Wireless Operator Strategies

Wireless Operator Strategies provides both a deep and broad perspective of the operator market, combining granular operator-level and market-level data with ecosystem-wide understanding of wireless operator challenges and opportunities.

December 29, 2011 03:26 suerudd

On December19th. AT&T - discouraged by massive DoJ and FCC opposition - ended its bid to add capacity with the acquisition of T-Mobile USA. This leaves AT&T hunting for alternative ways to acquire sufficient spectrum, even though it was finally able to complete the purchase of Qualcomm’s 700MHz Spectrum on December 27th.

But where does this leave T-Mobile USA?

On December 20th. Deutsche Telekom (DT) CEO Rene Obermann speaking to his own corporate blogger suggested that T-Mobile USA would need to move to LTE technology eventually; and would also require additional spectrum. He made clear however, that the $3 Billion cash settlement from AT&T would be used initially to reduce DT corporate debt not to further enhance T-Mobile USA’s network that was just upgraded in 2011 to dual carrier HSPA+ and is currently providing sufficient capacity for current customers.

Rumors of T-Mobile USA’s difficulties are exaggerated…

As of end of third quarter of 2011 T-Mobile USA served 33.7 million customers only slightly down from 33.8 million at the end of third quarter 2010. 10.1 million of those customers are now using 3G/4G smartphones up 40% from a year earlier. OIBDA margin was 31% in the third quarter of 2011, up from 28% in the third quarter of 2010 due largely to lower losses from equipment subsidies that were reduced by the launch of T-Mobile’s unlimited Value plans. These Value plans allow customers to subscribe to new services without an upfront payment for a bundled handset. These plans have reduced ‘costs per gross add’ and lowered the cost of subscriber retention.

Overall, T-Mobile USA had a slim but maintainable third quarter net income of $332 million on service revenues of $4.67 billion.

This year therefore, T-Mobile survived disruptions to its retail channels including the discontinued retail partnership with Radio Shack; handled the uncertainty of the AT&T acquisition; and held Contract Customer churn down to 2.4%, although Prepaid churn jumped to 7.2% from 6.6% between the second and third quarters.

T-Mobile is maintaining its customer base and making money.

Challenge is Migration to LTE

The challenge for T-Mobile USA is to fund future growth to compete with the three other large players in the US market – AT&T, Verizon and Sprint - as well as ‘no contract’ low cost prepaid regional operators - Leap Wireless, MetroPCS and US Cellular - all of whom are migrating to LTE.

In November T-Mobile announced that its nationwide ‘4G’ (HSPA+ at 21Mbps) network now covered 208 markets across the US reaching more than 200 million POPs.

But how will T-Mobile migrate this network and its GSM PCS customers to LTE without AT&T?

Possible Migration Path to LTE

We have reported that migration to at least a Hybrid HSPA+/LTE network is key to long term profitability. TMoNews the unofficial blog of T-Mobile USA recently described a possible low cost path for T-Mobile’s LTE migration. See: ‘Editorial: Why T-Mobile Should And Will Deploy LTE (The Technical Edition)

At this point in time, T-Mobile is just now refarming PCS spectrum. In a majority of the markets where T-Mobile has both PCS and AWS spectrum with no AWS used, it is quite likely that they will deploy HSPA+ only on PCS because most of the remaining markets only have 10MHz of AWS and 30MHz or more of PCS. AWS will likely be reserved for LTE in these areas.”

“In areas where they’ve got plenty of AWS spectrum and they’re using it for HSPA+, they’ll dedicate about 10MHz of PCS to GSM and 10MHz to HSPA+. If they have 20MHz of PCS or less in a market with lots of AWS, there will be no deployment of HSPA+ on the band, but there will be scaling back of GSM to 10MHz to prepare for LTE. T-Mobile will deploy LTE.”

 “T-Mobile USA has been preparing for LTE on their core network and backend infrastructure for over two years now. … T-Mobile USA has deployed all the necessary components to run IMS on their core network and (has) made a new Wi-Fi Calling solution that uses it. As far as we know, they are the first in the world to commercially deploy IMS for voice, SMS, MMS, and other circuit-switched services. It would be trivial for T-Mobile to change the client software to make it run over LTE or HSPA+. By preparing all the core network and backend infrastructure for LTE this far ahead, their nationwide LTE deployment costs will much lower.” 

Financing the Path to LTE

The key question is whether T-Mobile USA can finance this migration without bringing in new investors. Even if the migration could be done for as little as $6 Billion, additional spectrum will eventually be needed. DT is unlikely to provide that and is being very cautious because of concerns about European market growth and the financial risk of its 40% share of Greek telecom group OTE. DT is also planning to expand in several areas of its European business rather than in the US. 

Nor is DISH Network, who has offered to Partner With T-Mobile likely to be able to finance a T-Mobile upgrade as it focuses on its own rollout.

Meanwhile T-Mobile USA is pursuing business as usual adding ‘no contract’ plans to keep prepaid customers; and offering aggressively priced deals for the Holidays.

And Oh Yes - directly targeting AT&T and iphone4 in its Ads with its attractive T-Mobile girl – Carly Foulkes


December 14, 2011 06:06 suerudd

It has been a busy few weeks for AT&T.

Date

Event

Nov 25th/28th

  • AT&T-deep in talks with Leap Wireless, a second-tier but growing wireless player, to sell it a big piece of T-Mobile’s customer accounts and some of its wireless spectrum…..  AT&T hopes such a deal would placate the Justice Department …… or at least to strengthen AT&T’s hand if it goes to trial.

Nov.29th

Dec. 9th

  • US Department of Justice (DoJ) argued before U.S. District Judge Huvelle that since AT&T has pulled its merger application from the FCC, the issue is no longer pressing and there is no need to rush to trial. DoJ asked the judge to delay the trial to an unspecified date in the future.

Dec 12th

  • AT&T has until Jan 12th. to file a report with the court explaining whether it still plans to try to buy T-Mobile.
  • AT&T said that it is considering "whether and how" to proceed with the proposed merger, which needs both FCC and DoJ approval to move forward. If it presents a plan to proceed on Jan. 12th. the pre-trial process will restart on January 18th.

Dec.13th

  • U.S. District Court Judge Huvelle puts hold on Sprint, C Spire Suits and any court proceedings until Jan. 18, while AT&T weighs the future of the deal.

While many are saying the AT&T T-Mobile “deal is dead”, and AT&T has clearly irritated the FCC staff, AT&T is now finally taking a much more conciliatory attitude.

Our recent report ‘It's all about Spectrum - AT&T T-Mobile Bandwidth matched by Verizon and Sprint’ describes how Verizon and Sprint are both buying control of significant extra spectrum. However, the Verizon AWS spectrum purchase from SpectrumCo. requires FCC approval; and once it approves that deal the FCC will find it difficult to argue that a merged AT&T T-Mobile would have an excessively ‘dominant spectrum position’.

Once the FCC allows Verizon’s spectrum acquisition - and after Sprint’s takes ‘virtual control’ of Clearwire’s spectrum - AT&T will have a very strong case that its ability to compete will be diminished if it is not allowed to acquire T-Mobile.

A complete reversal of the original case.

AT&T is working hard to complete the deal and is thought to have two teams pursuing two parallel options.

Option 1. AT&T is negotiating to divest sufficient spectrum and assets to satisfy the regulators. See:

AT&T and T-Mobile: Will there be a Spectrum Fire Sale to Escape Department of Justice and Close the Deal?

See Blog: Could AT&T Settlement Catapult Leap and MetroPCS to Top National Status?

Option 2. AT&T is still preparing to fight in court.

  • Verizon’s recent actions may have significantly helped AT&T’s case.
  • If AT&T makes a new proposal on January 12th DoJ may demand that AT&T refile that proposal with FCC before it goes to trial. [Note: AT&T correctly noted that it is normal to resolve DoJ issues before getting FCC approval. We also noted that in April in: ‘AT&T T-Mobile Acquisition: How long will it take to close?’]

AT&T really…really….really… wants the T-Mobile spectrum for capacity growth and is not likely to give up easily.

But, if AT&T loses at trial there are two other likely options:

Option A. “A network-sharing deal between AT&T and T-Mobile could be established, but this would probably not allow AT&T to reuse T-Mobile's AWS spectrum for LTE. A major blow for AT&T.

Option B. Deutsche Telekom is still anxious to complete the sale as it has major European investment plans for the $39 Billion. It might decide to spin out T-Mobile to a Private Equity partnership pending a later sale to a new player like. Google. [Several options for T-Mobile’s future are summarized in AT&T and T-Mobile: Will there be a Spectrum Fire Sale to Escape Department of Justice and Close the Deal?

We should know by January 12th. 2012, if AT&T can come back with a modified proposal that may be acceptable to DoJ, and then the FCC.

Rethinking US Market Structure and Competition in an IP world.

In a recent policy paper Strategy Analytics suggested that the nature of US Mobile Broadband competition has changed and that ‘All-IP’ networks dramatically change both ‘economies of scope and scale’ and the ‘Relevant Geographic Areas’ that determine Competitive Concentration for Anti-Trust purposes.

See: Policy Insight: New Mobile Industry Structure and 'All-IP' Services change AT&T T-Mobile's 'Spectrum Dominance' and Create new 'Challengers'

There may not however, be sufficient time in the current AT&T case to make such a profound change to the traditional 1980s/90s market analysis. Nor to establish rules for the new digital ‘All-IP’ Mobile Broadband Industry.