The latest quarterly reports issued by Verizon Communications and AT&T illustrate new strategic issues in the U.S. mobile business. Fundamentally, the issue is that the U.S. mobile market--in financial and subscriber terms--is bifurcating.
Verizon is pulling away from its other top three competitors--AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile US--and especially putting distance between itself and AT&T, the other firm in a position to lead the market.
In part, that also explains the different strategic choices apparently being made by Verizon, which is focusing on the core U.S. market, and AT&T, which virtually has to look overseas for growth.
For the moment, the key market structure issue appears to be whether AT&T can reignite subscriber growth in the U.S. market.
Verizon Wireless added 1.7 million retail net connections in the fourth quarter, including 1.6 million retail postpaid net connections.
Some 87 percent of new accounts in the fourth quarter of 2013 were phones, the balance being tablet and personal hot spot devices, for example. Compare that to AT&T’s results.
In the fourth quarter of 2013, AT&T added 566,000 new postpaid wireless users, but 440,000 of them were only signing up tablets. In the previous quarter, the company actually lost phone subscribers. In part, that explains new pricing for AT&T Mobile Share plans.
So AT&T is exposed to danger from T-Mobile US and its attack on phone accounts.
In large part because of that threat, AT&T has introduced what it calls the “best-ever prices” for people on its Mobile Share plans, wanting a family-size bucket of data and unlimited talk and text.
Along with Sprint’s new “Framily” plans, which allow unrelated individuals to create shared plans, the latest AT&T move also illustrates the importance of group plans in the U.S. mobile market, where 68.5 percent of postpaid customers are on such family plans, according to an analysis by Cowen and Company.
AT&T says a family of four can now get unlimited talk and text, and 10GB of data for $160 a month. Though partly aimed at new potential customers, the deal also allows existing AT&T customers to save money as well.
Current AT&T customers with four smartphones could move to this new plan and save between $40 and $100 per month, depending on their current plan, AT&T says.
As you would expect, the plan also is designed to compare favorably with family plans offered by AT&T’s leading competitors.
Verizon charges $260 monthly for a plan costing $160 from AT&T. A family with four smartphones with unlimited talk and text, and a shared 10GB bucket of data, could switch to AT&T from Verizon and save $100 a month.
In addition to the savings on recurring costs, such an account would get a $400 bill credit for the four smartphone lines of service added, when switching from Verizon, as part of another marketing effort AT&T is making.
The plans take effect on Feb. 2, 2014 and are available to any AT&T customer, including small businesses with up to 10 lines, and customers of Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and other wireless carriers who switch to AT&T.
Such price reductions are going to be a key concern for equity analysts watching for signs of impact on U.S. mobile service provider average revenue per account and average revenue per user.
The general expectation is that ARPU is going to drop as carriers face potential threats to gross revenue. AT&T obviously calculates it will gain more than it loses, as some accounts will purchase larger data allowances than they had in the past, even if some accounts are able to pay less.