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Wall Street Panic Attack: Verizon’s Unlimited Plan Will Destroy Profits, Network Reliability

Verizon Wireless’ new unlimited data plan threatens to destroy everything, fear Wall Street analysts in an open panic attack over the prospects of value destruction and network reliability damage.

“An unlimited offer is dangerous,” Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics LLC, told Bloomberg News. “If they sign up a lot of people, it will congest the network, and they run the risk of people saying ‘the network sucks’.”

The return of unlimited data at Verizon (with a protective right to throttle customer speeds after they consume 22GB of data during the month) seems to have triggered anxiety on Wall Street because Verizon was the most adamant about never offering unlimited plans again after dropping them in July, 2011. Part of that fear may have come from Verizon’s own former chief financial officer Fran Shammo who warned investors last fall:

“The majority of people don’t need unlimited plans. But the people who use unlimited plans can be abusive, they can really wreak havoc to your network. And at the end of the day, I continue to say you cannot make money in an unlimited video world. You just can’t do it because you need to generate the cash flow to keep up with your demand.”

What also concerns Wall Street is the increasing evidence an all-out price war provoked by T-Mobile and Sprint will threaten to close some doors on network monetization. Charging customers for data consumption has a growth prospect that would have guaranteed increasing average revenue per customer indefinitely. But unlimited plans mean consumers pay one flat price for data no matter how much they consume. Consumers love it. Wall Street analysts generally don’t.

Other analysts are concerned that Verizon, deemed the Cadillac Network because of its premium price and reputation, also happens to have the least amount of deployed wireless spectrum of all the four national carriers. As the nation’s largest carrier with 114 million users, a big spike in data consumption could affect Verizon’s network performance, some speculate.

Unlimited data plans promote usage and total wireless traffic is expected to grow between 70-80% annually, up from 50-60% under today’s tiered data plans, according to wireless analyst Chetan Sharma.

In response Verizon has rushed out executives to reassure Wall Street and investors Verizon’s network was built to take it.

“Our goal is to always offer a better performance, and I see a path to that,” Mike Haberman, Verizon’s vice president of network support, said in an interview with Bloomberg:

“Spectrum is only one element of a network,” he added. “How you put the network together is far more important.” In advance of its decision to start selling an unlimited data package, Verizon was busy with upgrades. The company just boosted network capacity by 50 percent with new systems that take separate radio frequencies and combine them into one large pathway, Haberman said. The company has also been adding more cell sites and transmitters in cities and connecting those sites with high-capacity fiber-optic lines.

CNBC reported Verizon’s new unlimited data plan is a “sign of weakness” for Verizon, which is facing challenges to its core wireless business. (4:30)

Sprint a Pawn in Masayoshi Son’s U.S. Investment Scheme

President Trump met with Softbank’s Masayoshi Son in December, 2016.

Japan’s Softbank has a deal tailor-made for President Donald Trump’s desire to inspire companies to invest more in the United States and hire more workers, and all the president has to do is get Washington regulators concerned with mergers, acquisitions, and competition out of Softbank’s way.

Softbank’s Masayoshi Son has delivered a lot of speeches and made a lot of promises since acquiring Sprint in 2013 for $21.6 billion, originally promising to rebuild the struggling wireless company into a potential competitive juggernaut, capable of beating Verizon and AT&T and even take on cable operators. Now he’s offering to invest another $50 billion in the U.S., and create 50,000 new jobs, assuming the business climate is right.

Before accepting such a deal, one should take a closer look at how Sprint is doing three years under Softbank’s ownership. Few would argue with the fact Sprint has languished and fallen to last place among the four national carriers, now behind T-Mobile. Despite Son’s commitment to Donald Trump to invest and hire, Sprint has severely cut investment by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016 and has laid off more than 4,000 employees, most in the United States. Customers continue to complain about the perpetual ‘massive upgrade’ undertaking the company embarked on years ago that never seems to be finished and hasn’t helped service quality as much as customers expected.

In January 2016, BusinessWeek reported SoftBank has “plowed more than $22 billion into Sprint, and yet all of Sprint is now valued at $11.8 billion. The company’s $2.2 billion in cash is about the same as its 2016 debt obligations.”

Ten years earlier, Sprint was worth $69 billion and was prepared to dominate the U.S. wireless industry, but drove customers off with very poor customer service and inadequate investment in its network, allowing competitors like AT&T and Verizon Wireless to leap ahead. Sprint also embarked on an executive-inspired fantasy: a disastrous merger with Nextel that preoccupied the company for years. Softbank taking the lead has done little to change customer perceptions, nor those of some Wall Street analysts who fear Sprint is a bottomless money pit that always promises better times and profits are coming, but never seems to get there.

“You’ve watched a once-great institution deteriorate to the point that it is now a badly, badly compromised asset,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “They’ve been living from hand-to-mouth for years, constantly making short-term decisions in order to live to fight another day.”

It calls into question Softbank’s vision to use technology “to reduce loneliness and ease the sadness of people as much as possible.” There are a lot of sad Sprint customers, churning away into the arms of competitors like T-Mobile faster than Sprint can sign new customers up.

Son’s dream depended on his business plan that reduced the number of U.S. competitors to three by merging Sprint and T-Mobile together, something federal regulators under the Obama Administration failed to accept despite Son’s argument the combined resources of the two companies would theoretically make a super-sized Sprint more competitive with AT&T and Verizon.

In contrast to Son’s plan to consolidate the wireless industry to improve Sprint’s financial health, T-Mobile instead decided to boost investments in network upgrades and improved coverage to attract new customers. Ironically, some of the money to pay for those upgrades came from AT&T after it paid a reverse breakup fee of $3 billion in cash and $1–3 billion in wireless spectrum after its merger proposal with T-Mobile collapsed.

While Son promises he will invest billions in the United States, he is already spending much less on Sprint. In 2017, Verizon planned to spend $9.12 per subscriber (adjusted spending per monthly phone-equivalent subscriber), AT&T will spend $9.67 and T-Mobile will spend $9.04. Sprint will lag behind with $6.78 per subscriber in network investments. Moffett predicted of the $22 billion Verizon has committed for capital spending this year, about $11.3 billion will go toward wireless. By contrast, Sprint will spend $2.97 billion, excluding costs of leased phones. T-Mobile is spending just over $5 billion.

In the last two years, customers have delivered a new paradigm to wireless companies: bigger isn’t necessarily better. The only bright spot among all four national carriers in 2016 was the scrappy T-Mobile, once destined for a fire sale by owner Deutsche Telekom. But under the “Uncarrier” leadership of CEO John Legere, T-Mobile USA is worth pure gold in Deutsche Telekom’s global wireless portfolio. The turnaround came not from trying to consolidate the industry but rather giving customers what they have asked for — more data, unlimited data, better deals, and better service. T-Mobile’s network investments paid off, giving the company very competitive 4G LTE speeds and comparable urban and suburban coverage to its larger competitors. Legere has been so successful, the German owners of T-Mobile no longer seem to be interested in selling T-Mobile USA.

Softbank’s record of achievement with Sprint in the last two years has been much less of a success story.

Customer Gains and Losses by Carrier – 2016-Q4 Phone Activators

Investments by Sprint in its wireless network have plummeted 62.7% under the leadership of Softbank from 2014-2016. (Chart: Hal Singer)

In 2015, Sprint’s capex was $3.958 billion. Last year, it was $1.421 billion — less than half the previous year. Mr. Son seems reticent about maintaining the kind of investment necessary to grow Sprint’s network over the long term to keep up with customer demand, instead willing to compete short term on price and promotions. Sprint’s past reputation for poor customer service, a slow data network, dropped calls, and coverage dead zones makes attracting former customers back to Sprint a hard sell, especially considering T-Mobile exists as a credible alternative to Sprint for those seeking cheaper service plans.

Son’s argument to the new administration depends on President Trump and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai being more friendly to the idea of less competition than the Obama Administration. Son may have an uphill battle, considering the former Obama Administration’s opposition to earlier mergers, including T-Mobile and AT&T and T-Mobile and Sprint seems to have paid off for consumers in the form of today’s fiercer competition and a price war.

Convincing President Trump to loosen merger standards to allow Softbank a stronger position in the U.S. market in return for vague and illusory investment and job creation promises is ridiculous considering Mr. Son’s performance with Sprint has not been as rosy as his rhetoric. No president should agree to a de facto bailout deal for Softbank that reduces competition and guarantees higher prices. Mr. Son should instead direct some of the $50 billion he apparently has stashed in waiting to improve Sprint’s network to more effectively compete. If he cannot or will not, the entire country should not pay for his investment mistake by watching more wireless competition get eliminated in yet another merger.

The Return of the Verizon Wireless Unlimited Data Plan Provokes Wall Street Anxiety

The days of wine and roses from wireless data profits may be at risk, according to some Wall Street analysts, after Verizon Wireless on Monday brought back an unlimited data plan it vowed was dead for good in 2011.

The “Cadillac” wireless network reintroduced unlimited data, phone, and texting this week at prices that vary according to the number of lines on your account:

  • $80 a month for one line
  • $70 a line for two lines
  • $54 a line for three lines
  • $45 a line for four lines

Verizon Wireless last enrolled customers in its old unlimited data plan in 2011, and a dwindling number of customers remain grandfathered on that plan, which began increasing in price last year and has since been restricted to no more than 200GB of “unlimited” usage in a month.

Verizon’s new unlimited data plan is a response to pressure from increasing competition, especially from T-Mobile and Sprint. All of Verizon’s national competitors have unlimited data plans with varying restrictions, and Verizon’s lack of one is likely to have cost it new customer signups last year. The company only managed to add 2.3 million postpaid customers in 2016, down from 4.5 million signed up in 2015.

CEO McAdam swore unlimited data was dead at Verizon

Causing the most irritation is T-Mobile, which near-constantly nips at Verizon’s heels with innovative and disruptive plans designed to challenge Verizon’s business model. BTIG Research analyst Walter Piecyk noted Verizon’s claims it does not need to respond to T-Mobile’s marketing harassment just don’t ring true any longer.

“Verizon has a long history of rebuffing T-Mobile’s competitive moves as non-economic or unlikely to have an impact on the industry for more than a quarter or two, only to later replicate the offer,” Piecyk said. “That was true for phone payment plans, ETF payments for switchers, overage etc. We can now add unlimited to that list. How long will it be until Verizon offers pricing that includes taxes? Despite those delayed competitive responses, T-Mobile has maintained industry leading growth while Verizon’s has declined.”

Piecyk believes Verizon Wireless rushed their unlimited data plan into the marketplace and its introduction seemed not well planned.

“We asked Verizon what has changed to explain such an abrupt reversal, but have yet to receive a response,” Piecyk said. “They had recently been running an advertisement promoting the 5GB rate plan that argued why customers do not need unlimited. The rate plan remains, but it is not clear if the advertisement will. The launch of unlimited seemed rushed, coming a week after the exposure they could have secured with a Super Bowl advertisement. The ad run last night during the Grammy’s did not appear to have taken much to produce.”

Verizon Wireless executives have argued for years customers don’t need unlimited data plans and Verizon would no longer offer one:

  • With unlimited, it’s the physics that breaks it. If you allow unlimited usage, you just run out of gas. — Lowell McAdam, Verizon CEO (September, 2013)
  • At this point, we are not going to entertain unlimited. Promotions come and go. We can’t react to everything in the marketplace.” — Fran Shammo, former Verizon CFO (January, 2016)
  • “I’ve been pretty public saying the unlimited model does not work in an LTE environment. Unlimited is a very short-term game in the LTE market. Eventually unlimited is going to go away because you have to generate cash to reinvest.” — Fran Shammo, former Verizon CFO (March, 2016)
  • Unlimited data plans were “not something we feel the need to do.” — Matthew Ellis, Verizon CFO (January, 2017)

Shammo: Unlimited doesn’t work on LTE networks.

The impact of not having an unlimited data plan appears to have convinced Verizon to change its mind, and that comes as no surprise to Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.

“In three to five years, unlimited plans will come back,” Entner predicted in 2011. He claimed back then wireless carriers were initially unsure how to predict data usage growth on their networks and placing limits on usage gave carriers more predictable upgrade schedules. But after several years of data, Entner said carriers can now better predict the amount of data an average subscriber will use in a month, giving them confidence to remove the caps.

Verizon Wireless’ unlimited plan includes several fine print limitations that provide additional network protection for Verizon and manage any surprise usage:

  • Unlimited use is only provided on Verizon’s 4G LTE network. Limits may apply to customers using older 3G networks, which are less efficient managing traffic;
  • Unlimited not available to Machine-to-Machine Services;
  • Customers with unlimited data plans may find their traffic deprioritized on congested cell sites after 22GB of data consumption during a billing cycle. This speed throttle can reduce network speeds to near-dial up in some circumstances, at least until site congestion eases;
  • Mobile hotspot tethering on this unlimited plan is limited to 10GB per month on Verizon’s 4G LTE network. Additional usage will be provided at 3G speeds. This is designed to discourage customers from using Verizon Wireless as a home broadband replacement;
  • Verizon’s ultimate 200GB monthly limit is also presumably still in place. If you exceed it on Verizon’s legacy unlimited data plan, you were told to shift to a tiered data plan or had your account closed.

Piecyk thinks Verizon’s unlimited data plan may have been rushed out.

Although consumers clamoring for an unlimited data plan from Verizon are happy, Wall Street is not. Analysts are generally opposed to Verizon’s return to unlimited, with many suggesting it is clear evidence the days of high profits and predictable revenue growth are over. That is especially bad news for AT&T and Verizon Wireless, where investors expect predictable and aggressive returns. Verizon has already warned investors it expects revenue and profits to be flat this year.

Jeffrey Kvaal with Instinet believes Verizon’s traditionally robust network coverage is no longer an advantage as competitors catch up and unlimited data is the final nail in the coffin for wireless revenue growth. That means only one thing to Kvaal, AT&T and Verizon must pursue growth outside of the wireless industry. Verizon, in particular, is facing investor expectations it will do something bold in 2017, such as making a large acquisition like a major cable operator.

Evercore ISI’s Vijay Jayant believes unlimited data is bad news for all carriers from the perspective of investors looking for revenue growth.  Jayant told investors in the short term, unlimited data may help Verizon’s revenue because the plans are expensive, but in the long run Verizon is sacrificing the revenue potential of monetizing growing data usage in return for a high-priced, flat rate option. That guarantees “customers won’t see their bills rise, even as their usage does,” Jayant said.

Some analysts point out Verizon’s unlimited data plan is expensive, limiting its potential attractiveness to customers considering jumping to another carrier. While Verizon charges between $80-180 (for one to four devices), AT&T charges between $100-180 for unlimited plan customers, who must also sign up with DirecTV to get an unlimited data plan. T-Mobile charges between $70-160 and Sprint charges between $60-160. The cheapest is T-Mobile, because its plans are all-taxes/fees inclusive. All four carriers have soft limits after which customers may be exposed to a speed throttle. AT&T can temporarily throttle users at 22GB, Sprint can throttle above 23GB and T-Mobile after 28GB.

The Wall Street Journal discusses Verizon’s unlimited data plan and its caveats. (4:55)

Cox Feels Safe Expanding Its Usage Cap Ripoff Scheme That ‘Affects Almost Nobody’

In an effort to keep up with Comcast, Cox Communications has quietly expanded its internet overcharging scheme to customers in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Omaha, Neb, and Sun Valley, Ida. (perhaps the only community that can afford Cox’s threatened overlimit fees). Cox’s customers have noticed and told DSL Reports about the forthcoming highway robbery.

These unlucky customers join those in Cleveland, Oh., Florida and Georgia who have already been enduring Cox’s usage cap and penalty fee system.

Cox hasn’t shown any interest in listening to customers who do not appreciate usage allowances and have repeatedly told the company they want unlimited access, especially considering how much they already pay Cox for service.

“It’s a total ripoff and customers have no option to keep unlimited, unless they move to the next city over where Charter/Spectrum offers internet access without any data caps,” notes Cleveland resident Shelly Adams.

Cox has followed Comcast by boosting most usage allowances given to customers to 1TB, an amount many believe was set high enough to avoid threatened regulatory scrutiny of stingy data caps by the FCC under the former Obama Administration.

As with every provider that has ever conjured up an internet overcharging scheme, no matter what the allowance is, the company always claims it is generous and impacts almost nobody. Cox claims 99% of their customers will never hit the cap, which always begs the question, if it affects so few customers why spend time, money and energy creating a data cap, usage measurement tools, and billing scheme for only a handful of customers? Is that Cox’s idea of innovation?

Usage caps for one and all.

In fact, Comcast has claimed the same thing, but their math came into question when more than 13,000 Comcast customers managed to stumble their way to the FCC’s complaints bureau in one year and write a formal protest about Comcast’s own overlimit fee scheme. We are certain there are many more customers with overlimit fees on their bills than that, and guess only a small fraction took the time to write a complaint and submit it.

As Stop the Cap! has said for almost a decade, beware of cable company “generosity” because it usually comes with fine print.

“Cox High Speed Internet packages include 1 TB (1,024 GB) of data to provide you with plenty of freedom to stream, surf, download, and share,” the company writes on its support website (its much rarer Gigablast gigabit plan includes 2TB). For now, if you use Cox Wi-Fi or CableWiFi hotspots, usage on those networks does not count toward your data plan.

Cox reserves itself some extra freedoms, such as automatically charging customers who exceed their allowance a $10 overlimit penalty for each 50GB of usage they incur until the next billing cycle begins. Cox’s generosity ends with the unused portion of your allowance, which Cox keeps for itself, not allowing customers to roll over unused data to the following month.

In an effort to get customers to accept the scheme, Cox calls it a “data plan,” similar to what wireless customers might pay, and says other companies have data caps too. But none of this justifies the practice.

You’re over our arbitrary usage limit!

In another “generous” move, Cox is offering a grace period for two consecutive bill cycles before it slaps overlimit penalties on customer bills for real in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Omaha, and Sun Valley. The grace period window begins with bills dated on or after Feb. 20, 2017. To make sure you get the message, the company will bill you the overlimit fee it claims almost nobody will ever pay along with a corresponding grace period credit for two months, just to put the scare in you. After May 22, it is time to pay up.

Cox will make sure you can’t claim you “didn’t know” you ran through your allowance by harassing you with data usage messages via Cox browser alert, email, text message, or an automated outbound call when you have used about 85% and 100% of your monthly data plan. You will receive additional alerts when you have reached 125% of your monthly data plan, at which point Cox will throw a party in your honor with thanks for allowing them to run up your bill.

Coincidentally, Cox isn’t testing their scheme in markets rife with competition from providers like Verizon FiOS, where usage is effectively unlimited. In many of Cox’s usage-capped markets, customers have AT&T as their alternative, and they have a 1TB usage allowance as well.

Incoming FCC chairman Ajit Pai is on record opposing any involvement in regulating usage-based pricing schemes, claiming it amounted to government meddling in business. But customers can complain directly to Cox and threaten to cancel service. It may be a good time to renegotiate your cable bill to win discounts that may help cover any overlimit fees that do make it to your bill.

There remains little, if any justification for a company like Cox to peddle data plans with usage allowances to their customers. The company is moving towards gigabit broadband speeds but apparently lacks the resources to manage customers that want a hassle-free unlimited experience? If Cox is being honest about how few customers will ever be affected by the cap, there is no reason the company cannot continue an unlimited plan at current prices.

Cox’s scheme does shine light on the uncompetitive broadband marketplace that continues to afflict this country. As one reader pointed out, customers are constrained by the offerings of whatever provider has set up shop in a city that typically has, at best, one other choice (usually a phone company selling DSL or up to 24Mbps U-verse). A truly competitive market would give customers a wide choice of “data plans” that include unlimited plans customers enjoyed for years and want to keep. But safe in their broadband duopoly, cable companies like Cox have no incentive to treat customers to a better or even fair deal.

The real reason for usage caps and data plans with penalty pricing was exposed by Wall Street analysts like Jonathan Chaplin, a research analyst for New Street Research LLP. Although he was speaking to a cable company executive at the time, his words traveled to our ears as well:

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin said. new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment).”

“The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business,” Chaplin added. “Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

Exactly.

Wall Street Analyst Craig Moffett Unhappy “Unwelcome” Phone Subsidies Are Back

Moffett

Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst specializing in telecommunications stocks, has lowered his opinion of T-Mobile after the wireless company successfully topped analyst estimates of subscriber growth, in part by giving customers a better deal than its competition.

Moffett is concerned T-Mobile’s subsidized holiday price cuts on the latest Apple iPhone and a new flat rate plan delighted customers but threatened profits.

“[…]Even as the wireless stocks were rising in November and December, handset subsidies were quietly making their unwelcome return,” said Moffett in a report to his clients. “T-Mobile’s new ‘All-In’ pricing plan opens yet another front in the battle over service plan pricing, leaving us incrementally more cautious about ARPU (average revenue per user) forecasts for all operators, not least T-Mobile itself.”

T-Mobile has ditched promotions for all of its usage capped data plans and is now advertising T-Mobile One, an “unlimited” (but throttled for very heavy users) data, text, and calls for an all-inclusive price of $40 per line. Customers can still buy a limited data plan, but T-Mobile’s website strongly de-emphasizes that option.

While T-Mobile added 1.2 million postpaid customers in the fourth quarter, exceeding estimates, Moffett isn’t happy with the prices those customers are paying because it may force other carriers to reduce their pricing as well. That hurts everyone… on Wall Street.

T-Mobile USA John Legere has become a perennial and profane thorn in the side of his competitors.

That kind of marketplace disruption the wireless industry could do without, so analysts on Wall Street are taking bets on what company will acquire T-Mobile and get things back to business as usual. Moffett believes all signs point to an unprecedented wave of deregulation, lower corporate taxes, and money-fueled industry consolidation under the incoming Trump Administration.

Sprint is a rumored favorite to acquire T-Mobile, but then so is Comcast, which may seek to enter the wireless space through a large acquisition. Companies repatriating billions in excess funds stashed in overseas banks at the special low tax rate President-Elect Trump is proposing may be what drives the next buyout frenzy.

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