T-Mobile held its umpteenth Uncarrier event Wednesday (OK, it was the ninth, but one must wonder how far this branding can go), and once again the wireless provider proved innovative.
CEO John Legere rolled out a cheap and simple business plan targeted at small companies, which would pay $15 a line for 20 or more lines, and said people can count their business line as the first phone in a family plan, thus eliminating a $50 charge. The company also announced a plan to cover phone costs up to $650 for customers switching from Verizon and AT&T to T-Mobile.
These are significant moves — as Legere admitted, T-Mobile is drastically far behind its three largest competitors in the enterprise sphere — but it’s getting to the point where Legere’s Uncarrier moves and announcements feel bombastic.
It’s important to remember that, while it is rapidly growing, T-Mobile is still small. It has grown from 33 million to 55 million subscribers in two years, but that’s 70 million fewer than industry leader Verizon. When Legere summarized the previous eight Uncarrier moves at the beginning of the event, he did so in part to remind people that those things even happened. “Nobody knows about these,” Legere said. “There are people right now saying, ‘I can go on vacation and use free roaming data?'”
For those keeping track, free international roaming was Uncarrier 3.
Nine Uncarriers in, it feels like Legere is spinning his wheels. He’s correct in pointing out that T-Mobile’s implementations since 2012 have changed the industry, as Verizon and AT&T are now adopting some of T-Mobile’s strategies. But that’s the issue. Those two companies are so much bigger than T-Mobile that they can watch what the Bellevue upstart does, wait to see if it works, then follow suit.
Legere paints the competitors as stodgy and uncompromising, but AT&T and Verizon can afford to be stodgy and uncompromising. Consider the latest quarter, which Legere said his larger competitors were “moaning” about. Both AT&T and Verizon lost money that quarter, but that’s an exception rather than the norm for them. Consider fiscal 2014 as a whole: While T-Mobile was accumulating customers, it’s net income was $245 million. Verizon and AT&T made $11.96 billion and $6.22 billion, respectively, and those were during down years.
A good way to understand T-Mobile’s position in the wireless landscape is to look at another industry: oil. When crude prices began dropping in late 2014, thanks in large part to ramped-up production in the U.S., many expected OPEC nations to curtail drilling to stabilize prices. But OPEC has vast material and financial reserves that smaller U.S. drillers can’t match. OPEC kept drilling, prices continued falling, and small U.S. rigs shut down when their margins went in the red.
Consider AT&T and Verizon the OPEC of the wireless industry. If T-Mobile comes in and shakes everything up, it might gain 22 million customers and cause a price war. But AT&T and Verizon have huge networks, huge customer bases, and huge cash reserves. T-Mobile does not. Legere is rejiggering the industry, but not with moves groundbreaking enough to topple its two largest competitors.
Take this latest business-plan move. Legere said 99.7 percent of companies have fewer than 500 employees, and he said Verizon’s and AT&T’s enterprise plans are tailor-made for huge companies, not small businesses. So T-Mobile is hoping to acquire a massive amount of non-lucrative contracts while Verizon and AT&T continue dealing with Fortune 500 companies. To do so, the plan includes simple pricing, a free domain from GoDaddy, and a free company Outlook 360 email account — wonderful perks for small businesses, but hardly a consideration for larger players.
“We’re a low-share player,” Legere said. “If you think about small companies, it’s easier for them to shift plans.”
Legere takes pride, at least publicly, in competitors adopting T-Mobile strategies — AT&T recently started a data rollover plan on the heels of T-Mobile’s Uncarrier 8, and two-year contracts are quickly dying off, something T-Mobile unveiled with Uncarrier 1. But for T-Mobile to become a consistently profitable company with a subscriber base that rivals those of its competitors, it might have to start looking more like them. But hey, maybe Uncarrier 10 will do the trick.