US Mobile Market Update – Q3 2014

Summary

  • The US mobile data services revenue exceeded $25B for the first time and increased 23% YoY and 7% QoQ. The US market will easily exceed the $100B mark in data revenues in 2014 thus becoming the first nation to do so.
  • Verizon became the second operator after China Mobile to cross the milestone of 100 Million postpaid subs.
  • The average mobile data consumption (cellular) crossed 2GB/mo. In the US, it took roughly 20 years to reach the 1GB/user/mo mark. The second GB mark has been reached in less than 4 quarters. An entire year’s worth of mobile data traffic in 2007 is now reached in less than 100 hours.
  • From 2010 to 2013, the data pricing declined by only single digits YoY. However, in the first 9 months of 2014, the data pricing has plummeted by 77%. It is having an impact on the industry financials which might help clear the way to further M&A in the US market.
  • Smartphone penetration increased to 72% and roughly 93% of the devices sold now are smartphones.
  • Samsung suffered one of the biggest mobile revenue and profit declines in its history. As the dominant leader of the Android ecosystem, it is caught in the middle of two major trends that ironically enough Samsung had influenced.
  • After a relatively quiet year, Apple had a blockbuster quarter with new product introductions. The expected bigger screen device arrived and was an instant big hit. It is going to do really well in Q4. The 6+ was in severe short supply and in Q3, the ratio of 6:6+ was 10:1 in the US market.
  • Apple also introduced two new products – Watch and Apple Pay. While it is too early to figure out the overall impact of Apple Watch (it clearly will put some Swiss Watchmakers out of business), Apple Pay appears to more disruptive. Apple’s classic approach of embracing the ecosystem and thinking end-to-end might finally disrupt the otherwise staid financial sector.
  • 4th wave services continue to grow at a very past face around the globe. We expect 37 companies to be generating a billion dollar or more from 4th wave services in 2014 – a 311% jump from 2012.
  • T-Mobile recovered all of its postpaid losses since Q3 2009. At its peak, T-Mobile had cumulatively lost almost 5 million subscribers. However, in the last 4 quarters, the 4th place operator has added over 4.5M subs to recover in a dramatic fashion. Sprint on the other hand lost postpaid subs for the 11th straight quarter.
  • Due to its strong performance, T-Mobile has narrowed the gap with Sprint to roughly 1M subs. As expected, Sprint launched a series of price cuts to counter T-Mobile’s uncarrier moves to recapture the value share of the market. The Sept and Oct numbers show that Sprint has improved its performance but will it be enough to maintain its #3 spot that it has had forever?
  • The US market had the best net-add quarter in a decade and probably the 2nd best quarter in the history of the US wireless market.
  • The net-adds rebounded strongly in Q3 2014 on the back of strong performances by Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. The ratio of non-phone to phone net-adds was 1.66. 62% of net-adds were connected devices.

Race To The Bottom?

The mobile data traffic has been doubling YoY in the US. The consumption is clearly growing with the introduction of new devices, network upgrades, and application enhancements. Operators are seeing tremendous pressure on data pricing due to the competitive environment. EBITDA declined for the second straight quarter.

From 2010 to 2013, the data pricing declined by only single digits YoY. However, in the first 9 months of 2014, the data pricing has plummeted by 77%. It is having an impact on the industry financials which might help clear the way to further M&A in the US market.

Samsung – Can It Rediscover Its Mojo?

Samsung suffered one of the biggest mobile revenue and profit declines in its history. As the dominant leader of the Android ecosystem, it is caught in the middle of two major trends that ironically enough Samsung had influenced. The bigger screen phone segment that Samsung seeded has become the fastest growing segment in smartphones. Apple following Samsung into the segment meant that it took away the single biggest differentiating factor and as such a serious impact on its high-end line. The lower end which yields higher volumes but much smaller ASP has attracted hordes of local developers in China, India, and Russia who have better logistics and operational advantage. Many of these players are becoming successful. To damage Samsung, they all don’t need to be successful, just enough to be in the market to sway the market. As such, Samsung has seen its share dwindle in the two biggest emerging markets.

Much of the current situation has been predictable for some time. While Samsung has ridden the smartphone wave masterfully, it hasn’t been able to build a platform moat, something that helps fundamentally differentiate its products in the sea of Android devices around the planet. They are not in a Blackberry or Nokia panic situation yet as some in the media have surmised. But, they need to figure a way out of the middle band. Unlike Nokia or Blackberry who were blinded by their success and ignorance, Samsung has shown it is a more nimble competitor. Samsung’s R&D and marketing is also second to none. Its diversified portfolio also helps in cushioning the drop in the phone segment. Historically, OEMs with such sharp revenue declines haven’t been able to arrest the decline. Can Samsung do it?

Operator M&A

In his classic book, “Competition in Telecommunications,” Nobel Laureate Jean Tirole wrote, “With digital technology, telecommunications, cable TV, broadcasting, and computers have become a single industry, which will be a critical element of our economies’ backbone. With the impending opening of competition, industrial restructuring is progressing at a fast pace.” The book was written almost 15 years ago. As I have written before, the computing and communications industries are merging into one and that collision is generating ripple effects some of which we are starting to understand (more on the Connected Intelligence Era trends here)

As expected Iliad gave up its dream of acquiring T-Mobile. The deal never made sense and had no market merit. This has left DT scratching for other options. The most likely scenario is that Sprint and T-Mobile try to get married in 2017 again or the FCC/DOJ have a change of heart due to declining financial performance of the two players. Another possibility is America Movil getting into the fray. And finally, some cable companies are likely to flex their muscles at an opportune time.

AT&T acquired Mexican operator Iusacell last week. If approved (and there is little reason why it won’t), it will make AT&T a clear leader in North America with almost 127 Million subscriptions. As we mentioned in our 4th wave series of papers, the number of operators will continue to shrink with fewer global operators who will seek to combine wireless and wireline assets to strengthen their moat. Perhaps, US Cellular should sharpen its pencil.

4th Wave Revenues

For the first time, US operators revealed some of their 4th wave (digital) services metrics publicly. Verizon reported $150M revenues from M2M and Telematics. At the current run-rate, this will be a billion dollar business by early 2016. AT&T reported 2M connected car connections and 140K home security connections. The connected car segment is clearly on its way to becoming a billion+ dollar business for AT&T. Sprint is also quite active on the 4th wave front but hasn’t shared any details yet.

Globally, we expect 37 companies to be generating a billion dollar or more from 4th wave services in 2014 – a 311% jump from 2012.

Microsoft Freemium Moves

First it was the OS, Now it is the Office portfolio – Microsoft is leaving no sacred cow unturned in order to gain relevancy in mobile. However, it seems that for the Office apps, Microsoft is essentially doing what it did for Windows Mobile i.e. just pare down the desktop OS for mobile. It never worked. The Office apps on competitive platform is a good strategy but they are still the pared down versions of the desktop app. As such, while people are downloading these apps out of curiosity, they are really not using them. However, the recent moves do indicate a willingness to rethink the business models, the platforms, and the distribution models which is a good start.

Amazon’s Mobile Aspirations

While Amazon is the biggest mobile commerce player in the world by a distance, its hardware aspirations have failed to impress. As expected, the Fire Phone was a complete dud. As we explained previously, it never had a shot. It was Zuned out of the market in record time (Facebook Phone probably holds the world record but Fire Phone wasn’t too far behind). A product without any substantial differentiation doesn’t stand a chance in this crowded market. While Kindle tablets had a tempting price point that made it relatively successful, Fire Phone failed across all dimensions. Software mistakes can be iterated upon. Hardware mistakes show up on the balance sheet.

In the meantime, Amazon is poised to have a blockbuster mobile commerce quarter to make it one of the most dominant players on the 4th wave.

The Upcoming 5G wars?

I started my career when 1G was all the rage. My first 4G project was back in 2002. By some measures, we are already behind on the 5G discussions. In general, it takes 7-10 years before the standards are finalized and then the network technology lasts for approximately 20 years before a market moves onto the next generation of technology. US led in the growth of 1G (AMPS, TACS) followed by Europe on 2G (GSM, CDMA). Japan took the leadership role with 3G (WCDMA, EVDO) and US wrestled it back on 4G (LTE). Japan and EU are determined to lead on 5G and have been making very public statements and R&D investments about their ambitions on 5G. Japan of course has a very clear goal of having 5G by Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Am sure some operator(s) somewhere will jump the gun and start calling LTE-A+ as 5G around 2017-8 or sooner. You can expect a lot of activities both in public and private on 5G as companies and governments try to figure out a way to claim the 5G leadership mantle.

Apple Watch

After visiting the show floor at CES in January, we noted that “The space is going to get commoditized very quickly and it is likely going to get stratified into two major buckets – really cheap $10-20 wearables. The other bucket will be high-end fashion driven wearables.”

Earlier in the year, Xiaomi released a $13 tracker and Apple announced its new product in almost 5 years – the Apple Watch. The mid-market will mostly disappear.

Apple Pay

Mobile Payments has long infatuated mankind. Many players with deep pockets have invested in the segment but in truth, the market was waiting for Apple to show up and show up it did with the launch of Apple Pay. In an ambitious orchestration of the financial supply chain, Apple introduced a simple payment proposition. The basic strategy is for commerce to flow through iOS. The institutions are even paying a share of the transaction to Apple which previous payment explorers are watching in utter disbelief. Ladies and Gentlemen, get ready for iTunes 2.0.

What to expect in the coming months?

2014 has been a tremendous year for the mobile becomes omnipresence in every industry. We have already seen some massive moves, astounding acquisitions, and interesting strategic moves.

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 Q3 2014 US wireless data market is:

Service Revenues

  • The US mobile data services revenues in Q3 2014 increased 7% and crossed the $25 Billion market for the first time.
  • The mobile data services revenue is on track to exceed the $100B mark in mobile data services revenue to become the first country to generate $100B from mobile data services.
  • Verizon and AT&T dominated the quarter accounting for 70% of the mobile data services revenue and had 68% of the subscription base.
  • Verizon and AT&T are at #2 & #3 global mobile data revenue ranking respectively in Q3 2014. Sprint and T-Mobile also maintained their rankings in the top 10 global mobile data operators.

ARPU

  • The Overall ARPU rebounded to increase by $0.08.
  • Data contribution to the overall revenues is now at 58%.

Subscribers

  • The US market had the best net-add quarter in a decade and probably the 2nd best quarter in the history of the US wireless market.
  • The US operators added 6.3M new customers with T-Mobile leading the pack.
  • 62% of the net-adds in Q3 2014 were from the non-phone category. The net-effect has been that while overall subscriber count has increased, there has been a negative impact on the ARPU.
  • Verizon’s tablet net-adds soared accounting for almost 71% of the overall tablets that were added in Q3. Verizon has caught up with AT&T on the tablet front.
  • T-Mobile’s postpaid continued to see the positive growth for the sixth straight quarter. It has almost recovered all its losses that began in Q3 2009.

Shared Data Plans

  • Shared data plans launched by Verizon and AT&T have been quite successful. The attachment rates have increased tremendously over the course of 2013-14 with more consumers opting for cellular tablets and connected devices. 57% of postpaid accounts at Verizon are now on shared plans. For AT&T, the number is even higher at 62%.
  • Some more granular data plans for tablets have also spurred interest as the cellular broadband is becoming available on demand vs. expensive on premise Wi-Fi solutions.
  • 50% of AT&T’s postpaid accounts are on 10GB+ plans.

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 66% (up from 30% in Q1 2013) to Facebook’s quarterly revenues. Latest addition to the club is Twitter which is now doing 85% in mobile (of the total advertising revenue) up from 60% in 2013. 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”)
  • In 2014, we are also seeing continued investments from the operators especially AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint in non-traditional segments like home security, healthcare, insurance, automotive, enterprise mobility, advertising, and security, and others. Collectively, this is already a multi-billion dollar business in the US.
  • The cloud and security segments have also gained significant traction with incumbents as well as startups launching new initiatives and technologies.

Connected Devices

  • Connected devices (non-phones) accounted for almost 62% of the net-adds in Q2 2014. 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.
  • Tablets form 70% of the connected devices sold.
  • QoQ, the non-phone segment grew 30%.

Handsets  

  • Smartphones continued to be sold at a brisk pace accounting almost 93% of the devices sold in Q3 2014. Within the next two years, the feature phone category will practically be extinct in the US market.
  • The smartphone penetration in the US is now at 72%.
  • Android again outperformed iOS by a good margin. iOS is likely to bounce back in Q4.
  • While it is fairly clear that Windows will acquire the #3 spot behind iOS and Android, the journey to a substantial and competitive market share is still ways off. It renewed its entry into the battlefield with Windows phone last year but sales have been poor. While Microsoft has made steady progress in other regions, in the US, it’s not gaining any traction and its share remains at a measly 1-3%. (Read our paperto get more insights into why Windows hasn’t been able to make a dent so far).
  • Verizon continues to sell more LTE smartphones as its LTE sub tally rose to 59M making it the leading LTE operator in the world (next year China Mobile will overtake Verizon to become the number 1 LTE operator by subscriptions). Other three operators are also deep into their LTE deployments. Verizon reported that 79% 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 our annual thought-leadership summit – Mobile Future Forward. The next US Wireless Data Market update will be released in Feb 2015.

 

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