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2Q20 store closures curbed postpaid subscriber growth, but higher uptake of prepaid plans partially offset the impact

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became more significant for U.S. operators in 2Q20 as temporary store closures caused consumer activity, including gross subscriber additions and churn rates, to dampen in the quarter. Though operators will not experience significant subscriber losses amid the pandemic as cellular connectivity is essential for most consumers, economic challenges are causing some customers to seek less expensive service options. For instance, the prepaid market is undergoing a resurgence as the segment is spurring subscriber growth from price-sensitive customers. The low price points of cable wireless offerings are also helping to attract economically challenged consumers.

The U.S. & Canada Mobile Operator Benchmark details and compares the initiatives of the largest U.S.- and Canada-based operators, including financial performance, go-to-market initiatives and resource management strategies.

Why the Sprint/T-Mobile merger could actually help the spread of 5G

“‘This merger is very beneficial for T-Mobile, but it’s also beneficial for the U.S., and where we currently are in the global race to 5G,’ said Steve Vachon, an analyst at Technology Business Research. ‘Now, the 5G plan is much more likely to go forward.'” — Digital Trends

5G Strategies of T-Mobile US, Sprint Hinge on Merger

“‘I’m leaning more toward yes than no. I think the federal backing is going to help with this decision,’ Vachon said, noting that the DoJ and Federal Communications Commission already reached agreements with the companies and signed off on the transaction. Vachon is convinced that the merger is beneficial for competition. T-Mobile US will remain a disruptive player in the market, regardless of the outcome, and Sprint ‘hasn’t been very much of a threat’ and if it were to leave the market it wouldn’t have much of an impact on T-Mobile’s strategy, he said.” — SDxCentral

Timely clearance of mid-band spectrum is essential for U.S. to remain at forefront of global 5G race

TBR perspective

Significant progress has been made on 5G ecosystem development since the 2018 5G Americas Analyst Forum held last October, as commercial mobile 5G services have been launched by the four U.S. Tier 1 operators, as well as in Uruguay by state-run operator ANTEL, over the past year. However, the infancy of the 5G era in the Americas has been somewhat underwhelming due to tepid smartphone adoption, the limited range of service on millimeter wave spectrum, and lack of coverage outside major metro areas.

The U.S. is at risk of falling behind other countries, especially South Korea and China, in the global 5G race. 5G adoption is growing at a more accelerated rate in South Korea, as the country gained 2 million 5G subscribers within the first four months of commercial services being offered and reached 3 million 5G subscribers as of September. South Korea’s rapid growth is being driven by its widespread 5G coverage, which is expected to reach 80% of the population by the end of 2019, as well as operators heavily subsidizing 5G devices to offset high smartphone prices. Conversely, China will make a strong entrance into the 5G market by launching commercial services in 50 major cities in the beginning of October, with plans to deploy 100,000 5G sites by the end of 2019.

The greatest barrier to the U.S. competing at the forefront of the global 5G race is its current lack of mid-band spectrum as global operators across all major regions have already been allocated a significant amount of mid-band licenses to support initial deployments. Offering 5G services across a mix of low-band, mid-band and high-band spectrum is critical to provide optimal coverage. Though deploying services on millimeter wave spectrum is necessary for U.S. operators to realize the fastest 5G speeds, the licenses are limited by the short range of coverage they provide.

Conversely, low-band spectrum will provide the coverage range necessary for operators including AT&T (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile (Nasdaq: TMUS) to deploy nationwide 5G services in 2020, but the spectrum will not yield significantly faster speeds compared to LTE. Mid-band spectrum provides the best of both worlds, speed and range of coverage, and the acquisition of mid-band licenses will play a pivotal role in the Americas’ position in the global 5G market as well as how individual operators compete for 5G market share in their respective countries.

Nearly 200 industry analysts and representatives from well-known telecom operators and vendors convened at the 2019 5G Americas Analyst Forum to discuss the state of the developing 5G market in North America and Latin America. The event featured an opening presentation from T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray regarding 5G leadership in the Americas, a fireside chat with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, and a choice of 26 roundtable discussions focused on key 5G topics including IoT, edge computing, 5G network infrastructure and technologies, regulatory considerations, and private cellular networks. 

T-Mobile’s 5G Plans Remain on Track

“Steve Vachon, telecom analyst at Technology Business Research, also considers 600 MHz spectrum to be at the ‘foundation’ of T-Mobile’s 5G strategy. ‘The coverage range provided by the licenses will enable the operator to provide nationwide 5G coverage in 2020,’ he wrote in a research note.”

Full article

Competition from MVNOs and smaller rivals limits subscriber growth for Tier 1 U.S. and Canadian operators

Wireless revenue rose 2.2% year-to-year to $64 billion among U.S. operators covered in Technology Business Research Inc.’s (TBR) 4Q18 U.S. & Canada Mobile Operator Benchmark, driven by continued subscriber growth and adoption of premium smartphones. All benchmarked U.S. operators except Sprint were able to gain postpaid phone net additions in 4Q18 as opportunity remains to target first-time wireless customers in the country. Postpaid subscriber growth is also fueled by prepaid migrations as many subscribers are moving to postpaid plans for benefits such as bundled streaming services and increased LTE data limits for mobile hot spots.

4Q18 Wireless Revenue, OIBDA Margin & Year-to-year Revenue Growth

Subscriber growth for U.S. Tier 1 operators is, however, threatened by the growing momentum of new mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) entering the market. Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile and Charter’s Spectrum Mobile are attracting wireless customers via low price points and the convenience of being able to enroll in multiple services through a single provider. Altice also plans on providing wireless services in 1H19, giving the company the opportunity to cross-sell mobility services to its current residential base of over 4.5 million customers. TBR also anticipates Google Fi, which was rebranded from Project Fi in November, will gain further traction in 2019 as the brand is launching new incentives to attract customers including bring-your-own-device options for most Android and iPhone smartphone models.

Combined wireless revenue among Tier 1 Canadian operators rose 6% year-to-year to $6.9 billion due to continued subscriber growth spurred by shared data programs and expanding LTE-Advanced coverage. However, subscriber growth for Tier 1 Canadian operators is limited by mounting competition from smaller competitors. Tier 2 Canadian operators, most notably Shaw Communications’ Freedom Mobile and Quebecor’s Videotron, which now have a total of about 1.5 million and 1.1 million customers, respectively, are accelerating subscriber growth via their pricing promotions and network investments. TBR anticipates Freedom Mobile will further disrupt the Canadian wireless market in 2019 as the company will expand LTE coverage to an additional 1.3 million Canadians throughout the year in markets in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

For additional information about this research or to arrange a one-on-one analyst briefing, please contact Dan Demers at +1 603.929.1166 or [email protected].

Deeper convergence of mobility, broadband and video services creates revenue opportunities and disruption for CSPs

The digital era is bringing fundamental, disruptive changes to traditional business models for communication service providers (CSPs), including telecom operators and cable providers, as the mobility, broadband and video industries converge more deeply. These shifts are driven by the following trends, which will gain further traction over the next several years:

  • The rise of cable mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) — New entrants including Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile are attracting wireless customers via low price points and the convenience of being able to enroll in multiple services through a single provider.
  • Preference for over-the-top (OTT) video — The popularity of OTT services including Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now are contributing to video subscriber losses for cable providers and bundling opportunities for wireless operators.    
  • Wireless as a broadband replacement — Over the next several years, customers will gradually substitute traditional fixed broadband connectivity with wireless-based services due to enhanced 5G and LTE-Advanced coverage, fixed-wireless services, and increased data allotments for mobile hot spots.

These trends create both revenue opportunities and disruption for CSPs as cable providers have opportunity to take market share from telecom operators and vice-versa. Cross-selling multiple services enables CSPs to maximize revenue opportunities per customer while also helping to reduce churn. Conversely, the deeper convergence within the telecom and cable industries will create greater challenges for CSPs as broadband and video access will become more commoditized, which will make competitive pricing more crucial to attracting and retaining customers.

Graph showing 3Q18 postpaid phone net additions

Cable MVNOs are disrupting the mobility industry

Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile has emerged as a stronger player within the U.S. wireless market as the brand has garnered over 1 million customers since launching in mid-2017 and has been able to consistently outperform AT&T and Sprint in postpaid phone net additions the past several quarters. Contributing to Xfinity Mobile’s success is the low price of its unlimited data plans, which are currently undercutting prices from all Tier 1 U.S. operators, for the underserved market of single-line customers. Xfinity Mobile is also attracting customers by offering pay-as-you-go pricing for $12 per GB, which provides price-sensitive customers who consume minimal data an alternative amid the market’s emphasis on unlimited data plans.

Xfinity Mobile will become a stronger competitor in the U.S. market over the next several years as it expands its retail footprint and Comcast gains additional broadband customers to which it can cross-sell wireless services. Spectrum Mobile, which became available across Charter’s footprint in September, will also disrupt the U.S. wireless market by offering similar pricing incentives as Xfinity Mobile. Additionally, Altice USA plans to launch an MVNO offering in 1H19 that will focus on serving bring-your-own-device customers, giving the company the opportunity to cross-sell mobility services to its current residential base of over 4.5 million customers.

Chart showing single-line postpaid unlimited data plans

To counter disruption from cable MVNOs, operators can capitalize on the value proposition offered by their unlimited data plans, which bundle in popular OTT streaming services as well as other incentives including high-speed data tiers for mobile hot spots. Telecom operators are also relying on the discounts provided to multiline unlimited data accounts, which are not currently offered to Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile customers, to undercut cable MVNOs.

Chart showing video services bundled with unlimited data plans

Wireless begins to disrupt the traditional fixed broadband market

Significant enhancements in wireless technology over the past few years, such as the inception of 5G, which makes millimeter-wave spectrum viable for commercial use, as well as the inventions of carrier aggregation, 256 QAM and massive MIMO, have made it economically feasible for CSPs to offer mobile broadband as an alternative to traditional fixed broadband services.

Though Verizon was a major driver of this trend with its early use of 5G fixed wireless, TBR expects more CSPs will begin to leverage their wireless assets to provide similar services in 2019 and beyond. AT&T, with its Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot, essentially provides a nomadic ultra-high-speed broadband connection leveraging 5G. T-Mobile is also looking to jump on the bandwagon, arguably in a much bigger and more market-impactful way, especially if its proposed merger with Sprint is approved. Regardless of whether the deal goes through, T-Mobile intends to leverage its mix of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum assets with the aforementioned wireless technologies to provide its own mobile broadband as an alternative to fixed broadband services.

A new phase of price competition for internet service could come to North America due to wireless. TBR also expects this trend to unfold in other developed and developing markets, especially where fixed access is not widely deployed. Offering wirelessly delivered, high-speed internet services could become a major new business for telecom operators that are in countries where internet penetration is relatively low.

Consumers will reap the greatest benefits from cable and telecom industry convergence

Though CSPs have the opportunity to create new revenue streams from the deeper convergence of mobility, broadband and video services within the cable and telecom industries, these benefits are largely outweighed by the competitive challenges spawned by industry convergence. Consumers will reap the greatest benefits from cable and telecom industry convergence as they gain more flexible service options as well as the ability to enroll in additional services from a single provider. The competition created from cable and telecom industry convergence will also spur CSPs to become more competitive in their wireless, broadband and video pricing to maintain market share.

Opportunities for wireless subscriber growth remain plentiful for U.S. operators

Cable providers are disrupting the U.S. wireless market

Subscriber growth for U.S. Tier 1 operators is being limited by the growing momentum of Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile brand, which outperformed AT&T and Sprint in postpaid phone net additions in 3Q18 and now has a base of over 1 million subscribers. Xfinity Mobile will become a stronger competitor in the U.S. market over the next several years as it expands its retail footprint and Comcast gains additional broadband customers to which it can cross-sell wireless service. Spectrum Mobile, which became available across Charter’s footprint in September, will also disrupt the U.S. wireless market by offering similar pricing incentives as Xfinity Mobile.

 

TBR’s U.S. & Canada Mobile Operator Benchmark details and compares the activities of the largest U.S. and Canadian operators, including financial performance, go-to-market initiatives and resource management strategies. Covered companies include AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon (NYSE: VZ), Sprint (NYSE: S), T-Mobile (Nasdaq: TMUS), U.S. Cellular (NYSE: USM), Rogers, Telus and Bell Mobility.

Limited availability and adoption of compatible smartphones will stall 5G’s early momentum

Anticipation is building as mobile 5G networks will be widely deployed in the United States over the next couple of years. As the wireless market continues to shift to unlimited data plans, the capacity provided by 5G will enable operators to more cost-effectively offer these programs over the long term while better handling network congestion. Operators will also be able to capitalize on the cost efficiencies of mobile 5G by introducing new premium unlimited tiers, with incentives including higher data limits before speeds are throttled as well as increased data tiers for mobile hotspot coverage, both of which enhance plan value.

Chart showing initial mobile 5G timeline in the U.S. for AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint

Though operators are eager to realize the network efficiencies 5G will provide, they will not be able to reap these benefits until consumers migrate to 5G-compatible devices. Adoption of 5G smartphones will be hampered by lengthening device upgrade cycles in the U.S. as consumers are holding on to their devices for longer periods as features offered on new handsets are not deemed compelling enough to justify their rising price tags. Migration to 5G smartphones will also be slowed as certain flagship handsets, particularly the iPhone, will likely not offer 5G-capable models until 2020.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle to 5G smartphone adoption will be 5G itself, as the initial capabilities offered by the technology will not be a strong enough incentive for many customers to upgrade their devices. Although offering mobile 5G services will help to attract some subscribers craving faster speeds, the difference in user experience compared to LTE-Advanced will be minimal, at least initially. Early 5G smartphone customers will mostly benefit from reduced download times for large files such as high-definition video and advanced gaming applications, which will not be a significant enough incentive to encourage wide-scale purchases of 5G smartphones. Advanced consumer smartphone use cases requiring accelerated data speeds and ultra-low latency offered by 5G, such as augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR), are still being developed and will not become commercially available until the early 2020s.

Graph showing postpaid upgrade rates for Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T for 2016, 2017 and estimated 2018

To foster 5G smartphone adoption, TBR expects U.S. operators will prolong the financing terms of their equipment installment plans — from two years to three years — to ease the cost of purchasing 5G smartphones as many devices will likely exceed a $1,000 price point. TBR also anticipates operators will become more reliant on device promotions, such as BOGO (buy one, get one) offers and significantly discounted handsets, to accelerate upgrade rates during the infancy of the 5G era. Though these promotions will pressure wireless margins in the short term, operators will justify these initiatives by the long-term network efficiencies they will ultimately realize from 5G smartphone adoption.

Chart showing announced 5G devices in the U.S. as of Dec. 5, 2018, for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile

2018 5G Americas Analyst Forum

5G will provide network efficiencies for telcos as they anticipate next-generation use cases

Given the introduction of Verizon’s (NYSE: VZ) 5G Home fixed wireless service in October, as well as the upcoming launch of AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s mobile 5G networks by the end of 2018, the 5G era is edging closer to reality after years of industry speculation regarding the technology’s capabilities. Similar to prior network eras, such as the transition from 3G to LTE, the 5G era will be a gradual evolution of existing network capabilities and will not immediately yield its full benefits or dramatically alter the global wireless market during its inception.

A resounding theme at the 2018 5G Americas Analyst Forum was that the 5G era will essentially be “more of the same” initially. LTE will remain the predominant source of connectivity for most wireless subscribers in the Americas over the next several years until 5G coverage becomes nationwide and customers transition to 5G-capable devices. The accelerated speeds offered by LTE-Advanced services, as well as the cost savings offered by IoT network technologies such as Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE-M, are currently more than sufficient to support the demands of most consumers and enterprises.

The wireless industry is anticipating 5G will foster IoT innovations in areas including connected car, healthcare, smart cities and augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR). Though advanced IoT use cases that require the precision promised by 5G, such as remote surgery, are being explored, many of these services will not become commercially available until the mid-2020s at the earliest. Additionally, solutions like remote surgery and V2X automotive services will be burdened by significant regulatory challenges as ensuring 100% network reliability and ultra-low latency will be essential to prevent hazardous outcomes.

Although the end-user benefits of 5G will initially be limited, investments in 5G will ultimately be viable due to the network efficiencies operators will gain from the technology. 5G, which is expected to provide between four- and 10-times greater efficiency on a cost-per-gigabyte basis compared to LTE, will enable operators to more cost-effectively add network capacity to support the prevalence of unlimited data plans as well as continued connected device additions. Offering 5G services will also be essential for operators to remain competitive against their rivals as the marketing of accelerated 5G speeds will help to attract subscribers. Lastly, the deployment of 5G networks will prepare operators to support 5G-dependent use cases when they do come to fruition and spur customer demand.

 

 

Around 70 representatives from well-known operators and vendors attended the annual 5G Americas event to talk with more than 70 industry analysts about the state of wireless communications in North America and Latin America as well as discuss challenges and opportunities presented by the rapid development of the mobile ecosystem.

The event kicked off with a presentation from T-Mobile (Nasdaq: TMUS) CTO Neville Ray regarding 5G leadership in the Americas. He discussed topics including projected use cases, the importance of 5G to the U.S. economy, the Americas’ position in the global 5G market, and the different initial approaches U.S. operators are taking to 5G. A panel of network and technology executives from operators including AT&T (NYSE: T), Sprint (NYSE: S), T-Mobile, Telefonica (NYSE: TEF), Cable & Wireless and Shaw (NYSE: SJR) provided additional insights into 5G evolution and activity around 5G by each respective operator.

Day 2 began with panel sessions featuring leaders from top telecom vendors, including Ericsson (Nasdaq: ERIC), Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO), Nokia (NYSE: NOK), Samsung, Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) and Commscope (Nasdaq: COMM), to discuss areas such as 5G regulatory challenges, 5G network and technology deployments, and potential 5G go-to-market strategies and use cases. Following these panel sessions, the reminder of the event offered analysts the opportunity to participate in a choice of 34 roundtable discussions focused on key 5G topics, including Internet of Things (IoT), edge computing, artificial intelligence (AI), 5G network infrastructure and technologies, regulatory considerations, and 5G in the automotive industry.