09 August 2013

Shifting Spectrums in the US Cellular Industry

Although the radio waves are not physically realigning themselves, cellular companies have been to stead themselves for the future.

T-Mobile, which escaped from an AT andT acquisition by the FCC blocking the merger, grew by acquiring MetroPCS.  Although the “T-Metro” merger added 9 million subscribers to the  Deutsches Telekom holding company’s 34 million base, it remains the fourth  largest US cellular company.  But size isn’t everything.

T-Mobile did not acquire MetroPCS just to grow. T-Mobile wanted the MetroPCS spectrum.  Currently, MetroPCS is a CDMA carrier.  T-Mobile plans to phase out CDMA by 2015 and migrate customers to a HPSA+ system, which is not considered problematic as 60% of MetroPCS switch handsets each year.

 But T-Mobile USA will then utilize that spectrum for 4G LTE service.  This is crucial as currently T-Mobile boasts that their plans have “Full Speed LTE *”, however if you read the fine print, it is only for the first ½ Gigabite, then the data is throttled down to "Edge"-like 2G speeds. In a data hungry consumer environment, this is not real enticing to those who have graduated from feature phones. Perhaps Metro-PCS’s could help a bit in data coverage, as T-Mobile’s data coverage is scant outside of major metropolitan areas, and who has the patience for 1G connections?

What remains to be seen is if T-Mobile USA will support the agressive Metro-PCS plan to have Voice over LTE (VoLTE). Some industry speculation is that T-Mobile USA will wind down MetroPCS VoLTE naturally over a couple of years as customers shift to GSM/HPSA+ handsets.  Then T-Mobile USA would roll out their own VoLTE platform.  But will that be too late?

The 78%  acquisition of Sprint by Japanese Softbank for $21.6 billion  was delayed until this June 2013 to allow  Sprint completed its acquisition of the remaining 50% of Clearwire.  There was a clear synergy when Sprint’s 4G service was premised on Wimax like Clearwire.  But Sprint clearly wanted Clearwire’s spectrum.  Clearwire’s bankruptcy would have forced Clearwire to auction its large spectrum holdings and left it’s partner Sprint with worthless holdings.  In an auction environment, deep pocketed cellular rivals Verizon Wireless and ATT would have cost Sprint more to acquire the up for grabs spectrum rights.  So the $7 billion acquisition cost for internet wholesaler Clearwire made sense.  Now Sprint can allocate the 160 MHz of spectrum to bolster the third ranking US cellular provider’s  LTE data roll out.  The added spectrum may allow Sprint to be a cellular mecca for truly unlimited data consumers.

One might wonder why AT and T  was willing to pay $1.2 billion to acquire Leap Wireless subsidiary  Cricket Wireless?  AT and T  had just launched IO pre-paid phone subsidiary so it did not need another Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO).  Cricket only added 5 million subscribers to second largest US carrier’s 96 million subscriber base.  So why did AT and T  pay nearly a 90% premium for Leap Wireless stock?  Clearly, the answer is spectrum.  Cricket has a 60% under-utilization of spectrum.  After the FCC blocked the ATT-T-Mobile merger in 2011, AT and T was hungry for spectrum.  Sprint’s completion of the Clearwire acquisition denied other opportunities for cheap spectrum.

While it is only anecdotal, there was a marked migration from AT and T after the carrier lost I-Phone exclusivity in 2011 was data coverage.  Recent speed tests showed that AT and T’s 4G LTE network was speedier than Verizon Wireless, but Verizon’s LTE footprint is much larger.  Gaining more bandwith may allow AT and T to broaden its LTE coverage with an added benefit of gaining another prepaid distribution network.

Cellular consumer activists, such as Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, condemned the proposed AT and T acquisition of Cricket Wireless, claiming that AT and T already has enough wireless capacity and thinks that low-income and poor credit customers would be adversely effected.  Perhaps it should not be surprising in the class envy age of Obama when community organizers dictate when companies "have enough" and should pay "their fair share."  But such animus is disconnected from reality.

Carriers seek more spectrum to keep up with customer demands.  The cellular industry has shifted from stingily selling voice minutes to essentially making them ubiquitous, but carriers make their money on data.  Verizon Wireless hopes to shift all of its voice calls to VoLTE by the end of 2014 as it is a more efficient conveyance of voice calls and then use the freed up spectrum to meet data needs.

In the MVNO market, Ting, FreedomPop and TextNow are set to offer extremely inexpensive cellular service which is made possible by employing VOIP (and VoLTE) technology.  Such services are built upon the backbone of excess capacity from major carriers (e.g.- Sprint).  Certainly, community activists should take cheer from the fact that these aspiring cellular carriers allow for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) from older Sprint smartphones with clean ESNs, which is green and cost conscious.  Walmart's Straight Talk cellular service can give a second life to AT and T and T-Mobile GSM phones and old Verizon CDMA handsets. 

Sprint owns both Virgin Mobile USA and Boost Mobile, which have full smartphone services at half of the end cost of their parent company, albeit demanding pre-payment.  Then Sprint has Pay-Lo which offers very inexpensive Voice and Texting feature phones (dumb phones)  with limited cellular web access.  And of course, Assurance Wireless  et ali. provides the Obama-phones to provide cell service to those below the poverty line.  So do-good NGOs like Public Knowledge should not be worried that the poor are being underserved by the cellular industry. 

Even as the cellular industry figuratively shifts towards data spectrum, most consumers just care about getting a new handset and give little consideration to the details of a major household expense--their cellular bill.

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