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iPhone Availability Update (Nov 3)

We continue to monitor iPhone availability (backorder by model, memory size, and color) in conjunction with our partnership with Wave7 Research.   A link to the PDF can be found at the end of the document

As most of you will recall, we had significant shortages of most models in the first weeks of sales (late Sept/ early October).  These shortages have continued with T-Mobile for the iPhone 11 and some of the larger memory sizes of the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max.  Given T-Mobile’s marketplace attraction, this is not too surprising, although continued shortages of the higher-end models (T-Mobile requires an up front payment on all sizes of the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max) are a bit surprising.  We would attribute some of this to supply chain conservativeness, although that should have been alleviated by now.  In reality, it’s probably a combination of great sales, a robust economy, and supply chain conservatism.

What is very interesting is the higher likelihood of backorders at AT&T versus Verizon.  Both have long histories with Apple (especially AT&T) and neither tends to run a backorder deficit after 6+ weeks of sales (due to sheer size).  AT&T seems to be experiencing a larger number of upgrades (and, due to a higher mix of Apple devices vs Verizon, a small change in upgrade rate can impact total device volumes).

Bottom line:  T-Mobile’s backlog is primarily iPhone 11 and should be corrected by Thanksgiving.  No backlog at Verizon (no surprise given no 5G).  AT&T should continue to be watched very closely.

Apple iPhone 11 availability nov 3

Apple iPhone 11 Pro availability as of Nov 3

Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max availability as of Nov 3

iPhone availability as of Nov 3

Link to PDF listing all three models is above.

 

Verizon, Comcast and Charter 3Q Earnings Review

opening pic 2Greetings from the Mile High City, the Queen City, and the City of Angels.  Attendees of the Mobile World Congress – Americas were greeted with multi-story advertisements on buildings touting original content, a reminder that investment in the TMT (telecom/ media/ technology) industry can take many forms (more on this thought when we discuss Verizon’s earnings below).

I had the chance to visit with many of you during the show, and, to a tee, no one was excited to be there.  “Where’s T-Mobile?” was a frequent question, usually accompanied by comments about slow vendor payments or delayed decisions.  Several had “I told you so” comments about Nokia (a summary of their bad week is best captured here).  And the fact that Sprint had the main entrance exhibit led some to theories that should be reserved for late night cable news.

Here’s the bottom line from the show:  Our industry is changing – a lot.  The mobile handset, and the licensed and unlicensed spectrum that it connects to, will be life-changing for nearly all who use it.  And software (largely not present at the show), not hardware, will define value.  More on this can be found from our earlier column “About This Thing Called 5G” in which we define the 5G value statement as “More software… doing more things… faster and better.”  Networks matter (we will see their importance below), but software fuels their engine.

This week, we will look at three companies who announced earnings (Verizon, Comcast, and Charter) and examine the differences in growth strategies versus their industry peers.  As a reminder, T-Mobile and AT&T announce earnings next week, with CenturyLink, Sprint and others following later in November.

 

Verizon:  Consumer Wholesale and Fiber Save the Day and Seed Long-Term Options

Verizon reported strong earnings on Friday, led by wireless service revenue growth and expense reductions (nearly 14,000 fewer employees in the last 12 months alone).  They had balanced growth in wireless net additions between consumer and business (and phone net adds in both, including public sector, which was a shot across the bow to AT&T’s FirstNet initiative).  And, while they paid down debt, they continued their significant capital spending ($12 billion year-to-date at the consolidated level, up slightly from 2018).

Rather than go deep on each statistic, let’s summarize three areas where Verizon and AT&T are pursuing markedly different strategies:

  1. Wireless wholesale revenues (found in the Wireless Historical Financial Results) are a key source of Verizon’s revenue growth. Verizon’s consumer income statement shows growth from multiple sources:

verizon q3 earnings schedule

Approximately $376 million of 3Q 2018 to 3Q 2019 growth comes from the Operating Revenues – Other line.  Excluding equipment, operating revenues grew $808 million.  Around half of the operating revenue growth is coming from wholesale, which has no CPGA and carries ~65% EBITDA margins.

Interestingly, segment EBITDA grew a paltry $77 million driven largely by an increase in equipment subsidies ($136 million in 3Q 2018 vs. $341 million in 3Q 2019).  Excluding the equipment subsidy, the $77 million EBITDA growth becomes $282 million (a good proxy for wireless service margin growth).  So, while revenues grew by $808 million year-over-year, only 35% translated into cash.

Verizon’s CFO Matt Ellis addressed the equipment subsidy in the earnings call, saying:

So on the wireless cost of service side, I mentioned that the phone net adds split was fairly even between Consumer and Business. Business had a more than 10% increase in phone gross adds. … a lot of our Business customers are still on a subsidy model rather than device payment model, so I think you see the impact of that.

Adjusting for subsidies, and assuming a very conservative 65% EBITDA margin on wholesale revenues, it’s highly likely that 85% or more of the 3Q 2018 to 3Q 2019 EBITDA improvement came from wholesale ($376 million * 65% = $244 million EBITDA/ $282 million = 87% of EBITDA growth comes from Other revenues).

On a 2Q to 3Q 2019 sequential basis, the impact of wholesale is even more dramatic, with the unit accounting for $312 million of the $466 million non-equipment revenue growth (67%) and, assuming EBITDA margins of 65% on the $312 million, more than 120% of the subsidy-adjusted sequential EBITDA growth ($119 million + $42 million of increased subsidy = $161 million).

What this says is that the negative margin impact from consumer retail growth (and write-downs thanks to new unlimited pricing plans) is being covered by consumer wholesale.  Without cable and Tracfone, the story line would have been very different.

The other major item that escaped the headlines is the continued fiber build in 60+ metropolitan areas outside of the Verizon franchise territory.  At the end of the earnings conference call, Matt Ellis called out the fiber impact:

… we’re rolling out more fiber as you know in our One Fiber initiative that is going to give us more opportunities to sell into those customers as they move off of legacy products and our fiber build has continued to gain momentum, increased at a little bit in the third quarter of over 1500 route miles a month on average in the quarter. So we’re getting to a good momentum there and that will open up additional opportunities for us as we go forward to replace those legacy volumes

An additional 20-40K route miles of fiber hitting the market starting early next year will not go unnoticed and marks a very different strategy from AT&T out of region, particularly for enterprise customers.  As that number accumulates (1,000 route miles means a lot in a city like Birmingham, AL or Albuquerque, NM).  And, as others have correctly noted, that fiber is largely being connected to wireless telecom infrastructure and not commercial real estate (an entirely different build/ approval process).  But it’s different because it’s a highly leverageable asset (this is a “Fiber Always Wins” case to quote a previous TSB article).  We have previously talked about the impact of the CenturyLink build (4.7 million fiber miles), but not as much about Verizon’s One Fiber initiative.

Lastly, the Disney+ announcement stands in stark contrast to what we will likely hear from Time Warner/ AT&T executives on Tuesday (free HBO for AT&T customers started to leak last Friday – see CNBC article here).  Content production with telco cash balances is unknown territory.  At a minimum, it dilutes management focus from strategic items like infrastructure buildout and fiber competitiveness.  More likely, it locks in AT&T to HBO and other Time Warner content at the expense of other options (as opposed to Verizon’s “playing the field” strategy of Apple Music last year, Disney+ this year and next, and maybe something entirely different in 2021).  We will have more to say on Disney+ vs. HBO Max in next week’s TSB (and why we think Apple Music lessons learned over the last 12 months prepares Verizon for a very successful Disney partnership), but it’s worth thinking about the value of the content selection option.

Bottom line:  Verizon’s earnings message was focused on wireless service revenue and content deals.  Their profit growth is increasingly being driven by non-retail sources, however.  One Fiber could translate into Enterprise market share gains if management quickly re-builds their local out of region wireline capabilities.  Verizon looks less and less like AT&T each day.

 

 

Comcast:  Residential Broadband Dominates – Now What About Wireless?

Comcast had a record quarter on broadband growth, with 359K residential and 20K business net additions.  The 359K figure is the highest net additions for any quarter since Q1 2017 (first quarters tend to be promotion-driven and Comcast was in the middle of DOCSIS 3.1 adoption at that point – no such tailwinds existed in 3Q 2019), and according to Brian Roberts, the most for any third quarter in ten years.  Penetration of homes and business passed grew to 48.2%.  Not only did subscribers grow, but total revenue grew as well, as existing customers upgraded their service and promotions expired.

The talk track for Comcast residential broadband is this:  New homes/ dwellings are being built, and Comcast is grabbing disproportionate market share from AT&T U-Verse (Chicago/ Houston), Century Link (Seattle/ Utah) and Verizon FiOS (Boston/ Philadelphia/ Washington DC).   In turn, existing customers are increasingly satisfied with their products and services, which keeps non-mover churn in check and increases bundling and upgrades.  We are ready for all broadband challengers.

comcast q3 earnings schedule

To put the 359K net additions in context, Verizon’s FiOS unit grew 30K net new additions from Q2 to Q3 2019 yielding a 12:1 advantage.  Including DSL, Verizon lost 5K residential customers in 3Q 2019, a figure 10K worse than 3Q 2018.

Over the last nine months, Verizon broadband has gained 9K residential broadband customers (106K net FiOS less 97K DSL losses).  This compares to total residential broadband gains at Comcast of 893K – a 99:1 advantage (!).

One would think that Brian Roberts and Michael Cavanagh could drop the microphone and walk away.  And, had Altice not deployed a very aggressively priced MVNO on Long Island using Sprint’s network, most analysts would have changed their questions to deal with softball topics like theme parks, debt and buybacks.  The Altice deployment drove many questions, including (TSB paraphrases of the questions based on the conference call transcript):

  1. Doug Mitchelson at Credit Suisse: How are you leveraging your base to get better pricing, and can Comcast implement strand mounts (a la Altice) to improve their cost/ GB and improve Verizon’s coverage?
  2. Brett Feldman at Goldman Sachs: Is the MVNO unit driving up technical and product support costs in the quarter and how will continued growth impact the fourth quarter?
  3. Jennifer Fritzsche at Wells Fargo: How does Comcast view the upcoming CBRS (Preferred Access License), C-Band and Millimeter Wave spectrum auctions?  Will spectrum ownership be a part of Comcast’s strategy going forward?
  4. Craig Moffett at MoffettNathanson: How will Comcast use eSIM (specifically dual SIM/ dual standby) to improve their wireless cost structure?
  5. Michael Rollins at Citi: How are you changing your bundling message to reflect your wireless offering?  Is Comcast experiencing difficulties in retailing wireless?  Could a media + wireless bundle drive more subscriber growth?

Of the ten questions in the Q&A, five (at least partially) dealt with the MVNO business.  Putting this into perspective, wireless represents slightly more than 2% of the 3Q 2019 Cable segment revenues and just over 1% of total 3Q 2019 corporate revenues.  Even on a growth basis, wireless was $90 million out of $561 million growth from 3Q 2018 to 3Q 2019 (16%) and would be an even smaller number if we excluded the advertising revenue drop.  Why so much interest in wireless?

Part of the answer could be the natural inclination to focus on those areas of the business that are dragging down EBITDA.  Xfinity Wireless lost $94 million in EBITDA in the quarter or about $18.50/ month/ average subscriber.  This figure is substantially better than the $178 million lost in Q3 2018 ($66.29/ month/ average subscriber) but largely unchanged from the $88 million lost the previous quarter ($19.60/ month/ average subscriber).  Upticks are hard to stomach even if they are explainable, and it’s likely that the iPhone 11 launch impacted 3Q EBITDA.

updated mobile net additions by quarterAnother answer is to look at wireless growth in light of the large High Speed Internet base.  Comcast had 1.689 million average wireless subscribers in Q3 against 25.811 million average High Speed Internet subscribers.  Assuming 1.8 Xfinity wireless lines per household (a figure below 2.0 assumes that By the Gig is more popular with individual/ single line users than other family-focused plans), 1.689 million subscribers would translate into roughly 940,000 households or below 3.7% penetration of current Xfinity household accounts (note that as the 1.8 lines per household grows, the penetration level shrinks).  That’s an underwhelming figure given the 2.5 years Comcast has been actively marketing retail wireless services.

Nearby is the updated net additions growth chart for both Comcast and Charter.  It’s very interesting to note that since 4Q 2017, net additions have been running in a very tight range.  In fact, the four quarter net additions rolling average ranges from a low of 196 to a high of 214 – a close-fitting cluster.  It appears that Comcast is being more deliberate in their growth strategy (in effect placing a 200K quarterly growth governor) in anticipation of additional events.

We have no doubts that Comcast has a long-term wireless strategy, and that it involves increased licensed and unlicensed spectrum ownership and operation at some point.  But we also understand that every piece of content added to the package hurts gross margin and keeping up with AT&T/ HBO and Verizon/ Disney is going to be difficult without offload.

Bottom line:  Comcast blew away High Speed Internet performance expectations which changed analyst focus to wireless, specifically unlimited plan profitability.  Absent the collapse of the Sprint/ T-Mobile merger, there’s a lot of planning ahead.

 

Charter:  Like Comcast, But with Less Content and no Europe Exposure

Charter also posted very strong growth with 351,000 net High Speed Internet additions and 276,000 wireless subscriber net additions.  This translated into $4.1 billion in EBITDA which included $145 million in total mobile EBITDA losses (across 656,000 average monthly subscribers, this equates to a loss of $74/ average customer/ month which is better than where Comcast was after their first five quarters of service).  Charter has grown slightly faster in their first five quarters of wireless service than Comcast did, and CEO Tom Rutledge believes that their sales productivity is just getting started.

charter adjusted EBITDA 3Q 2019

In the Question and Answer section of their earnings call, Charter reiterated their increased growth trajectory on both wireless and broadband, and also reiterated that they are looking at CBRS across a wide variety of fronts (rural wireless expansion, highly congested areas, etc.).  Charter did not mention any changes in their wireless strategy with respect to business, but it’s likely that small business expansion (< 20 lines) will continue to grow in 2020.

Bottom line:  The tone of the Charter call was completely different than Comcast, reflecting the differences between the companies.  Content discussions focused on retransmission agreement progress (with an acknowledgement that customers will see some increased costs), and there were absolutely no international discussions.  It’s clear that Charter wants to a) hit the 1 million subscriber milestone by the end of the year, and 2) continue to realize scale efficiencies in wireless.

Next week, we will incorporate AT&T’s Time Warner Cable analyst day, AT&T quarterly earnings, and T-Mobile earnings into the discussion.  Until then, if you have friends who would like to be on the email distribution, please have them send an email to sundaybrief@gmail.com and we will include them on the list.

 

Have a terrific week… and GO CHIEFS!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Matters in Wireline – Enterprise, Expense Management and Extinction

opening pic sept 22Greetings from the Queen City, where the IT scene is red hot even though cooler fall temperatures have finally arrived. I was pleased to be the guest of San Mateo-based Aryaka Networks at the 2019 Orbie (CIO of the Year) awards on Friday.  It was great to catch up with many folks in attendance including Karen Freitag (pictured), a Sprint Wholesale alum and the Chief Revenue Officer at Aryaka.

This week, we will dive into drivers of wireline earnings.  At the end of this week’s TSB, we will comment on several previous briefs (including the AT&T Elliott Memo fallout) in a new standing section called “TSB Follow Ups.” We close this week’s TSB with a special opportunity for reader participation.

Wireline Earnings:  Enterprise, Expense Management, and Extinction

One of my favorite things to write about in the TSB is wireline – that forgotten side of telecom and infrastructure that serves as the foundation for nearly all wireless services.  Wireline is a case study in competition, regulation, cannibalization, innovation, and a few other “-tions” that you can fill in as we explore the following dynamics:

  1. Residential broadband market share (measured by net additions). Before the Sunday Brief went off the air in June 2016, cable was taking more than 100% share of net additions.  This means that customers were leaving incumbent telco DSL (and possibly FiOS) faster than new customers were signing up.  At the end of 2018, cable continued its dominance with 2.9 million net adds compared to 400 thousand net losses for telcos (see nearby chart.  Source is Leichtman Research – their news release is here).  If this trend holds through the end of the month, it will mark 18 straight quarters where cable has accounted for more than 95% of net additions (Source: MoffettNathanson research).

leichtman broadband end of 2018 estimates

To be fair to the telcos, all of 2018’s losses can be attributed to two carriers: CenturyLink and Frontier.  We have been through the Frontier debacle twice in the last three months and will not retrace our steps in this week’s TSB (read up on it here).

But CenturyLink is a different story, with losses coming in areas like Phoenix (where Cox is lower priced), Las Vegas (Cox lower priced except for 1Gbps tier), and legacy US West areas like Denver/ Minneapolis/ Seattle/ Portland (Comcast has lower promotional pricing).  Even as new movers are considering traditional SVOD alternatives like Roku and AppleTV in droves, there’s a perception that the new CenturyLink fiber product is not worth the extra cost.

A good example of the perception vs reality dichotomy comes from the latest J.D. Power rankings for the South Region:

J D Power South ISP ratingsWhile these ratings reflect overall satisfaction with the Internet service, it’s very hard for new products to overcome old product overhang (and DSL experiences can create long memories).

But superior customer satisfaction (749 is a decent score for telecom or wireless providers regardless of product) does not guarantee market share gains.  AT&T (Bell South) has continued to improve its fiber footprint, invested heavily in retail presence, and improved the (self-install) service delivery experience.  Even with that, it’s highly likely that AT&T’s South region lost market share to Comcast (2nd place) and Spectrum (4th place).  Why is a three-circle product outperforming a five-circle product?

The answer lies in several factors:  Value (see comments above about promotional pricing and go to www.broadband.now for additional information), Bundled products (which links back to value – bundle cost may be significantly cheaper), and Legacy perceptions (DSL overhang mentioned above, tech support overhang, install overhang).

For more details, let’s look at two very fast-growing areas:  Dallas, TX and Hollywood at&t pricing vs cable in dallas and miami(Miami), FL.  Nearby is a chart showing online promotional pricing for AT&T, Spectrum (Charter) and Comcast.  There are some differences on contract term (AT&T has contracts in Dallas; Spectrum does not.  Comcast has a 2-yr term with early termination fees to get the $80/ mo. rate for their triple play in Miami).  Both zip codes selected above have over 50% served by AT&T fiber.  AT&T is more competitively priced than Spectrum in Dallas, and extremely competitive with Comcast especially at the mid-tier Internet only level (promotional rate gigabit speeds are $70/ month with no data caps).

With superior overall customer satisfaction and competitive pricing, why does AT&T continue to tread water on broadband and lose TV customers?  Are cable companies out-marketing Ma Bell?  Is there a previous AT&T experience overhang?  Are AT&T retail stores creating differentiation for AT&T Fiber (compared to minimal showcase store presence for Spectrum or Comcast)?

Bottom line:  Cable will still win a majority of net adds despite lower customer satisfaction and higher prices.  Why AT&T cannot beat cable especially in new home (AT&T fiber) construction areas is a function of marketing, operations and brand mismanagement.

  1. Enterprise spending – Did it return to cable instead of AT&T/ Verizon/CenturyLink? We commented last week on AT&T’s expected gains in wireless enterprise spending thanks to the FirstNet deal.  How that translates into wireline gains is an entirely different story.  Here’s the AT&T Business Wireline picture through 2Q 2019:

 

at&t 2q business wireline financials

While these trends are not as robust as wireless and operating income includes a $150 million intellectual property settlement, AT&T management described Business Wireline operating metrics as “the best they have seen in years.”  What this likely indicates is that AT&T’s legacy voice and data service revenue losses (high margin) are beginning to decelerate (at 14.6% annual decline, that’s saying a lot – Q1 2019 decline was 19.2% and the 2Q 2017 to 2Q 2018 decline was 22.0%!).

Meanwhile, Comcast Business grew 2Q 2019 revenues by 9.8% year over year and is now running an $8 billion run rate (still a fraction of AT&T Business Wireline’s $26.5 billion run rate but a significant change from Comcast’s run rate in 2Q 2016 of $5.4 billion).  Spectrum Business is also seeing good annualized growth of 4.7% and achieved a $6.5 billion annualized revenue run rate.   Altice Business grew 6.5% and is now over a $1.4 billion annualized revenue run rate.  Including Cox, Mediacom, CableOne and others, it’s safe to say that cable’s small and medium business run rate is close to $13 billion (assuming 33% of total business revenues come from enterprise or wholesale).  That leaves a consolidated enterprise and wholesale revenue stream of ~ $5.5 billion which is more than twice Zayo’s current ARR.

The business services divisions of cable companies are repeating the success of their residential brethren.  They are aggressively pricing business services, using their programming scale to grab triple play products in selected segments such as food and beverage establishments and retail/ professional offices.  And, as Tom Rutledge indicated in last week’s Bank of America Communacopia conference, they are starting to sign up small business customers for wireless as well.  I would not want to be selling for Frontier, CenturyLink or Windstream in an environment where cable had favorable wireless pricing and the ability to use growing cash flows to build a competitive overlay network.

Enterprise and wholesale gains are important for several reasons.  In major metropolitan areas, segment expansion gets cable out of the first floor (think in-building deli or coffee shop) and on to the 21st floor.  To be able to get there, cable needed to have a more robust offering.   Comcast bought Cincinnati-based Contingent services in 2015, and Spectrum also improved its large business offerings.  They are not fully ready to go toe-to-toe with Verizon and AT&T yet, but with some help from the new T-Mobile (all kidding and previous John Legere lambasting aside, a new T-Mobile + cable business JV would make perfect sense), things could get very difficult for the incumbents.

Moving up in the building is important, but there’s another reason to expand from the coffee shop:  CBRS (if you are new to TSB, the link to the “Share and Share Alike” column is here).  Given that 2-3 Gigabytes/ subscriber of licensed spectrum (non-Wi-Fi) capacity are consumed within commercial offices per month, there’s a ready case for MVNO cost savings as Comcast, Altice, and Spectrum Mobile continue to grow their wireless subscriber bases.

Further, since many enterprises are going to be introduced to LTE Private Networks soon, there’s a threat that Verizon and AT&T (and Sprint if the T-Mobile merger closes) stop provisioning cable last mile access out of their regions and only provision wireless access.  As we have discussed in this column previously, the single greatest benefit of 5G LTE networks is the ability to control the service equation on an end-to-end basis for branch/franchise locations.  It represents a compelling reason to move to SD-WAN, and allows cable to deepen its fiber reach and build more CBRS (and future spectrum) coverage.

Bottom line:  Cable continues to grab share in small, medium, and enterprise business segments as they move from connecting to the building to wirelessly enabling each building.  CBRS presents a very good opportunity to do that.  Even with cable’s entre into the enterprise segment, it will still be dominated by AT&T (with Microsoft and IBM as partners) and Verizon for years to come.

  1. Expense Management and Productivity Improvement. Flat to slowly declining operating costs in an environment where revenues are declining more precipitously is a recipe for increased losses.   Even with some of the capital and operating expense being shared with 5G/ One Fiber initiatives, the reality is that lower market share is leading to diseconomies of scale and both are going up a cost curve right now.

 

That’s why reducing operating expenses is not a spreadsheet exercise – operating in a territory originally engineered for 80-90% market share that is now at 30-40% share requires increased efficiency.  Connecting to neighborhoods is hard and connecting through neighborhoods to individual homes is even harder.  Combine this with a change in technology (fiber vs twisted copper) ratchets the degree of difficulty ever higher.

 

One of the great opportunities for all communications providers is using increased computing (big data) capabilities to quickly troubleshoot issues and recommend remedies.  For example, customers who go online or contact care and are “day of install” should have a different customer service page than someone who has been a 4-month regular paying customer or a 2+ year customer who is shopping around.

 

There’s no doubt that the online environment has been improved for every telco, and also no doubt that many more issues in the local service environment require physical inspection and troubleshooting.  But when telcos move to correctly predicting customer needs through online help 95+% of the time, the call center agent will go the way of the bank teller and the gas pumper:  Convenience and correct diagnosis will trump in-person service.

For those of you who are regular followers of TSB and read last week’s column, there’s also the issue of territory dispersion.  Without retreading the information discussed last week, one has to ask if there are trades to be made in the telco world (or spinoffs) that make sense to do immediately (Wilmington, North Carolina, a legacy Bell South and current AT&T property would be a good example using last week’s map).

Bottom line:  There won’t be any dramatic changes to the wireline trends – yet.  But, as 5G connectivity replaces cable modems and legacy DSL (particularly to branch locations) and as cable expands its fiber footprint to include in-building and near-building wireless solutions (starting with CBRS), the landscape will change.  And there will be a lot of stranded line extensions if wireless efforts are successful.

 

TSB Follow-Ups

  1. Randall Stephenson met with Elliott Management this week, according to the Wall Street Journal. At an analyst conference prior to the meeting, Stephenson offered somewhat of a hat tip to Elliott Management, saying “These are smart guys.” The AT&T CEO also stuck by his decision to move John Stankey into the COO role, noting “if you’re going to go find somebody who can do both, right, take a media company that has transitioned to a digital distribution company and pairing it with the distribution of a major communication company, and you want to try to bring these two closer and closer together and monetize the advertising revenues, all of a sudden, that list gets really, really short.”  If Elliott’s decision to go public with its criticism is based on the Stankey announcement, I wonder how that logic was received in New York last Tuesday.

 

  1. Apple iOS 13 fails again, this time failing to display the “Verified Caller” STIR/SHAKEN (robocall identifier standards) on Apple devices until after the called party has answered. Kind of defeats the point, right?  More in this short but sweet article from Chaim Gartenberg at The Verge – we agree with the T-Mobile quote in the article “I sure hope they get this fixed soon.”  Don’t hold your breath, as Apple is running on its 12th year of not allowing developers to access the incoming phone number.

 

  1. The Light Reading folks have a very good chronicle of what’s going on with CBRS trials here. Sharing can work, but it takes a lot to do it.  The value has to be clearly present to increase carrier attention and participation.

 

  1. Eutelsat can’t seem to make up its mind. On September 3, they dropped out of the C-Band Consortium (Bloomberg article here) and last week they seemed to backpedal based on this FCC memo.  Time for Commissioner Pai to save the day!

 

Next week, we will cover some additional earnings drivers.  Until then, if you have friends who would like to be on the email distribution, please have them send an email to sundaybrief@gmail.com and we will include them on the list.

 

One last request – we are currently on the hunt for some of your favorite titles that chronicle telecom/ tech history.  No title is off limits.  Currently, we have three that have made the cut:

 

Have a terrific week… and GO CHIEFS!

Third Quarter Earnings – What Could Dislodge Wireless?

opening pic

Greetings from Charlotte, North Carolina (picture is, from left, Frank Cairon, formerly of Verizon Wireless and Ryan Barker, currently with Verizon Wireless enjoying some good Mexican food on Friday in the Queen City with yours truly).

 

This week’s TSB examines the short-term dynamics that could impact wireless growth in the third quarter and through the end of the year.  At the end of this week’s TSB we will also briefly examine the current state of litigations and investigations active and pending (T-Mobile/ Sprint, Facebook, and Google).

 

Follow-up to Last Week’s CBRS article

 

federated wireless logoBefore diving into earnings drivers, a quick shout out to Federated Wireless, who raised $51 million this week in a mammoth C Round financing (full announcement here).  Existing investors American Tower, Allied Minds, and GIC (Singapore sovereign wealth fund) all participated in the round, and Pennant Investors (Tim McDonald, formerly of Eagle River (Craig McCaw), will be joining the Federated board) and SBA joined with fresh cash.  Kudos to Federated CEO Iyad Tarazi for his continued leadership and perseverance.  With $51 million in additional cash, spectrum sharing gets a global boost.

 

In addition to this news, the FCC also has placed the approval and scheduling of the Private Access License auction (this is the dedicated band that gets priority over the General Authorized Access band) on the docket for June 2020 (FCC Commissioner Pai’s blog post is here).  It’s generally assumed that this means a C-Band auction will come at the end of 2020/ beginning of 2021 (although this week’s news that Eutelsat has withdrawn from the C-Band Alliance has some believing that there may be a side deal afoot).  The PAL auction timeline is in line with expectations, and it’s likely participants will include some new(ish) entrants.

 

Third Quarter Earnings – What Could Dislodge Wireless?

Speaking of expectations, there’re not a lot of dramatic changes expected in the wireless arena.  Consensus has T-Mobile leading the postpaid phone net additions race (no surprise), with Sprint struggling to keep pace, AT&T in the 0-300K range for postpaid phone thanks in large part to FirstNet gains, and Verizon, excluding cable MVNO revenues, growing their retail postpaid phone base only slightly.  With the exception of FirstNet (and a few quarters of decent Verizon growth), this is a pretty consistent story dating back to early 2017.  What events could change the equation and dislodge the current structure?

 

  1. More rapid AT&T postpaid phone net additions led by FirstNet. Here’s how AT&T CFO John Stephens summarized the relationship between spectrum rollout and FirstNet deployments at an investor conference in early August:

 

We had some AWS-3 and some WCS spectrum that we had, so to speak, in the warehouse that we hadn’t deployed. We had 700 spectrum, Band 14 from FirstNet, which the government was requiring us to deploy. And then we got a whole new set of technologies that were coming out, 256 QAM and 4-way MIMO and carrier aggregation. They were particularly important to us because of our diverse spectrum portfolio. So we got the FirstNet contract and we had to touch a tower, have to go out on the network. And we decided, with this contract, now is the time to, so to speak, do everything. Put all the spectrum in service, that’s the 60 megahertz. In some towers, it’s 50, some towers, it’s 60, but it’s 60 megahertz of new spectrum that was generally unused that we’re putting in.

 

This has the effect of increased costs, but also improved network performance.  With 350,000 net additions already from FirstNet (Stephens disclosed this in the same conference), it’s entirely possible that they could post a 100K net add surprise due to increased coverage and deployments.  In turn, improved wireless bandwidth, while driving up costs, should lower churn in areas like Detroit (RootMetrics overall winner in a tie with Verizon – first since 2012), and Boston (first RootMetrics overall win in Bean Town since 2017).

 

  1. Faster cable MVNO growth. While this week’s news was on Altice’s aggressive $20 unlimited price point for existing customers (great analysis on their strategy here), both Charter and Comcast see a lot of mover activity in the third quarter.  This would seem to be a very good time to present their wireless offer.  Here’s a chart of net additions by both Charter and Comcast for the past two years:

cable mobile net additions trend chart

While the two largest cable providers accounted for ~390K growth in 2Q (and over 1.3 million net additions growth over the last four quarters), there’s a strong likelihood that this figure could grow even greater as the attractiveness of the wireless bundle pricing takes effect.   Both Spectrum and Comcast are maturing their service assurance processes, and those efforts should lower churn.

 

Comcast also made a number of changes to their “By the Gig” plans which encourage this option for multi-line plans that use 2-6 Gigabytes per line per month (and therefore use a lot of Xfinity Wi-Fi services).  It basically amounts to a prepayment for overage services, but could be attractive for certain segments/ demographics (full details on these offer changes are here).  Charter did not follow the Comcast changes described in the link and their “By the Gig” pricing continues to be $2/ mo / gigabyte higher.

 

Both Comcast and Charter are running into Apple iPhone announcement headwinds if next week’s headlines meet expectations (no 5G, no CBRS, no special financing deals, better camera).  If the changes do not increase willingness to upgrade/ change to an iPhone, it’s going to be very difficult to craft a cable plan (even $20/ mo.) that will buck the trend.  The upgrade cycle will be extended to 4Q 2020, when both the carriers and Comcast/ Charter will have full access to 5G.

 

Our prediction is that Charter and Comcast will have 475-500K net additions in the third quarter thanks to a combination of lower churn and higher gross additions (led by increased moving activity).  Altice’s offer will add another 70K net additions in September, with those gains coming from Sprint retail and, to a lesser extent, T-Mobile retail and wholesale (Tracfone).

 

  1. T-Mobile’s 600 MHz coverage (and gross add) improvements. As T-Mobile, Sprint, and the state Attorneys General try to find a resolution to their quagmire, T-Mobile keeps on deploying 600 MHz spectrum.  Here’re their reported (through Q2 2019) and estimated (Q3/Q4) progress:

t-mobile 600 MHz chart

Every new device on the T-Mobile.com website (and every T-Mobile store) is 600 MHz/ LTE Band 71 capable.  Many older devices are not, however, and that is preventing greater market share gains in secondary and tertiary geographies (many/ most BYOD Android devices from AT&T, for example, will have the 700 MHz but not have the 600 MHz band).  The expected Apple announcement represents a slight headwind for T-Mobile as well.

There’s a natural gross add/ upgrade path that follows 145 million coverage growth over a 12-month period.  Assuming T-Mobile keeps their churn rate at 0.8%/ month over 3Q (2.4% of the ending branded postpaid 2Q base would be ~1.07 million disconnections), they have grown their 600 MHz marketable base by 20 million from Q1 to Q2 and by another 50 million from Q2 to Q3.  If they just grew their penetration in the 600 MHz band by 1.5% for Q1-Q3 incremental POPs (or 0.5% penetration for the entire estimated 3Q 2019 footprint), they would negate the entire estimated branded postpaid churn for the rest of the country.  This ex-urban/ rural growth opportunity is unique to T-Mobile and would at the expense of AT&T and Verizon.

Offsetting the 600MHz growth is small cell progress.  T-Mobile committed at the beginning of the year to deploy 20,000 incremental small cells in 2019, but that guidance was withdrawn in their Q2 Factbook with H1 growth of only 1,000.  That leaves a very large backlog of in-process capital (excluding capitalized interest, total capital spending was $3.48 billion vs an estimated spending range at the high end of $5.4 – $5.7 billion).  T-Mobile should spend at least $2.2 billion in capital spending in the second half of 2019 on 5G, 600 MHz, and other initiatives and will undoubtedly be left with a lot of in-process small cell deployments.

 

  1. Sprint’s prepaid and postpaid churn. There’re a lot of headwinds for Sprint in the third quarter – overall 2Q churn trends are higher than previous year’s, and no one expects the seasonal respite to last long.  It’s likely that 3Q postpaid churn could exceed 1.85%, led by postpaid phone churn of a similar level (look for late September promotional activity).

 

Prepaid churn is a bit tougher to forecast and will also be tracked closely.  If the postpaid churn comes in below 2Q levels, check the prepaid recategorizations to postpaid (they were 116K in Q2 and 129K in Q1).  Both prepaid and reclassified postpaid accounts will be transferred to Dish assuming the merger goes through, but it makes the postpaid headline number more palatable.

 

The 30-day guarantee promotion, according to most reports, has been an ineffective switching tool.  (Sprint’s 5G rollout success has been much more impactful).  Expect Sprint to say very little until there is clarity on the litigation, and to post greater than expected losses in prepaid subscribers as they preserve their marketing dollars for a post-merger world.

 

Litigation Tracker:  Why the Facebook, Google, and T-Mobile/ Sprint cases are not all the same

Speaking of litigation and investigation, we were very dismayed that media sources are choosing to lump the New York-led Facebook investigation announced Friday, the to be announced Texas-led Google investigation, and the on-going T-Mobile/ Sprint (TMUS/S) litigation into one mega-story.  While there are some similarities, the upcoming Google action is broader than Facebook and more bipartisan than the TMUS/S complaint.

As most of you who are following the TMUS/S suit know, the states of Oregon and Illinois recently joined the original 14 states and the District of Columbia to block the merger.  (As an aside, Fox Business is reporting that the state AG group is focusing on the inexperience and shaky financial condition of Dish Networks as opposed to what would have been an uphill market concentration battle).  In fact, in the original TSB concerning the lawsuit (here), we were surprised by the absence of Illinois.  The figure below shows who is involved in what (underlined states are named in the Facebook litigation):

litigation tracker chart

To recap, there are 40 states + the District of Columbia named in the National Association of Attorneys General comment letter to the FTC (filing here), and at least 30 of them are joining a Texas-led lawsuit against Google to be announced early this week.

The makeup of the states in the FTC letter is very bipartisan:  14 Republican and 26 Democrat attorneys general.  All of the states involved in the TMUS/S litigation are also named in the FTC comment letter.  To contrast, of the 17 states in the TMUS/S litigation, only Texas (AT&T HQ) is Republican and the other 16 are Democrat.

As we stated in the TSB on the AG lawsuit, very few sparsely-populated states, regardless of political affiliation, are participating in the T-Mobile/ Sprint litigation.  Fourteen of the fifteen least densely populated states in the US (data here) are named in the Google/ FTC letter.  However, only two of the fourteen (Colorado, Oregon) are participating in the TMUS/S litigation.  The promise of a rural solution outweighs the benefits of a fourth carrier in metropolitan and suburban areas.

The Facebook investigation is also widely bipartisan with five Democrats and four Republican states represented.  Florida is involved in the Facebook investigation but none of the other two legal activities.  In addition, there are nine states (including New Jersey, a Democrat stronghold) that are not currently participating in any legal activity.

Bottom Line:  Concerns about Google’s anti-competitive practices are supported by a large number of state Attorneys General and are very bipartisan.  A subsegment of Democrat AGs (and TX) is also a part of the T-Mobile/ Sprint lawsuit.  And an even smaller subsegment plus Florida is a part of the recently announced Facebook investigation.

Next week, we will highlight some wireline trends and talk about overall profitability across the telecommunications sector.  Until then, if you have friends who would like to be on the email distribution, please have them send an email to sundaybrief@gmail.com and we will include them on the list.

 

Have a terrific week… and GO CHIEFS!

UPDATED – Deeper: The Apple Card – A Wolf in (Titanium) Sheep’s Clothing?

apple card examples

 

The following articles provide a good overview of the Apple Card and the possible role it could play in the disintermediation of traditional wireless carrier phone payments.  Please note:  This is an emerging trend and not a “done deal” and it’s likely that this thread will be updated several times in the next few months.  Look for more when Apple launches their next generation of iPhones, likely in September:

  1. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) report on the state of the consumer credit market is discussed in this week’s TSB. Very useful information, although it’s a bit dated (2016).   Link to full report is in the article and also here.
  2. Link to the actual announcement of the Apple Card last March is here. Apple Pay/ Apple Card discussion starts at 23:59.
  3. CNBC article from August 9 describing the fact that Apple was offering the Apple Card to as many current Apple users as possible. Goldman Sachs is applying many learnings from their Marcus (consumer banking) product to make the Apple Card as broad as possible.
  4. Ken Segall’s blog post “The Ghost of Apple Card Past” that is referenced in TSB is here.
  5. Bloomberg article that explores Apple Card’s Terms and Conditions and reports that Apple may have additional financing options in mind with this product.
  6. Wall Street Journal review of the Apple Card (detailed and thorough). A subscription may be required.
  7. To get an idea of where Apple Card could go, have a look at the current My Best Buy financing options. Remember – Best Buy is not a manufacturer – Apple should be able to provide even better offers.
  8. Mastercard CEO Craig Vosburg CNBC interview on the Apple/ Goldman Sachs/ Mastercard relationship is here.
  9. CNBC article quoting yours truly as well as Craig Moffett on the impact the card could have on the carrier community is here.

Three Headlines that will Impact First Quarter Earnings

lead pic (13)Greetings from Kansas City (BBQ pictured – no “scratch and sniff” available for this photo), Columbus (OH), Charlotte, and Dallas.  This has been a busy travel week, and it has been difficult to reply to the myriad of responses I received to last week’s set-top box article (if you missed it, the link to the article is here).  One commenter had a very thought provoking statement: “How would Google react if the FCC moved to disintermediate their search results screen and allowed third party providers to provide their own ‘best search results for you’ screen?”  While not a perfect comparison, it does show how the Electronic Programming Guide is increasingly becoming a brand representation and competitive differentiator for Xfinity and other service providers.  Given the number of comments, we’ll continue to track the NPRM throughout the spring.

 

This week, we’ll look at three key headlines that will drive first quarter momentum in the wireless world.  Next week, we’ll look at the three most important events for the wired world.  First, however, let’s take a quick look at market performance since the beginning of 2016.

 

Value Tracker 2016: Dividends Are Back in Fashion

As many long-time readers of this column know, we like to track long-term value creation.  Daily and weekly returns can be impacted by the news cycle, but longer-term trends are rarely budged.  Below is the snapshot of equity returns (excluding dividends) through last Friday using end-of-year share counts provided by each of the carriers in their quarterly/ annual reports:

YTD gains.emf

 

It is no coincidence that the highest dividend-yielding stocks are performing well through the market turbulence of the first quarter.  Verizon (4.3% trailing dividend yield) is up a healthy 14% year to date, with over $25 billion in increased equity market value.  AT&T (4.9%) is not far behind.  CenturyLink, Windstream (which includes 1/5th of a Communications Leasing share), and Frontier are also attracting a lot of newfound interest.

 

Can this trend last?  It’s hard to say.  We have seen a lot of interest in dividend-yielding stocks at the beginnings of other years (2014 being the latest) only to see growth stocks come roaring back in the second half of the year.  That was during a low, but not negative, interest rate environment.

 

While the rest of the globe is trying to revalue their currencies and spur growth through short-term stimulus plans, stocks like CenturyLink look safe and secure.  Nothing in their latest earnings report would drive such robust short-term gains; it’s a global safety play.

 

Over the long-term, it is interesting to see how Google, Apple, and Microsoft are driving nearly identical absolute shareholder gains since the beginning of 2014.  It’s also worth noting that all of Apple’s gains during this period are in the first year, while Microsoft’s gains have been steady and Google’s gains came entirely in 2015.  Regardless of the timeline, any of these three companies (or Facebook) would have lapped the entire telecom and cable industry for shareholder value creation over the past 2+ years.  Something to think about as we head into the earnings season.

 

Three Headlines That Will Impact First Quarter Earnings (Wireless)

 

  1. T-Mobile Improves Net Additions Growth Through Lower Postpaid Churn.” After listening to the Deutsche Bank webcast of Braxton Carter’s lunchtime keynote this week, I am convinced that the operating metric that will surprise investors the most is not the number of postpaid net phone additions, but rather monthly postpaid churn.

 

T-Mobile has had a couple of strong first quarters of net postpaid additions (in 2014 and 2015, the first quarter was the strongest of the year), and they have been led by a combination of strong gross additions (taxing advantage of tax season liquidity) and incremental improvements in monthly churn.  Subprime credit quality tended to catch up with T-Mobile in subsequent quarters, and Braxton indicated on the call that they were tightening credit standards in the first quarter.

 

From Q4 2013 to Q1 2014, monthly churn dropped 0.2% and net postpaid phone additions grew 1.26 million; from Q4 2014 to Q1 2015, monthly churn dropped 0.43% and phone net adds grew 991K.  This year, the network is much better (Braxton commented that low-band improvements were helping both urban and rural churn in the quarter) and half the base has a 700 MHz band 12 capable phone.

t-mobie churn history

 

T-Mobile’s monthly postpaid and prepaid churn figures are shown in the above chart.  Assuming T-Mobile had a good but not great gross add quarter with gross activations (this would drive a higher average subscriber base with minimal/ no churn), it’s reasonable to expect a postpaid churn rate of 1.25%.  As a reminder, every one half of one percent (0.005%) increase in monthly churn equates to a 158,000 improvement in monthly ending subscribers.  Said differently, if T-Mobile came in at an average rate of 1.25% (which I think exceeds most expectations), the quarterly effect on their 31.7 million base would be approximately 475,000 net additions.

 

T-Mobile has a lot of levers to play with here.  For example, they could tighten up credit standards even more as lower churn rates are achieved, resulting in lower gross additions but still hitting their overall net postpaid additions target.  This is unlikely given Braxton’s comments that T-Mobile “will certainly be taking up their growth guidance”, but it’s still a possibility.

 

It’s more likely, however, that T-Mobile will hit 2.4-2.5 million postpaid gross additions (or more) while at the same time churning out 1.2-1.3 million subscribers.  Here’s why:  a) more 700 MHz devices deployed across more geographies means less coverage-related churn; b) Binge On is not proving to be a selling obstacle or a churn accelerator, but rather a differentiated feature, and c) there’re more tablets in the 2014 gross addition mix (especially in the fourth quarter), and they tend to churn less than phones.

 

One thing was learned from the webcast: significant growth will not be coming from 700 MHz or LTE market expansion gross additions in the first quarter.  Braxton clearly made it out to be a 2H 2016/ 1H 2017 growth story.

 

  1. phone net additions losses chart“Sprint Loses Postpaid Phone Customers.” When we wrote about Sprint’s “To Do” list for 2016 (see here), one of the items that we mentioned was that they needed a plan that would provide a foundation for growth once planned network improvements have been made.   As of today, that plan is not in place (the Better Choice Plans introduced in late February were completely overshadowed by the unlimited data announcement made the same day).  Instead, Sprint has decided to respond to the marketplace by drafting on others’ rate plans (“Half Off” and unlimited).  As a result, it’s possible that Sprint could announce postpaid phone losses in their upcoming earnings announcement (see chart for historical trends) while adding a few hundred thousand postpaid tablets in the process.

 

This event will come as a surprise to many industry observers, but Sprint’s super-aggressive lease offerings last September and October, as well as the resumption/expansion of the “Half Off” promotion at the end of 2015 brought out the majority of the “want to (re)investigate Sprint” segment.  With a good but not blockbuster launch of the Galaxy S7/ S7 Edge last week, as well as increasing pressure from AT&T with equipment discounts for enterprise and small business customers, finding new growth from quality credit sources will be tough.

 

A neutral result (+/- 150K net additions) that is driven by tablets is likely to have a negative effect on Sprint’s 2016 revenue prospects.  Sprint will prove adept at cutting costs, but translating improved network results into sustained customer growth and profitability is still several quarters away.

 


  1. “Cricket Unlimited Offers Now Included in DirecTV Bundles.”
    Admittedly, this is wishful thinking, but all signs point to another very strong quarter for Cricket Wireless, AT&T’s no-contract prepaid brand.  In January, AT&T announced the resumption of unlimited plans for AT&T postpaid wireless consumers IF they also cricket wireless characterssubscribed to a qualifying DirecTV service (nearly all services qualified).  As AT&T CFO John Stephens indicated in a recent investor conference, this was a very successful offer and attracted more than 2 million (combined) current wireless and DirecTV customers.

 

Given the completion of Cricket integration into AT&T, the next logical step would be to grow the bundled program through the addition of Cricket + DirecTV plans.  These would target customers who spend $150/ month for both wireless and video (the current plan targets customers who spend $250 more more).  More importantly, this could expand distributor opportunities for DirecTV and Cricket (if the same store is not selling these services already).

 

While this quarter’s AT&T earnings release will likely be focused on Mexico milestone achievement as well as DirecTV progress (and postpaid churn reduction), a Cricket headline would be a welcome surprise.

 

Next week, we’ll focus on three wireline headlines and examine a few other wild card events (such as the “In the Loop” Apple announcement in late March) that could shape the earnings season.  Until then, please invite one of your colleagues to become a regular Sunday Brief reader by having them drop a quick note to sundaybrief@gmail.com.  We’ll subscribe them as soon as we can (and they can go to www.mysundaybrief.com for the full archive).  Thanks again for your readership, and Go Sporting KC!