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.

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