We’ve recently seen the cellular market demonstrate the turn toward becoming a commodity. In the first quarter of this year the cellular companies had their worse performance since back when they began. Both AT&T and Verizon posted losses for post-paid customers for the quarter. T-Mobile added fewer customers than expected and Sprint continued to lose money.
This is a huge turnaround for an industry where the big two cellular companies were each making over $1 billion per month in profits. The change in the industry comes from two things. First, people are now shopping for lower prices and are ready to change carriers to get lower monthly bills. The trend for lower prices was started by T-Mobile to gain market share, but low prices are also being pushed by cellular resellers – being fed by the big carriers. The cellular industry is only going to get more competitive when the cable companies soon enter the market. That will provide enough big players to make cellular minutes a true commodity. The cable companies have said they will be offering low prices as part of packages aimed at making customers stickier and will put real price pressure on the other cellular providers.
But the downturn in the first quarter was almost entirely due to the rush by all of the carriers to sell ‘unlimited’ data plans – which, as I’ve noted in some earlier blogs, are really not unlimited. But these plans offer lower prices for data and are freeing consumers to be able to use their smartphones without the fear of big overage fees. Again, this move was started by T-Mobile, but it was also driven heavily by public demand. AT&T and Verizon recognized that if they didn’t offer this product set that they were going to start bleeding customers to T-Mobile.
It will be really interesting to watch what happens to AT&T and Verizon, who are now predominantly cellular companies that also happen to own networks. The vast majority of revenues for these companies comes from the cellular parts of their companies. When I looked at both of their annual reports last year I had a hard time finding evidence that these companies were even in the landline network business. Discussions of those business lines are buried deeply within the annual reports.
These companies obviously need to find new forms of revenues to stay strong. AT&T is tackling this for now by going in a big way after the Mexican market. But one only has to look down the road a few years to see that Mexico and any other cellular market will also trend towards commoditization.
Both companies have their eyes on the same potential growth plays:
- Both are making the moves necessary to tackle the advertising business. They look at the huge revenues being made by Facebook and Google and realize that as ISPs they are sitting on customer data that could make them major players in the targeted marketing space. Ad revenues are the predominant revenue source at Google and if these companies can grab even a small slice of that business they will make a lot of money.
- Both are also chasing content. AT&T’s bid for the purchase of Time Warner is still waiting for government approval. Verizon has made big moves with the purchases of AOL and Yahoo and is rumored to be looking at other opportunities.
- Both companies have been telling stockholders that there are huge amounts of money to be made from the IoT. These companies want their cellular networks to be the default networks for collecting data from IoT devices. They certainly ought to win the business for things like smart cars, but there will be a real battle between cellular and WiFi/landline connections for most other IoT usage.
- Both companies are making a lot of noise about 5G. They are mostly concentrating on high-speed wireless connections using millimeter wave spectrum that they hope will make them competitive with the cable companies in urban areas. But even that runs a risk because if we see true competition in urban areas then prices for urban broadband might also tumble. And that might start the process of making broadband into a commodity. On the cellular side it’s hard to think that 5G cellular won’t quickly become a commodity as well. Whoever introduces faster cellphone data speeds might get a bump upward for a few years, but the rest of the industry will certainly catch up to any technological innovations.
It’s hard to foresee any business line where AT&T and Verizon are going to get the same monopoly power that they held in the cellular space for the past few decades. Everything they might undertake is also going to be available to competitors, meaning they are unlikely to make the same kind of huge margins they have historically made with cellular. No doubt they are both going to be huge companies for many decades to come since they own the cellular networks and spectrum. But I don’t think we can expect them to be the cash cows they have been in the past.