Tuesday, April 30, 2019

1Q19 AT&T Prepaid Returns to the Pole Position

Last quarter, AT&T ceded its prepaid net add position to T-Mobile. AT&T had led five out of the last eight quarters.  With the acquisition Leap Wireless and its Cricket brand, AT&T slowed the MetroPCS juggernaut that had been dominating the prepaid sector since T-Mobile bought them. Both companies had a similar playbook, de-commission the old CDMA network and expand brand and distribution beyond the old regional footprints.  For people playing wireless industry Trivial Pursuit, MetroPCS’ kickoff expansion was coined “Apollo 15.”  To put it in a competitive context, from 1Q15-4Q18, AT&T and T-Mobile accounted for over 10 million net additions while competitors were in negative territory.  

Prepaid Net Additions / Losses
America Movil

Fast forward to 1Q19 results, we find that even with 96,000 net adds (85,000 were phone net adds), AT&T won out against T-Mobile’s 69,000.  This is a recovery of sorts against a shocking 4Q18 in which AT&T seemed to have lost its growth mojo

Looking at the drop in growth seems somehow disturbing after so many go-go quarters.  Is prepaid plateauing, especially since all other prepaid competitors have loss subscribers (Sprint hasn’t reported yet as of this writing)?  It may be but there are some silver linings: 1) Some solace for the prepaid group as their 85,000 phone adds beat their postpaid brethren.
2) In his prepared remarks, Chairman Stephenson reiterated the company’s strategy to focus on the high-value prepaid segment but divulged (for the first time in my recollection) that Cricket had its lowest ever quarterly churn rate of less than 3%, down more than 60 basis points year-over-year. Prepaid revenue growth was solid, up more than 6%. We now have more than 10 million Cricket subscribers, double what we had when we acquired the company in 2014 with more than 17 million total prepaid customers under the umbrella of AT&T.”

Why it matters:  Chairman Stephenson’s unveiling of prepaid metrics (prepaid churn and ARPU are not publicly available metrics) suggest tremendous stability in the Cricket base.  For long-time industry watchers, prepaid churn ranged in the mid 4% to 5%. Therefore, churn less than 3% is a tremendous achievement. Moreover, stating there are over 10 million Cricket subscribers since the 2014 acquisition, out of the over 17 million prepaid base gives context on Cricket’s explosive performance.

Growth and acquiring switchers is an expensive game. For 4Q18 earnings, AT&T cited a competitor’s loss-leading handset promotion which took a toll on its branded prepaid. With its debt paydown targets from the Time-Warner acquisition, the company is unlikely to respond to any loss-leading promotion. This has been articulated in both the prepaid and postpaid side. As a result, explosive growth may not be on the horizon in the near term, barring extreme competitive circumstances. 

Caveat: If postpaid distribution will expand under FirstNet, prepaid may ride its coat tails.

Monday, April 29, 2019

1Q19 Verizon Prepaid – Sustained Losses but It’s OK?

It’s almost like a broken record that the Verizon prepaid group continues to lose subscribers quarter after quarter. In fact,  the company has lost subscribers for the last six quarters. In tracking over 17 quarters, 14 have been losses.  

Here’s the breakdown for year ending:

2015 – 551,000
2016 – 133,000
2017 – 43,000
2018 – 757,000

These for years total over 1.48 million lost subscribers.  Add 1Q19’s 176,000 losses and the tally is over 1.6M. In late January, following the Verizon earnings call, I noted these continued losses and CFO Ellis then paid lip service to note that they’re going to evolve their offerings over time. For this quarter, CFO Ellis noted that the quarter’s losses were better than 1Q18’s -355,000, seemingly putting a "it's not that bad" spin on things.  The party line had always been allowing the shedding of low (profit) and price sensitive customers with the retention of high-value monthly plan subscribers who don’t mind paying premium for the Verizon brand/coverage.  That thought is also goes hand in hand with migrating the voice/text phone-only people off or help transition them to smartphone plans.

Why it still doesn’t matter: Verizon is first and foremost a postpaid company with marketing and retention dollars better served on the postpaid side. Prepaid is highly contested as two  players have dominated prepaid over last 3 years years, AT&T (Cricket) and T-Mobile (Metro by T-Mobile). The two have taken the lion’s share of the prepaid net additions and they will continue to do so as their distribution into non-urban areas expand.    At the end of 1Q19, Verizon’s retail base was close to crossing 118M.  The 4.48M prepaid count is just 3.8% overall. Then there’s the revenue.  If Verizon’s prepaid ARPU is in mid-high 30s and its postpaid ARPA in the $130s (no apples-to-apples, I know), one can see why prepaid just isn’t a huge priority.