Uncovering the Reasons for T-Mobile’s One Launch

T-Mobile today announced its latest Un-Carrier move, Un-Carrier 12. The crux of the plan is new unlimited plans under the T-Mobile One brand. The headline from T-Mobile is about simplicity and unlimited for everyone, but the upshot of this new pricing is that the base price for postpaid at T-Mobile just went up quite significantly. And the reason for the move is that Un-Carrier is losing momentum and T-Mobile needs to boost growth again.

The context — slowing growth

I’ve written about this a little bit in the past, but here is the context: T-Mobile is losing momentum with its Un-Carrier moves. Two key metrics — postpaid phone net adds and porting ratios from other carriers — have both been falling.

The chart below shows postpaid phone net adds on a quarterly basis, with one line for each year, so you can see how each quarter compares to the year-ago quarter:

As you can see, the 2016 quarters so far are below Q1 and Q2 in 2015, while Q2 was also below 2013, and Q1 was below 2014. In 2015, every quarter but Q2 was below 2014 net adds. So there’s a very clear trend now that T-Mobile is adding fewer phones each quarter than a year earlier. If you strip out the exceptional Q2 2014, when phone net adds dipped, the trend is now clear for a year and a half.

Moving to porting ratios, which T-Mobile reports on its earnings calls, the trend there is fairly clear too. It reports porting ratios against each of the other three major carriers, as well as an overall porting ratio most quarters. An average of the three individual carriers’ porting ratios tends to track fairly closely against the overall porting ratio, so I’ve included that in the second chart below to fill in some gaps:

That second chart is probably the easiest one to read, because the trend is so clear. The overall rate peaked in Q3 2014 at just under 2.5, and has fallen since to under 1.5. Against individual carriers, the biggest change in the last two years has been Sprint, whose troubles two and three years ago allowed T-Mobile to capture massive numbers of subscribers, but whose recent improvements have made that cherrypicking much harder. I’ll stop here with the context, but it should be clear by now that T-Mobile is having less and less success with adding new customers and winning subscribers from competitors as time goes on, as its various Un-Carrier moves offer diminishing returns.

T-Mobile One — simplicity at a cost

T-Mobile is selling simplicity here — that’s the headline. It will have one plan going forward, and that plan will be unlimited, with a pricing structure that’s extremely easy to understand. In the context of recent pricing moves from competitors, that’s admirable, and attractive to customers. Unlimited is the simplest message of all, and has huge appeal in the peace of mind it provides.

However, this change is coming at a significant price premium. T-Mobile’s current plans start at $50 for a single line, with 2GB of data. A second line at that price costs $30 additionally, for $80 total. A third line is only $10, so $90 in total, and the same pricing continues for additional lines. Let’s compare this to the new pricing which will be offered from September 6, which will be the only pricing available for new customers:

The headline here is that, for the plans at 2GB and 6GB per line, the new pricing is more expensive, while for the plans at 10GB and the Unlimited plans, the new pricing is the same or cheaper. That’s significant, because T-Mobile says their most popular plans are the 6GB and 10GB plans, so a good chunk of their customers would be paying more on this plan, while many others would be paying roughly the same or slightly less. This helps to explain why T-Mobile says it doesn’t expect a meaningful change to its ARPU.

But of course for new customers, the starting point is now $70 rather than $50, meaning that the entry point for new customers has gone up by $20 for a single line. Put another way, competitors who previously matched T-Mobile’s entry pricing now undercut it by $20 (and Sprint has just launched new pricing today). So, even though the headline is all about simplicity and the gift of unlimited, the reality is that customers coming in at the low end will end up paying more than they would have before, and potentially more than they would at competitors.

The reason for the shift to unlimited

Here’s the rub, though, with this whole thing: T-Mobile introduced BingeOn, its video throttling strategy, a year ago. That did two things: it made it much more economical for T-Mobile to offer bigger and unlimited data plans, because it cut bandwidth usage dramatically; but it also meant that many customers who would otherwise have been on the standard trajectory of ever increasing usage pushing them into ever bigger data buckets instead went backwards. The same consumption of video suddenly drove far lower usage. The result is that T-Mobile doesn’t have the same driver of ARPU that almost every other carrier does, because it kneecapped data growth.

There’s an analog here with what happened with all the carriers a few years back when it became clear that voice and text usage were no longer going to grow as they had in the past, while data was going to continue to grow rapidly. At that point, the best move from a financial perspective was to move away from metered voice and text, because there was no longer upside for charging for every bit of usage, and instead only downside as usage dropped. On the other hand, it made sense to begin metering data and move away from unlimited plans, because that’s where the usage growth was, and where the future revenue opportunity would be too.

What T-Mobile is doing here is finding an alternative way to move people to higher tiered data plans even though they no longer need to. The appeal of unlimited is such that people will move to it even if they’re not close to hitting their current data cap, just for peace of mind. It’s even more likely that a T-Mobile customer would actually need to move to a higher plan when you consider that T-Mobile has offered Data Stash, which allows customers to roll over a data allowance over many months.

The cost of unlimited

T-Mobile made much today of the fact that its network was designed for unlimited, and that competitors’ networks were not. But that’s really another way of saying two things: T-Mobile is far smaller than its two major competitors, and so has far fewer customers on an national network, using far less data in aggregate; and with BingeOn, it’s reduced the data usage associated with video consumption by about two thirds.

But it’s not really about the network per se — it’s about the cost. Unlimited customers (for the most part) don’t actually use dramatic amounts of bandwidth in the average month. It’s likely that many of them would fit fine in the 5–20GB buckets offered by the carriers. But suddenly taking the limits off all customers risks significant increases in usage because it changes behavior dramatically, and that could incur significant costs in increased data capacity. So that’s a high-risk move, and it’s why most carriers don’t do this.

But anyone can offer unlimited if they price it right, which is why you see T-Mobile pricing it at roughly the same price as 10GB plans under its previous options. It’s also why streaming video up to 4K costs an additional $25 per line per month. There’s a cost to unlimited, and if it’s truly unlimited rather than being throttled to 480p, it costs more. This is really just a question of pricing, but that’s why T-Mobile’s pricing is going up here — it’s not magic, just economics.

A sign of confidence

The other thing that’s going on here is that T-Mobile is getting more confident in the performance of its network. One of the interesting facets of pricing in the US mobile market is that pricing power largely depends on perceptions of network performance. This is why Sprint can run campaigns offering 1% worse performance than Verizon at half the price and yet doesn’t see a massive influx of customers from its competitor. Network quality, but more importantly perception of network quality, requires certain carriers to charge less for the same services in order to win customers, while other carriers can charge more on the basis of their perceived better network quality.

Both Sprint and T-Mobile (and especially T-Mobile) have been increasing the quality of their networks in recent years, and perception on the T-Mobile side is finally starting to catch up with reality. It’s absolutely a sign of the company’s increased confidence in both its actual network and perceptions of its network that it’s willing to raise prices at this point. It clearly feels like it’s more able to compete with the big guys on network, and so can move its pricing more in line with theirs. That Sprint instead focuses on that 1% difference and 50% lower pricing is a sign that it’s not there yet, by a long stretch (leaving aside the wisdom of highlighting the worse performance of your network in national advertising).

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