It’s Hard Being Number 3

Cell-TowerSprint might be the most interesting carrier in the market today in either the mobile or landline industry. They have done one of the biggest turnarounds ever in the telecom world. In 2008 Sprint was by far the least popular wireless carrier. They got really low marks in customer satisfaction surveys, far below the other three carriers. This was partly due to poor customer service, but also do to their launch of WiMax in 2008 that never worked as well as the LTE being launched by the other carriers.

But Sprint has turned it around. They had hired Dan Hesse as CEO in 2007 and Sprint now ranks equal to AT&T and Verizon in terms of customer satisfaction. This goes to show you that a big company can change their customer experience if they decide that it is a priority. I just wrote last week how Comcast has been at the bottom of customer service rankings for years and how they don’t seem to be concerned about it. But Sprint decided that poor customer service was holding them back and they fixed their many problems.

Sprint has also undertaken steps to leapfrog the other carriers in terms of data performance. Sprint spent a lot of money to buy Clearwire, mostly to get their spectrum. They plan to combine the 2.5 GHz spectrum they got from Clearwire with the 1.9 GHz LTE spectrum they bought in auctions to create significant data pipes. This will give them two separate 60 MHz blocks of spectrum that will perform well both close to a cell site and some distance away. They are shooting to have this all deployed by the second quarter of 2015, which will give them the ability to offer LTE speeds up to 150 Mbps download

Sprint also has been doing other interesting things. For instance, they had a promotion for most of 2013 that would give free service to any student who brought their own handset. This free service came with unlimited voice and texting and 1 GB of data. For only $10 a month a student could get unlimited data. One looks at that sort of plan and wonders how it could possibly benefit them to have a lot of customers that are not paying for service. But I think it’s a brilliant long-term strategy, and we don’t see a whole lot of long-term thinking in the carrier world that is measured by the earnings in the latest quarter. But think back a few decades when Apple was putting free, or nearly free computers in schools across the country. In doing so they raised whole generations of kids to like the Apple brand and this is part of the reason why they have exploded in popularity in recent years. Sprint is building the same brand name identity and loyalty of a whole new generation of cellular customers.

Sprint has also seriously been aggressively pursuing a merger with T-Mobile. They were told late last year by the feds that such a merger was probably going to be opposed. However, the current thinking in the industry is that if the government let’s Comcast buy Time Warner that it’s then going to be very hard to say no to a Sprint – T-Mobile merger. I think such a merged company could be powerful. Sprint has a vision that cellular data needs to be unlimited, or with very high caps in order to be relevant a decade from now. When you look at combining the spectrum and customer bases of the two companies, along with Sprint’s new focus on customer service you could have a true third competitor to AT&T and Verizon. Today neither Sprint nor T-Mobile can be considered as real rivals. T-Mobile has been buying customers at the bottom of the market using low-cost specials, and as good as Sprint is, they are just not in the same stratosphere as the big two.

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