31 MHz covering 325M POPs) is a true departure from the conventional 5G talk and norm.  Why?


While 5G is the front and center of the announcement, what is lost is that T-Mobile seeks to use some of that spectrum for LTE deployment.   In the 1Q17 earnings call, Neville Ray (CTO) touted that the company wanted to put the spectrum to use quickly, with buildout ready by end of year 2017 along with handset support (Samsung & another vendor).  Two points that T-Mobile have shrugged off:

1) The spectrum needs to be cleared.  T-Mobile's initial 600 buildout will be where there are no clearance issues. It's also the geography where their 700 doesn't cover, so apparently it's a win.  The implication is that it's closing the coverage holes and getting to network and geographic parity with AT&T and Verizon, negating the "Verizon map" marketing advantage.

2) 600 ecosystem cost and support is costly.  It's clear that T-Mobile will be the first mover in 600 LTE and they painted similarities to delving into AWS spectrum.  They claim it's no different.  However, T-Mobile's modus operandi is and has always been pushing the technical and marketing envelope.  It has a good track record.

So the conventional playbook says that 600 will bring geographic and network parity against AT&T and Verizon.  More importantly, it will expand T-Mobile's sales and distribution footprint to greenfield markets traditionally served by AT&T and Verizon because they were the only game in town.

BACK TO 5G

To T-Mobile's credit, they're not ahead of the market as they anticipate buildout in 2019 with commercial service ready in 2020 along with a national footprint.  This is not aggressive but along the conventional standards and industry timeline.  Again, what is unconventional is its use of 600 MHz, unexpected in many tech circles.

The problem with this and conventional 5G talk is from a speed perspective is that it won't make the multi-Gbps targets as so many trials have demonstrated.  Moreover, 31 MHz is going to be divided with its earlier 600 LTE implementation.  This 5G implementation will likely pick up more spectral efficiency in delivering speed relative to LTE but again, as standalone 5G, the operating bandwidth is limited.  So what's the play?  There are two for now.

1) In a conference call with industry analysts, Neville and his network execs talked up rural IoT.  The argument goes that standard 5G mmW IoT is limited by the spectrum and really a play in urban areas due to the propagation characteristics.  While it's out of character with over three years of direct consumer wins, this feels more like a business play.  To be sure, T-Mobile has kicked off its IoT effort in January 2017 and it shouldn't end with 3G and LTE (NB).  IoT connected numbers in the billions and  every carrier wants a piece of the pie. With low or no per unit acquisition costs along with sustained recurring revenue, each connection has an excellent (industry term) customer lifetime value.  The money potential will preset itself in 2020 and beyond but for now, the announcement gives T-Mobile business and IoT force some roadmap to present compared to AT&T and Verizon, which have a substantial lead.

2) T-Mobile's 2020 national 5G network target is a pure marketing win. Again with conventional 5G talk with mmW, this conventional implementation will not have a 5G national footprint. While that is true, competitors can claim greater 5G speed compared to T-Mobile's 600 5G speeds.  The only caveat is that T-Mobile is likely going into mmW 5G as well.  So looking ahead, another related component will be the ongoing mmW spectrum acquisition race.

In closing, all the industry talk, other spectrum bands are likely to be refarmed into 5G.  I'm counting on Sprint to announce its 5G foray using its 2.5 GHz resources soon.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Bullet Point Analysis: The Implications for Verizon Unlimited

WHAT IS IT?

After many years, Verizon brought back an unlimited dataservice plan announced on Sunday, February 12, 2017 and available February 13.   





Here are the monthly plan details:
  • Single line - $80 for unlimited data, talk and text on your smartphone with paper-free billing and AutoPay.
  • Two lines - $120 ($60/line)
  • Three lines - $160 ($53.33/line)
  • Four lines - $180 ($45/line)
  • Additional lines after 4 lines, up to 10 lines, for $20/line
  •  Mobile Hotspot with 10 GB of LTE data is included at no charge (after 10 GB at 3G data speeds)
  • Unlimited calling and texting to Mexico and Canada and up to 500 MB/day of 4G LTE roaming in Mexico and Canada
  • HD video streaming
  • 22GB is the data threshold when Verizon can perform network prioritization if there is network congestion.
In conjunction with the service plan an aggressive free handset strategy is in place to win new (and perhaps old Verizon customers back).  The list includes flagship smartphones - iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, Google Pixel, Moto Z Droid, Moto Z Force Droid, Samsung Galaxy S7, Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, or LG V20. 



However, the free smartphone is only available within a list of 15 eligible devices: iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus, iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, Samsung Galaxy S6, Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+, Samsung Galaxy S7, Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, Samsung Note 5, LG G5, LG V20, HTC 10. 

A $5/month option is available for older devices but the list is shorter: Apple iPhone SE, Samsung Note 4, Samsung Galaxy S5, LG G4, LG V10, HTC M9.

BACKGROUND

Verizon has been the brunt of switching aggression from T-Mobile and most recently Sprint. With the largest postpaid base among the top four carriers, Verizon is the low hanging fruit. And with continued high porting ratios reported by T-Mobile and movement from Sprint, Verizon had to do something.  Moreover, it lacked an unlimited plan that T-Mobile and Sprint harped on in its advertising to win over Verizon customers.  Its large postpaid base and reluctance to offer an unlimited product also raised questions, particularly in the investor community, on whether its venerated network could even handle increasing data traffic within its current spectrum portfolio.   

With a dire competition picture for many quarters and the messaging set in place by former CFO Fran Shammo that subscribers don’t want or don’t need unlimited coupled to preserving good margin, a Verizon unlimited offering is surprising. However, Mr. Shammo has retired and a new CFO Matt Ellis and the new UK-transplant CEO (Ronan Dunne – ex O2 CEO) may have been the impetus to changing Verizon’s unlimited strategy.  Rather than Lowell McAdam’s face (or John Stratton’s or any other long time Verizon executive) to introduce the unlimited plan, it was Mr. Dunne and Nicky Palmer (Network Leader (read network CTO) as fresh PR faces.


ANALYSIS

WHAT’S IN IT FOR VERIZON?
  • Retention (Stopping the Bleeding): The port outs to T-Mobile and Sprint have impacted Verizon’s bread and butter postpaid sub base.  A new unlimited offering will placate those legacy/grandfathered subscribers who feel pushed out with increasing onerous conditions to keep their grandfathered unlimited plans. Moreover, with a valuable business segment that may want monthly price predictability without data pooling, an unlimited plan will lock in loyal accounts. 
  • Switching (and switching back): The free smartphone offer is attractive for former Verizon customers who left for competitors within the last 2 years (e.g., for trade-in, the iPhone 6 is a little over 2 years old).  Against T-Mobile, the advertised gap is only $20 (though T-Mobile One is tax/fee inclusive). $20 may be enough for less price sensitive customers and Verizon loyalists to return. 
  • Network Reputation:  Verizon has always done well with the ‘map’ that shows its national coverage lead but T-Mobile has been very vocal specifically about its network parity (covered LTE POPs) and faster download data throughput against Verizon’s premium network message.  By offering an unlimited product and highlighting leadership in small cells and sprinkling in leading edge LTE technology, Verizon is stating that its network can handle the network traffic.  Not to be forgotten is the delayed LTE-U (or LAA) impending commercialization likely in 2017 that will help the load.
  •  Feature Differentiation: Unlike the Verizon of old where customers need to pay extra to turn their phones into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, a healthy 10GB is included. Against T-Mobile or Sprint, this isn’t much but against AT&T, it stands out.  A nuanced jab at T-Mobile is that video may be streamed in native HD against T-Mobile’s extra fee to get HD capability.
  • Cost Containment: The new unlimited plan has two caveats – electronic billing and autopay.  These features are very much prepaid in nature and in a macro sense, speaks to cost savings of generating paper bills. Automating the payment process streamlines any handling for paper checks as well as in-store bill payment handling. As in prepaid, autopay is a nice anti-churn measure.
COMPETITOR COMPANIES' IMPACT?
  • Sprint: Price leadership has been Sprint’s hallmark for a year or so.  This has been their strategy to turn itself around from negative losses to positive net addition growth.   The surprising Sprint promotion announced a day ahead of Verizon’s announcement (5 lines of unlimited service for $90) makes a lot of sense now.  Keeping a lid on price moves is difficult in this industry and the coincidence of Sprint’s promotion suggests to me that they got wind of Verizon’s offering ahead of time.  Sprint will still get the price seekers but may be blunted somewhat for those Verizon loyalists that haven’t been pulled the trigger to the Sprint camp.  With the new Sprint promotion, I’d expect that a marketing campaign be launch pointing out that Sprint’s unlimited is half that of Verizon’s. 

With thinner margins, Sprint’s financial challenge is cannibalizing revenue from the existing base that wants this less expensive offer.  Yet the other side of the coin is that they could lock these migrating plan customers in for another two years.

  • T-Mobile: While I characterize Sprint as the price leader, T-Mobile is, in my view, the value carrier and the biggest continued threat to Verizon.  With an effective network parity message and an expanding national LTE footprint, the number three carrier has so much momentum that Verizon will find it difficult to fully stop T-Mobile. Given a public target to increase national distribution doors (in areas where it never operated) in 2017, I believe Verizon will continue to be negatively affected but perhaps slightly diminished porting.
  • AT&T:  With only an unlimited plan only available as a bundle with DirecTV, AT&T is the odd man out amongst its peer group without a standalone product in its plan portfolio.  AT&T’s strategy has always been to cross and upsell to increase revenue from its existing base, and in turn bring higher margins (EBITDA service margin, in the Verizon range).  To veer from this strategy will be tough as it has garnered quite a bit of criticism with quarterly phone customer losses. Though AT&T claims many of those phone losses are feature phone customers, Verizon has been its longtime nemesis as both carriers contend for the premium customer, consumer and business. History has shown that it responds almost tit for tat against Verizon and have largely ignored plan moves from Sprint and T-Mobile.  However, there must be a lot of debate happening in Atlanta and Dallas on the course forward.  My view is that AT&T must respond and improve on its unlimited offering as it is the most vulnerable.  Though the wireless-DirecTV unlimited wireless offer sets the same price point for 4 lines at $180, there’s fine print. First, month one and two are at $220 and only at month three is the 4th line considered free.   More importantly, after line 4, additional lines are at $40/month, clearly short of Verizon’s (and T-Mobile’s) $20/month.  If not to save the premium consumer base that has been slipping for several quarters, AT&T needs an offer to its coveted medium and enterprise business segment that has been fueling sub growth and offsetting those consumer losses.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

DIRECTVNOW PRESS LAUNCH - 11/28/16 + GROWTH

On Monday, November 28, AT&T launched DIRECTV Now to the press and media.  DIRECTV Now represents a huge growth component for AT&T. While many people look at the details of price, number of channels, and UI/UX, all these will continually be refined as the company markets its existence. The key point here is that the foundation was the DIRECTV (DTV) acquisition that enabled AT&T to springboard beyond its flattening wireless growth and its declining wireline and satellite business units.

Also key to the DIRECTV Now success is leveraging and further exploiting all the legacy DTV content relationships. If one follows the PR content announcements, it's easy to see why there had been a flurry of activity to locking in those content partners as the lynchpin for DIRECTV Now's mainstream premium content messaging. It's also why the Time Warner merger makes so much sense in the long haul - owner's economics and continued content resale to competitors. AT&T's longterm DTV play is to compete effectively outside of its wireline footprint. That's already in motion with its DTV satellite business but in comparison DIRECTV Now's customer acquisition costs are minimal as social media will be the foundational component in this streaming service. As John Stankey put it, DIRECTV Now is going after underpenetrated subscribers that do not want to have a longterm wireline contract, are transient/mobile and may not pass credit checks. These are the same traits for subprime, prepaid and millennial demographics.

PRICING

One of the biggest question marks was the package pricing as only a $35 price point had been leaked earlier. Well, there are two $35 price points - one promotional and the other, 'permanent.' The promotional price will certainly draw a great deal of interest and potentially eat into cable & Verizon FiOS bundles - double and triple plays, especially when the consumer can save money on the set top box/DVR rental (i.e., I pay $12/mo).

 

DISTRIBUTION

I give AT&T's DTV folks credit in lining up all the relevant distribution partners of the DIRECTV Now app - on Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV (Chromecast is missing - I guess for now) as well as in the expected iTunes and Google Play stores. The Apple allure will be a huge driver for DIRECTV Now's success with Prepaying 3 months of service and receiving a free Apple TV.

One other surprising and disruptive approach is aligning with LeEco, the emerging Chinese consumer brand of smartphones and televisions. Here, a DIRECTV Now subscription is thrown in (terms vary by device). This DTV/LeEco deal will surely go a long way to build LeEco consumer brand awareness faster and more impactful than that of Huawei, ZTE, OnePlus, etc.

I can go further in the UI/UX but that's for another post.