Monday, March 25, 2019

2019 Prepaid - What Do Trends From Previous Years Say?

1Q19 Earnings season is about a month away.  Postpaid gets much of the focus because it brings in revenues and because it's a big chunk of the bread and butter revenue of many carriers.  However, though prepaid is a minor asterisk on many carriers, it doesn't mean that competition isn't just as formidable.

Trends could be a good predictor of future performance.  For every earnings call, I try to display a couple of years worth of net additions or losses on Twitter and occasionally, I write a blog or two. Let's look at the previous years' aggregate results and see if anything is interesting.


It's clear the biggest loser was America Movil (Tracfone) as a huge loss factor was the lifeline brand, Safelink.  Tracfone was once a huge prepaid force to be reckoned with and to be fair it still is.  At the end of 2017, it had over 23 million customers.

Verizon didn't have a bad 2017. As the company is over 90 some odd percent postpaid. It didn't seem like a huge impact, as the carrier stated its intent to move feature phone subs off its 3G network and onto higher ARP bearing smartphone plans.

Sprint looked like it was recovering and turned the corner from abysmal years '15 and '16 due to Assurance Wireless losses, their lifeline brand.  The Sprint prepaid group's flagship Boost Mobile continued to contribute as Virgin Mobile seemingly didn't help the cause.

Lastly, the T-Mobile and AT&T fight was the most competitive.  The real story behind those two companies' momentum is the respective purchases of regional players MetroPCS and Leap Wireless (Cricket).  T-Mobile dominated all of '15 and '16 as it expanded its distribution doors beyond the MetroPCS footprint.   AT&T used the same playbook in revamping and expanding Cricket's distribution nationally. Within the weeds, 2Q17 was the inflection point in which AT&T led for the remainder of the year.   This is important as AT&T and T-Mobile are emerging as the dominant prepaid forces.


America Movil continued to lose!  Persistent blame was cast on its lifeline brand.  Corporately, it appeared an underlying industry strategy was to embrace the higher ARPU bearing and flagship Straight Talk brand for sub growth and revenue.  Straight Talk now makes up ~9.1 million out of its overall 21.7 million base.  The higher ARPU strategy yielded positives as its overall corporate end of year ARPU hit $26 vs '17's $24 vs '16's $23.  In addition, the overall corporate churn trend continues to improve.

While Verizon '17 prepaid looked encouraging, '18 saw significant prepaid losses.  Its sub base is barely 4 million and while there are some who point to the semi-linked Visible brand to address its prepaid ambition, it's a tough and price sensitive market.    

Sprint was supposed to have turned the corner in '17 but you would have been wrong for '18. 1Q18 saw some good momentum but in the end, 4Q18 tanked.  Clearly Sprint is more focus on good postpaid numbers, as it even categorized some Boost Mobile users with a good payment record and moving them into the overall postpaid count.

Again, the AT&T and T-Mobile dynamic proved to show the most interesting outcomes, as the two continue to battle it out for growth. Throughout '18 prepaid adds slowed with T-Mobile claiming that the prepaid-postpaid lines have blurred significantly.  There are a combination of factors perhaps, like any competitor, the carrier would rather spend its resources into higher-ARPU bearing postpaid users AND AT&T's Cricket has put the competitive screws on Metro by T-Mobile.  The big BUT is in 4Q18 where unexpectedly, T-Mobile came roaring back, besting AT&T. With its positive momentum, AT&T should have dominated 4Q18 but its branded prepaid tanked the numbers.    Still, overall in '18 AT&T was the net prepaid winner.


With abundant losses behind it, America Movil may cross into positive territory in 2019 as its losses were ~100K in 4Q18.  The first quarter trend for each year typically carries over some of the 4Q momentum.  If that is true, then American Movil may potentially see '19 as a turnaround year, barring overwhelming competition.  The increasing ARPU trend is likely to continue as it's likely the company will add more resources into getting more Straight Talk traction.

Though Verizon as its 4Q18 losses only amounted to 90K as nearly 600K of its overall '18 losses happened in 1H18, it seems to be on the upswing.  Yet, the jury is still be out as Verizon doesn't really seem to address its offerings competitiveness to grow or retain its prepaid base.

Sprint is a big unknown.  Through earnings calls, filings and market looks, Boost Mobile seems to be holding its own while seemingly Virgin Mobile is a nob-contributor.  The trend is negative as Sprint, which once was a significant prepaid player is inconsequential as far as marketshare.  all the indicators are going in the wrong direction, their churn is up and their prepaid ARPU is declining.

The growth money still in on AT&T's side as its prepaid momentum is greater than T-Mobile's.  If one extracts the 4Q18 glitch, AT&T continues to be the growth leader, barring additional AT&T branded prepaid losses.  The bottom line is that both companies would continue to shape 2019 prepaid growth.

Finally, here's how the prepaid business units shape up versus the overall branded base to note who is shrinking and contracting.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Sprint's 5G Launch Potentially Gives It the 'Yellow Jersey"

At Mobile World Congress, Sprint announced its intention to launch 5G in May  with initial markets in Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Kansas City, along with Houston, LA, NYC. Phoenix and Washington, DC.

In support of the 5G foray, the company has lined up vendors to create and make available complementary halo devices LG (V50 ThingQ 5G), Samsung (Galaxy S10 5G) and HTC (5G Hub).   

The big picture: Sprint is finally realizing the advantage of its 2.5 GHz spectrum. While most of rivals were deploying LTE with FDD spectrum, Sprint's 100+ MHz TDD is a blessing as it can use that same wide bandwidth dynamically (split mode) to serve LTE and 5G. Therefore, it can add more downlink where market conditions require in contrast to a defined chunk of bandwidth as in competitors' FDD modes.

  • On the technology side, Sprint has been very vocal about investing in Massive MIMO radios and antennas, either when upgrading existing sites or building new ones. This technology is foundational as a 5G enabler and is ramping up in the first 5 months of 2019.  
  • Sprint's LTE Advance should be well over 220M POPs covered. But in late 2018, the company claims 225 gigabit LTE cities. This is important as it can provide a similar customer speed experience along side 5G. 

Why it matters:  To take a page out of the Tour de France where the leader wears the 'yellow jersey' as the winner in the stage, the 5G race seems to line up with Sprint.  While larger competitors AT&T and Verizon are deploying fatter mmW spectrum for fixed and quasi mobile service, it's unclear how they will get a national 5G footprint (It can bring in its discontinued 3G spectrum).  T-Mobile is banking on its FDD 600 MHz to provide the national coverage layer that could win the 5G geographic race down the line but it currently is still deploying and waiting for television station clearing. Moreover, it's unclear how much of its limited spectrum that it shares with LTE can provide a meaningful 5G experience. 

To be sure, Sprint's 2.5 5G coverage cannot provide a fully filled-inn national map. Physics makes it just too expensive to do so. However, using the 2.5 GHz in already built out markets and Massive MIMO upgrades along with the trend of vendor modularity (software and 5G 'cards'), Sprint can provide more 5G POP coverage than competitors in 2019.  
Tour de France observers will note that the race is multi-stage and with each stage there could be different leaders wearing the yellow jersey.  For now, in the first stage of the domestic 5G, it's looking like Sprint.

Extra content: John Saw, Sprint CTO at Mobile World Congress 2019 talking about its 5G network plans.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

4Q18 T-Mobile Prepaid Recovers A Bit

T-Mobile took back net additions leadership for the quarter amid a slowdown in 2017 and 2018 from monstrous growth in 2015 and 2016.  With 135K adds, the company beats continued prepaid nemesis AT&T which posted 26K but only 13K phone net additions

Why it Matters: 

T-Mobile needed to slow the AT&T prepaid momentum a bit as it has been moving towards prepaid leadership in terms of additions since 2Q17.  Were it not for AT&T branded prepaid losses, Cricket's 240K net adds would have continued AT&T's domination.  A quarterly win is a nice reversal of 2018 fortune.

It's no secret that postpaid has better revenue upside than prepaid and in the 3Q18 earnings call, President Mike Sievert explained that their focus had been converting competitors' prepaid users to T-Mobile postpaid.   Data point: Prepaid makes up 33% of its branded base and 30% of the revenue.

Despite how the company and others in the industry have been stating that the prepaid/postpaid plan lines have blurred, T-Mobile postpaid hovers at ~$46 while its prepaid ARPU is in the mid $38 range. So Mike's argument holds water. What is unique is that in 4Q, T-Mobile admitted that its gains were from lower churn but also plan and handset promotions.  The promotions are a sharp contrast to not responding to 3Q AT&T promotions.  Will T-Mobile by Metro continue its  promotional run or is the AT&T branded prepaid losses a quarterly anomaly? Though with the 4Q win, AT&T safely won the 2018 leadership. What will '19 look like?   

Thursday, January 31, 2019

4Q18 Sprint Prepaid Tanks

Just when you thought Sprint prepaid turned the loss corner in 2017, it started sputtering in 2Q18 and then totally tanked in 4Q19 with 174K net losses.  Sprint bet big on prepaid in the Dan Hesse days and embarked on a multi-brand strategy.  Then, Assurance, a lifeline brand created to counter America Movil's Safelink greatly added to the prepaid base. Then with the fallout of lifeline investigations, those numbers quickly went away. Meanwhile in 2017, under then CEO Claure, Sprint announced the re-launch of its limbo brand, Virgin Mobile.  The new Virgin Mobile was supposed to be an "industry game-changer" with an iPhone only bent. It hasn't moved the needle in prepaid competition.

Why it matters: Essentially, Sprint prepaid is a one brand pony - Boost.  In the CY4Q18 earnings call and material, Sprint noted that Boost continues to be a strong contender. In the previous quarter, Boost accounted for <200K net additions. For this quarter, rather than provide a definitive number, Sprint CEO Combes only stated that Boost delivered eight consecutive quarters before "migration."

Migration? What's that? In a nutshell, Sprint has identified high-value and stable Boost or Virgin Mobile subscribers and offer them a non-branded Sprint postpaid plan and device financing.  For this quarter they totaled 100K, which also classified them in the Sprint postpaid subscriber base.  

In CY3Q18, Combes managed expectations that this quarter would be negative.  One can only assume that Virgin Mobile is the brand that is in a freefall since Sprint no longer reports Lifeline (Assurance) subs due to regulatory constraints. However, Sprint expects a return to growth in CY1Q19/FY4Q18. Even if Sprint prepaid bounces back, it will be a while before it matches the momentum of AT&T Cricket or Metro by T-Mobile.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

4Q18 AT&T Prepaid Momentum Stunted but Cricket is OK

After a monster run at huge net additions, the prepaid group somehow fell off a cliff. It's not a pretty sight, is it?  After its Leap Wireless acquisition, the company completed the acquisition in 1Q14, the company began to ramp up to expand the Cricket brand beyond the legacy region footprint.  T-Mobile's MetroPCS had a similar ramp in growth from 1Q15 to 1Q17.  By 2Q17, AT&T prepaid started taking the industry prepaid net add leader.  Therefore, AT&T 4Q18 prepaid numbers were a jaw dropper.

What happened:  Many industry watchers have become accustomed to Cricket as the net addition driving force.  However in the traditional cut-throat holiday selling quarter, promotions abounded.  Detailed in the earnings call Q&A, Chairman Randall Stephenson assured analysts that Cricket still had growth momentum with 240K net adds but the branded prepaid side suffered these losses. He pointed to two factors: 1) Branded prepaid subs were moving to competitors' postpaid and 2) AT&T did not want to counter a loss leading handset promotion (A $250 device was offered at $100).  As a result the prepaid phone net adds only amounted to 13K.  

Why it Matters:  While AT&T has been disciplined about not getting into promotions that hurt margin, it does impact the view that growth and competition is hurting them in the very visible net addition metric. It's likely that the AT&T branded prepaid loss could factor in the gains at T-Mobile, perhaps both pre and postpaid.  Unless the competition can sustain a loss leader strategy and Cricket growth stagnates, AT&T 1Q19 prepaid net additions should climb out of that cliff. Stephenson has noted glowingly in the past about Cricket's ARPU (~$35) being close to postpaid.  Prepaid has been a bright spot over the last two years of growth and revenue contribution, offsetting the declining and handcuffed postpaid side. With more of the same postpaid performance anticipated in '19, prepaid needs to get its mojo back.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

4Q18 Verizon Prepaid Continues Decline

Verizon prepaid has steadily lost subscribers over the many quarters. For 4Q18 the carrier lost 90,000 subscribers, 3K more than last quarter. This performance, on the surface, is disturbing for any student of business. In the 3Q18 earnings call, CFO Ellis stated, "..prepaid is certainly a small part of our business. And we will continue to evolve and adapt the product offering there over time."  The company was to focus the prepaid offerings on value-added segments. The 4Q18 results suggest it's either not working or still a work in process into 2019.

Why it doesn't matter: Verizon's retail subscriber base is now nearly 118 million subscribers of which the prepaid base is about 4.6 million. That's less than 4% of the overall retail subscribers.  Even though the prepaid group had been north of 5 million, the postpaid side is where the money is at.  In contrast, the postpaid subscriber net additions exceeded 1.2 million.  In the end for prepaid competition, Verizon as a brand, while strong force in postpaid is a non-contender in prepaid.    

Axios Type Posts Going Forward

When I spent time at my old company, Current Analysis, the value to the customer base on quick analysis was brevity and competitive impact. We wrote (at the time) very short but meaningful opinions and analyses on events (announcements, plan changes) on the competitive landscape.

Fast forward to 2019 and a news website has taken brevity to the extreme with similar goals but less words.  I'll try this format from now on....