Wednesday, September 18, 2013

U.S. Mobile Market Disruption Will Not be Easy

Based on SoftBank's ability to shake up the Japanese mobile market, many observers expect a similar assault in the U.S. market, from a SoftBank-owned Sprint. SoftBank entered the market by buying Vodafone's Japan assets in 2006.

In just one year, Softbank managed to boost its subscriber base from 700,000 in fiscal 2006 to 2.7 million in fiscal 2007.

By the beginning of 2008, Softbank had grabbed 44 percent of Japan’s new mobile subscribers, well ahead of KDDI’s 35 percent and NTT-DoCoMo’s 11 percent.

Softbank’s “White Plan” was important, offering  offering free peak-time calls on SoftBank’s network.  

One key point was SoftBank’s willingness to sacrifice voice average revenue per user  to make market share gains. Back in 2006 to 2008, Softbank was willing to accept a stunning $13 overall ARPU decline.

SoftBank’s exclusive right to sell Apple’s iPhone, obtained in 2008, did not hurt, either.

It won't be as easy the second time, as voice prices are fairly reasonable in the U.S. market, on-network calling circles are common, and there will be no equivalent of the Apple iPhone exclusivity.

SoftBank strategists likely are hard at work trying to find some equivalent value, but the point is that it will not be easy to disrupt the U.S. market, especially when carriers are free to match key offers.

An example can be gleaned from the recent T-Mobile US effort to unbundle device purchases from recurring service charges. The “Jump” program--allowing faster device upgrades-- likewise was intended to differentiate T-Mobile US from its key competitors.

But the advantage is blunted when all the other carriers match the offer.  AT&T launched  its own program "Next," while Verizon launched  "Edge," substantially matching the T-Mobile US offer. Sprint now has followed with One Up, launching Sept. 20, 2013 and allowing Sprint customers to buy a new phone with no money down, paying for devices in installments over two years.

The move by Sprint means all four of the large national carriers offers such a program, and shows how hard it will be for T-Mobile US or  Sprint to truly disrupt the U.S. mobile market.

Some might argue the T-Mobile US campaign now will need to change yet again, allowing T-Mobile US to argue it is forcing the rest of the industry to change, and attempting further changes in retail packaging.

T-Mobile US might argue its competitors still have not truly matched its offers, given remaining price differences, especially between T-Mobile US and Sprint, on one hand, and AT&T and Verizon Wireless on the other hand, at least for single device accounts.

Just how much Sprint might be able to attack retail packaging or pricing levels, until the other carriers (or at least AT&T and Verizon Wireless) are unable to keep matching the offers, remains to be seen. But that is likely to be key to whether Sprint or T-Mobile US are able to significantly and permanently change market share in the U.S. mobile market.

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