US Mobile Market Update – Q1 2016

Highlights of the US Mobile Market Q1 2016

  • Mobile data revenues increased by 17% YoY and now contribute 73% of the overall service revenues.
  • QoQ, the service revenues declined again for the third straight quarter.
  • The overall ARPU dropped below $40 for the first time.
  • The Capex is likely to contract for a third year in a row given that most of the LTE networks are built out and there is pressure to preserve the margins.
  • Device revenues declined sharply as consumers are upgrading at a slower pace than before and new device launches haven’t really motivated consumers to upgrade.
  • EBITDA and Net Income saw double digit gains indicating operators are running a much tighter ship than before.
  • Churn is at historic lows. Despite all the commotion in the market, fewer customers are churning each quarter.
  • US will cross 400M in subscriptions in 2016.
  • The data prices remained pretty stable throughout Q1.
  • Mobile data traffic grew again with per sub smartphone consumption going past 4.0 GB/user/mo however, overall data traffic is expected to slow down in 2016.
  • In the first 4-5 months of Binge-on, T-Mobile users chomped away over enough PBs of data for free to account for almost entire data traffic for the operator in 2013. T-Mobile experienced a net traffic reduction of 10-15% but given that consumers are consuming 3x than before, overall traffic is likely to rise again.
  • AT&T continues to add more connected cars than rest of the operators combined. The operator is optimizing its business around profits. One side-effect of this has been a decline in postpaid phone net-adds for the sixth straight quarter.
  • Verizon’s IoT/Telematics accounted for $195M in Q1 and is likely to cross the $1B mark in 2016 making US the hotbed for Connected Intelligence activities, growth, and continued experimentation.
  • Apple again dominated the device market with over 39% revenue share, 74% profits share however it saw its quarterly YoY growth saw a decline for the first time in 13 years. The law of large numbers is starting to catch-up. Apple needs a new market narrative and/or another blockbuster. Given the pickup in R&D spend, speculators are hoping for the iCar to surface but it could be something as pedestrian as a new iPhone.
  • Apple’s services business was greater than Facebook’s Q1 revenue but in context of its $50B quarter, Wall Street doesn’t appreciate the 20% increase in services revenue. Street’s eyes are squarely positioned on the iPhone numbers.
  • Intel abandoned its existing wireless efforts leaving its future strategy and its role in the ecosystem a big question mark.
  • Android ecosystem revenues and profits improved slightly primarily on the back of Samsung’s quarterly results. Sony, HTC, LG and some other Android players suffered deep losses in Q1.
  • Operator tablet net-adds growth declined sharply.
  • AT&T and Verizon on average made $17 per sub/mo, T-Mobile stayed into positive territory with $2 profit/sub/mo while Sprint eked out a 20c profit.

We will be doing an in-depth analysis of the future of the mobile industry at our 7th annual mobile executive summit Mobile Future Forward in Sept 2016. Hope you can join us.

Service Revenue Decline, what does 2016 hold in store?

The overall service revenue, postpaid revenue, overall and postpaid ARPU all declined again. After seeing the net-revenue decline for the first time in the history last year, there is a big question if 2016 will repeat itself or not. Q1 pointed downwards albeit only marginally. In general, the net-service revenue decline is not a good sign if it is market induced. In Europe, we saw net-revenue declines but the impact of the economic crisis was a big factor in determining the trajectory. After the economy has improved, we have seen the net revenue in effected countries rise again. In the US, the net-revenue decline is more market induced. The calculation of service revenue is a bit more complicated because device revenues are no longer part of the mix and as customers are weaning off the contracts, we have to adjust the service revenue for this accounting change. Regardless of the accounting distortions, there is continuous pressure on the postpaid revenues which is what is impacting the overall numbers.

Given the competitive state of the market, we might see further service revenue declines in 2016. The reversal might come down to consolidation in the industry in 2017 and beyond. The pressure on the revenues has had a positive impact though – operators are running far tighter ships than before. The net income surged in Q1 2016. Churn is at historical lows.

Spectrum Auction

FCC’s incentive auction will begin at the end of the month. It will be fascinating to see who beyond the usual suspects have aspirations in the mobile auction game.

Microsoft’s Tryst with Mobile

When Microsoft bought Nokia for a tidy sum, a reporter called me and asked, “What do you think?” I responded, “They will have to sell it once they are done realizing it was a mistake.” I have written extensively about the missteps in strategy and tactics that were so apparent from the start. Microsoft backed itself into a corner and had no choice but to buy Nokia and eventually destroy it. One of the highest market cap company disappeared right before our eyes. With market share falling below 1%, Microsoft has pretty much gotten rid of the last remnants of the business. This doesn’t mean Microsoft is out of mobile devices. If you carefully read between the words, Microsoft hasn’t given up and will be back. Its Surface strategy is finally taking shape and yielding better results and the pivot to services was the right call to get Microsoft enmeshed in the complex Connected Intelligence ecosystem. Old habits die hard. Microsoft might be making the same mistake with IoT.

Mobile Data Traffic Growth

In the last quarterly update, we mentioned that the Cisco’s data traffic numbers looked unreasonable for the US market. CTIA’s annual survey results proved the point earlier this week. Cisco will probably adjust its model and correct the numbers in its next update. We expect the US mobile data traffic to grow by 65% in 2016.

Messaging – the Next Big Platform Shift?

The last big platform shift in the computing space was the migration of attention, talent, and dollars from Windows to Android and iOS. The rise of the smartphones mirrored the rapid decline in Microsoft’s hold on the computing platforms. While Android and iOS have served us well, they haven’t evolved much. Despite having sensors and signals, some of the basic things like inter-linking of apps, contextual surfacing of app features and functions, and search remain complex and/or non-existent. The vacuum is being filled by the emergence of messaging as a platform. Messaging is primal. Consumers knew messaging before they knew smartphones. Given the availability of the processing power as well as the smarter software, some of the tasks can be moved to the messaging window is only natural. Asia has been the guiding light in this regard. How messaging emerges and how various players react to this phenomenon will be fascinating to watch in the coming days and months.

What’s next for Apple?

I have been saying for some time that Google has the best AI engine. Try driving in a remote part of the world and use Google Maps and you will see what I mean. The primary reason for this is that Google has been at it the longest with primary dataset on the most number of individuals. Facebook is starting to get there but the AI needs much more work. It will eventually get there. Another player that is sitting on a gold mine is Amazon and that’s why I say that they are most interesting tech company in the industry today.

Every company has at least one Achilles heel. Apple’s is software and services. Apple’s DNA is hardware and services come second. As I have said before, Apple’s problem with the market is more around controlling the narrative. Media and critics have been pretty hot and heavy about the future prospects of Apple. No doubt Apple has a weakness in software as has been apparent for many years but it has a very strong hold on brand loyalty of customers and a rock solid ecosystem of a billion+ consumers around the globe. Guess what, they also have an excellent stream of data on how consumers use devices, what apps they buy, what they surf and where do they go to but the way use it is quite different. I won’t count Apple out by any stretch. In fact, if one studies the acquisitions they have made over the last couple of years and connect the dots, some cool innovations could be released with the iPhone once the company figures out how to do it at scale.

However, as we have said in our Connected Intelligence thesis as well as Fourth Wave series of papers, services is where the action is going to be over the next decade or two. Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon are all well positioned to take advantage. How they execute against their strategy will determine who comes out ahead on the other side.

AI is as good as the datasets it has to train on. Neural networks of yesterday have become the AI algorithms of today just like M2M transformed into IoT. New buzzwords are like a necessary evil to keep the tech industry going. Apple has plenty of data, it just hasn’t started using it in a tangible way. You know who else has enormous amount of useful data? Mobile Operators – well, that’s a story for another day.

IoT Revenue Streams and what it means for the ecosystem

Service provider IoT revenue passed the important $1B mark back in 2013. So far it is tracking the growth of the early days of mobile data. However, they are different curves influenced by different factors. Mobile data was relatively an easier curve to climb as the revenues went up as more data handsets came online. The sales, business case, and ROI was straight forward. IoT is a bit more complicated as it across multiple vertical areas and it is not just about the data network, it is about the complete solution. The sales cycle and execution strategy is different and requires patience and resilience.

We will be doing an in-depth analysis of opportunities at the intersection of 5G and IoT at our upcoming Mobile Breakfast Series on June 7th.

Android vs. iOS: The fight for profit continues

Amongst the prominent Android OEMs, HTC, Sony, and LG, all lost money in their device business in Q1 2016. This again highlights the difficulty in differentiating on an open platform. Some of these players might give up on their handset business in 2016. Apple again dominated with 74% of the profit share and 39% of the revenue share with only 15% of the market share. Samsung’s revenues and profitability improved but it continues to face challenges both on the top and bottom end of the spectrum.

4th Wave Revenues

5 years ago, we put forth the theory of 4th wave to explain the upcoming changes in the mobile ecosystem. For the most part, the industry changes and tribulations have tracked the 4th wave curves. Last year, voice revenues fell down by 23%, messaging revenues declined by 18%, while data revenues grew by 23%. 4th wave revenues which now dominate the ecosystem now grew by a 60% YoY.We will have more analysis of the state of the 4th wave ecosystem later in the year.

Regulations for the new age

Some of the regulations in the communications space are over a 100-year-old. Communications itself has drastically changed though the principle of transferring the bits from point A to B remains the same. T-Mobile reported that 54%+ of its voice calls are on VoLTE. IP messaging is many times the SMS global volume. Gradually, almost all voice and messaging will be on the IP layer – voice and messaging will just become apps on the data layer. So pretending and regulating these services as if it were 2000 doesn’t help. An ideal strategy for consideration should be that the IP layer gets regulated for fair pricing, competition, and consumer good while everything on the top of the IPlayer gets regulated on a “same service, same rules” principle. The interconnection between apps to deliver services like connection to PSTN, E911, etc. can be addressed by fair market pricing principles. VR is going to become the next communication platform; IP messaging the next application development and commerce platform. To keep the regulatory regime simple and in with the times, by focusing on the access layer, one can guarantee that whatever takes place on the top has the opportunity to grow as the market desires. Similarly, data rules across all apps and services on top of the IP layer should be the same irrespective of the provider. This market shift is required to make the market more competitive and fair.

Quad Moves

AT&T is integrating its DirecTV acquisition. Verizon acquired AOL, launched Go90 and is looking to acquire Yahoo (who isn’t?). Similar moves are afoot in Europe and other regions. Regular readers won’t be surprised. Video is a key offering for many service providers and by bundling quad plays, operators can further lower the churn. Content will continue to play a big role in how various offerings get bundled. The traditional cable bundle is being pulled apart in favor of more al carte OTT offerings. Media companies will have to figure out how they play in the new converged world. The ones that have been sitting on the sidelines will have to make some moves in the wireless ecosystem to stay relevant in the long-term.

The licensed vs. unlicensed: frenemies

Comcast is expected to launch its WiFi first MVNO with Verizon later this year. Google Fi hasn’t been a roaring success, perhaps it was never designed to be. Given that WiFi is carrying 75-80% of the traffic, it is easy to make the business case for a national WiFi operator. Companies like Republic Wireless have shown that this can be done.

Seeing the success of WiFi, FCC has rightly made more unlicensed spectrum available and it will be interesting to see how the ecosystem around 3.5GHz and other bands develop. This in light of what’s happening in the higher bands of cm and mmwave for 5G deployments. Technologies and business models that take into account benefits and drawbacks of both types of spectrum bands across a different uses cases will win out in the end. Despite advances, WiFi calling still has quality issues so the need for traditional networks is not going away anytime soon.

5G Economics

5G is gaining steam. All the major players have outline their preliminary plans to do trials on 5G (code word for we don’t want to be perceived as being behind). However, there is some real progress being made in short-range ecosystem of 5G. I have been working with many companies and talking to many researchers on this subject. I think what’s lacking from the discussion is the role of economics in 5G – what will be the cost structures, ROI, and the TCOs that will make it worthwhile for the operators to deploy 5G profitably. US is likely to be the key driving force in setting the standards and pushing the trials to deployments even though there is no Olympics as a motivator. But competition sure is.

We expect to explore this issue in more detail in the coming months. Our Mobile Future Forward Summit in Sept will tackle the questions in-depth with some seasoned experts.

Our paper on 5G covers the past, present, and future of the network evolution.

What to expect in the coming months?

2016 has started with a bang. The ecosystem is getting very complex and we need better tools to understand the relative strength of players and strategies. As usual, we will be keeping a very close eye on the micro- and macro-trends and reporting on the market on a regular basis in various private and public settings.

Against this backdrop, the analysis of the Q1 2016 and 2016 US wireless market is:

Service Revenues

  • The US mobile data services revenues in Q4 2015 increased 2% QoQ and 17% YoY.
  • Verizon and AT&T dominated the quarter accounting for 69% of the mobile data services revenue and had 67% of the subscription base.
  • Verizon and AT&T are at #2 & #3 global mobile data revenue ranking respectively in Q1 2016. Sprint and T-Mobile also maintained their rankings in the top 10 global mobile data operators.

ARPU

  • The Overall ARPU fell by 1.9%.
  • Data contribution to the overall revenues is now at 73%.
  • All operators saw their ARPU decline by with Sprint and Verizon experiencing the sharpest declines.

Subscribers

  • The US market increased its net-adds to 5.6M. T-Mobile gained the most and Sprint added the least.
  • Tablet netadds declined sharply leading to a decline in big decline in postpaid netadds.
  • There were more Car net-adds than there were phone net-adds
  • AT&T has approximately 8M connected cars on their network – probably the highest of any mobile operator in the world.

4th Wave Progress

  • The number of players making $250M/quarter on mobile continues to increase rapidly and these aren’t your traditional wireless players. For example, Mobile is now contributing 80% (up from 30% in Q1 2013) to Facebook’s quarterly revenues. Even traditional players like Hertz, Sears, and Starbucks are generating meaningful revenues from mobile. There are now dozens of such players and the list is just growing. (for more discussion on the topic please see: “Mobile 4thWave: Evolution of the Next Trillion Dollars”)
  • The cloud and security segments have also gained significant traction with incumbents as well as startups launching new initiatives and technologies.
  • Verizon reported $195 million revenue from IoT and Telematics. At the current run-rate, this will likely be a billion-dollar business by 2016.
  • Overall, the IoT business is tracking the early days of the mobile data growth.

Connected Devices

  • Connected devices (non-phones) accounted for almost 69% of the net-adds in Q1 2016. This means that while there is a healthy smartphone sales pipeline, it is for the existing subs and as such net-adds for the phone business is tapering off and we can expect that new net-adds will continue to be dominated by the connected devices segment.

Handsets  

  • Smartphones continued to be sold at a brisk pace accounting almost 97% of the devices sold in Q1 2016. The feature phone category is practically becoming extinct in the US market.
  • The smartphone penetration in the US is now at 84%.
  • Verizon continues to sell more LTE smartphones as its LTE sub tally rose to 87M making it the #2 LTE operator behind China Mobile which has more than three times the LTE subs. Other three operators are also deep into their LTE deployments. Verizon reported that 92% of its total data traffic is on the LTE network now, clearly the fastest technology transitions we have seen in the US wireless industry.

Your feedback is always welcome.

Chetan Sharma

We will be keeping a close eye on the trends in the wireless data sector in our blogtwitter feeds, future research reports, articles, and at our annual thought-leadership summit – Mobile Future Forward in Sept 2016. The next US Wireless Data Market update will be released in Aug 2016.

Disclaimer: Some of the companies mentioned in this update are our clients.