The US mobile industry has been in a clear state of duopoly with Verizon and AT&T occupying about 70-75% of both consumer and enterprise market. T-Mobile is attempting to disrupt the current status but the impact will not be sustainable, although its Uncarrier attack effort is causing a lot of noise.
To maintain competition and sustainability for all is a tricky balance and the key is to ensure it will not endanger the long-term ability for players to reinvest in next generation networks. InterDigital, Qualcomm, Ericcson, and Samsung are actively involved in 5G wireless development and carriers need to be ready for the next upgrade cycle in 3 years.
Strategically speaking, an industry structure only becomes stable when three firms dominate a market or 90% of a market, when the market share ownership reaches a ratio of roughly 4:2:1. Simply, the number one provider has a market share double than number two’s and it doubles that of number three. With AT&T and Verizon roughly splitting the market, with Sprint and T-Mobile US struggling to grow their market share. This gridlock is not changing unless either AT&T or Verizon acquires Sprint or T-Mobile. Then there will be only two players left.
Duopoly may not be good idea for consumers. Although duopolies will eventually lower prices as much as perfect competition would. More than 270 million US customers (roughly 91.0% of the total US population) have the choice of three or more wireless providers, while 250 million (or 82.0%) can choose from among four wireless providers. For everyone, subscriber growth is slowing as we are near market saturation. This slowdown means acquisition costs will increase, as everyone is spending more to steal each other’s customers. Spending to get new customers is not a way out. Carriers need to think how to reinvent their business models. That won’t be possible unless they can a highly differentiated offering or customer experience. There are only two ways to do this.
In the world of 4:2:1 market share structure, everyone is trying to invest on revenue growth through promoting churn. And the shifts in market share at similar prices for similar products depend upon the relative willingness or desperation of any one player to invest at rates higher than the sum of market growth rates and the inflation rate. If markets are growing at1.5 % and the inflation rate is 1.5%, than a leading contestant has to invest at rates greater than 3% annually. Any firm not willing to do so loses share.
If every player is willing to do so, then prices and margins will be pushed down until at least one or all stops investing. That is the case for Verizon and AT&T, and underpins the argument advanced by Sprint and T-Mobile that they cannot prosper in the long term unless they are allowed to merge. For Sprint, they are taking customer away from T-Mobile with trade-in program, as part of its “Uncarrier” program, T-Mobile will match trade-in pricing from other carriers. So, it’s possible that the company could match whatever deal Sprint offers. And Sprint also has a matching program, so it goes on and on until one of them cannot afford it anymore.
Now if Google is starting its own cellular service (very likely) by buying capacity on T-Mobile and Sprint networks in the US. That would essentially create a disruptive scenario. Although for the last few years the competitive threat from the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) looks to be subsiding; but by buying capacity on the networks of T-mobile and Sprint, the company will come into cellular business directly and it will offer Google phone and data plans to customers.
The question remains if Google’s intent is to create a limited market rollout or a full-scale national share grab. The word out there is Google is launching the service later this year. It will for sure be a very affordable package. And will Apple follow and buying capacity from T-Mobile and allow services for Apple devices? Apple’s entry will create the “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” for carriers. The carrier’s biggest fear is that if it says “no”, the business and growth would go to a competing carrier and yes they are fuelling Apple’s market power. iPhone customers typically spend as much as twice or more the U.S. national average monthly wireless bill. So with Google entering the game and speculating Apple might do the same, the industry structure would definitely be destabilized. It is not reasonable to think Google might be able to take up to 2-3% share from AT&T and Verizon. The carriers won’t be too happy. But the threat to carriers is small and mostly in the long term.