The price slashes, promotions, and perks instituted by T-Mobile US in recent years have all been in the name of subscriber growth. By that measure, the “Un-carrier” marketing platform instituted by CEO John Legere has been a success: T-Mobile has added at least 1 million subscribers in each of the past 13 quarters, and now counts more than 67 million subscribers.
But is subscriber count still the defining metric of health for mobile networks? Moves by T-Mobile and its largest competitor might signal otherwise at a time when the U.S. mobile market has saturated. Verizon, which lost postpaid subscribers in the first quarter of 2016 and didn’t panic, purchased Yahoo in late July for $4.8 billion. T-Mobile countered a few weeks later with T-Mobile One, a pricing structure that further distances the Bellevue-based carrier from AT&T and Verizon: Four lines with unlimited data costs $160 a month under T-Mobile’s new plan.
Hawking unlimited data fits with T-Mobile’s subscriber-first model, but because smartphones and tablets are increasingly becoming consumers’ first choice for media consumption, allowing unfettered streaming aligns T-Mobile with the media-oriented actions of its largest competitors, Verizon and AT&T.
“There’s going to be a flattening of the growth curve, especially if you’ve been having rampant growth like T-Mobile,” said Bill Menezes, a Gartner analyst covering mobile communications. “When the acquisition of new lines slows, you need new revenue.”
Verizon in particular has been on a content binge. Its Yahoo purchase followed the acquisitions of AOL, TechCrunch, and The Huffington Post. “We see tremendous opportunity in the digital video marketplace,” Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said in a conference call following the company’s second-quarter earnings report. AT&T, for its part, owns DirecTV, which has added 1 million subscribers since AT&T bought it for $48.5 billion in July 2015.
All the while, T-Mobile has been picking up subscribers, many of which have defected from its primary competitors (Verizon and AT&T both have more than twice as many subscribers as T-Mobile). That approach was conducive to T-Mobile’s strategy to be acquired; the larger the subscriber base, the more interested potential buyers such as Dish Network would be. But T-Mobile is becoming a successful standalone that German parent Deutsche Telekom may want to keep. Perennially unprofitable when Legere was brought on in 2012, T-Mobile’s net income was $733 million in fiscal 2015, and the firm has already pocketed $704 million in 2016.
“If there’s not a buyer,” Menezes said, “they continue to grow their cash flow, they’re becoming more profitable, and they continue to add lines of service that will generate all this revenue that’s necessary to buy more (wireless) spectrum.”
Granted, T-Mobile doesn’t have nearly the resources of Verizon and AT&T. T-Mobile’s total assets in the latest quarter were just shy of $64 billion, while Verizon’s neared $232 billion. But T-Mobile is diversifying, just in ways more subtle than multibillion-dollar acquisitions.
The unlimited-data announcement piggy-backed on one of T-Mobile’s more controversial promotions. With Binge On, T-Mobile allowed subscribers to stream content from most major streaming services without it counting against their monthly data allotment. The move was considered by many to violate net neutrality, the concept that all content providers have equal access to bandwidth. Universally unlimited data would solve that problem, and Gartner’s Menezes said unlimited streaming makes T-Mobile a de facto content provider without the cost of buying a major provider.
T-Mobile’s value-laden approach also targets a segment of the market where Verizon and AT&T lack a stronghold: non-coastal metros without access to some of their diversification strategies. “For example, I live in Denver,” Menezes said. “We’re not a Fios (Verizon’s internet arm) market or a U-verse (AT&T’s) market, and there are a lot of areas like this.”
If T-Mobile is ever to reach the magnitude of Verizon or AT&T, it will likely have to be purchased by a larger media company. But to remain competitive as a mobile provider, its pioneering approach to streaming could keep it afloat. “If T-Mobile executes its strategy well, and that includes becoming a more content-heavy provider simply by streaming content for free on your mobile device,” Menezes said, “then you could see an even playing field in five years.”