5G growth isn’t enough to compensate Chinese operators’ subs loss

The total recent decline in mobile subscriptions reported by China’s mobile operators totaled 20 million and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic isn’t the only reason.

China’s three incumbent mobile operators have reported their latest results in the last few days. The numbers do not make happy reading. Put together, the three operators lost a total of 19.5 million mobile subs in February. Here is the breakdown:

Source: company reports, Telecoms.com summary

If the trend is nothing new, as the total subs have been going down for a while, the magnitude may be a surprise. A number of factors have contributed to the fall and the size of it.

The elephant in the room is apparently the coronavirus pandemic. Since late January China’s economy, and society as a whole, has been under a hard brake. In addition to the lack of demand from migrant workers and consumers holding their purse strings more tightly in general, mobile operators, beware of their balance sheet, have been controlling their subscriber acquisition cost and have largely scaled back their marketing investment. Another possible factor related to the pandemic is that, facing weak earning prospects, operators can be more active in clearing the inactive accounts on their networks, as a means to shore up ARPU by reducing the denominator. This is a normal “trick” used by operators everywhere.

A positive angle to read the numbers is to realised that the operators’ focus of investment has shifted to 5G. This has reflected in both strong 5G growth: China Mobile has clocked up over 15 million 5G subscribers four months after launch, including 8.7 million in February alone. China Telecom has signed up 10.7 million 5G subs, including close to 3 million in February. Such shift of focus has also reflected in fast reduction of subs on legacy networks. China Mobile lost 12.5 million 4G subs and close to 11 million 2G subs. China Telecom has stopped reporting its 4G subs numbers altogether.

Another recent contributing factor to the fast reduction and slow increase of subscriptions could be related to a new policy that came into effect on 1 December 2019. Facial recognition was added on top of photo ID when a new mobile account is opened, to ensure that the one opening the account is the same person as the legal ID cardholder. Operators may have also been retrospectively taking those subs that do not meet the new requirement off their database.

In general, we can expect to see continued reduction of total subs numbers reported by the Chinese mobile operators in the near future but the size of the reduction may become less drastic, as the effect of the new policy as well as investment focus shift will become normal business operations in the months and quarters to come.

Short-term improvement is expected when the worst of the Covid-19 impact in China is coming to an end. This may come less from the expected increase in migrant workers – since domestic roaming charge was done away with in 2018, there has been a marked reduction in demand for multiple local numbers – than from economic life gradually coming back to normal. The Financial Times reported that China is going to relax the restrictions on movement in Hubei, the earlier epicentre of the pandemic.

However, there may still be some caveat. On one hand, China’s economy relies heavily on export. While Europe and North America are in the thick of battling the coronavirus with lockdown measures expanding to more places by the day, there is little prospect for China’s export-oriented enterprises to resume active business any time soon.

On the other hand, there is a question mark over how credible to official line of “zero new cases” is. Caixin, a business media outlet that prides itself for independent reporting, and is speculated to have backing from high places, reported that, Wuhan, where the virus originated, has kept finding new asymptomatic Covid-19 cases but is not recording or reporting them. Information like this may well dampen consumer confidence, however upbeat the official narrative may be.

T-Mobile US finishes the decade with another 1m net phone additions

The final quarter of 2019 was one which certainly did not let T-Mobile US down, as the team boasted an additional 1 million postpaid phone net additions, taking the customer base up to 86 million.

While the firm still lags behind the leading duo in the US, AT&T and Verizon, CEO John Legere will likely be exiting the office on a high. Seven years in charge, and the business is looking remarkably different from the dreary days of 2012.

“T-Mobile delivered another incredible fourth quarter with strong customer growth, despite a very competitive environment – and we did it while lighting up the country’s first nationwide 5G network and working to close our merger with Sprint,” said Legere.

“7 million net customers have chosen to join the Un-carrier movement in 2019, and they are choosing T-Mobile because we treat them right, we eliminate their pain points, and we are changing the rules of this industry for customers everywhere.”

For the moment, this is a preliminary view of the final quarter of 2019, and as such financial figures have not been included. The subscriber numbers might also vary, though these are likely to be very accurate.

For the final three months of 2019, T-Mobile US can account for 1.9 million net additions in total, 1 million of which are branded postpaid phone net additions. An additional 300,000 customers were brought in through sales of wearables or tablets, 77,000 net additions were added to the prepaid column, while another 472,000 wholesale connections were added to the T-Mobile US network.

Looking across the whole of 2019, T-Mobile US added 7 million customers to its ranks, taking the total up to 86 million subscriptions across all segments. For the year, the team is suggesting 3.1 million branded postpaid phone net additions and 339,000 branded prepaid net additions.

Of course, the objective of this business is to compete with the likes of AT&T and Verizon.

T-Mobile US AT&T Verizon Sprint
Subscribers (total) 66,503 92,892 93,922 40,939
–       Postpaid 45,720 75,152 89,739 31,942
–       Prepaid 20,783 17,740 4,183 8,997
Net additions 1,747 10 112 385

*Subscriber numbers taken from most recent financial results

Looking at the number of consumer post- and pre-paid subscriptions of the major telcos in the US, AT&T and Verizon are clearly still the dominant force, but T-Mobile US is not that far behind. Then of course you have to add in the Sprint subscriptions (assuming the merger runs smoothly over the next few months), and it will almost certainly be on par.

These numbers do not tell the whole story of course. AT&T and Verizon have significant bets in both the broadband and content world, as well as a presence in IOT. The profits of the wholesale business units, which make notable contributions to both Sprint and T-Mobile US are also not included.

When you take out all the corporate rhetoric, exaggeration and misdirection, and simple look at the numbers there are two interesting takeaways. Firstly, John Legere has done a remarkable job to evolve T-Mobile US from a poor-mans telco which was an acquisition target of AT&T, to a connectivity behemoth which competes in the top table of the US digital rankings.

T-Mobile US is competitive today, but tomorrow presents a new market dynamic; 5G. While all of the telcos are pondering the implications of mmWave connectivity, T-Mobile US has a weapon its rivals cannot compete with; a monstrous hording of low-band 5G spectrum. It might not provide the high-speed of mmWave, but it does offer coverage. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on the attractiveness of T-Mobile US’ 5G proposition in comparison to rivals.

The second point to consider is competition. With three telcos scaled towards 100 million subscribers once the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger is completed, the credibility that Dish can compete in this market as a fourth, comparable and legitimate option is severely undermined.

India mobile subs continue to climb as fixed falls

Mobile subscriptions are continuing to rise in India, though the fixed market is increasingly looking prime for disruption as the number of users falls once again.

According to the latest data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), mobile subscriptions across the country increased by 0.31% over the three-month period ending in June. Although this might not sound that impressive, 0.31% is the equivalent of 3.65 million subscriptions. The total now stands at 1.165 billion.

The impact of Jio should not be underestimated here. This is a company which revolutionised accessibility to connectivity in the country, and momentum is continuing through 2019. At some point the ceiling will be reached, though in many countries around the world, mobile penetration exceeds 100%.

With a population of roughly 1.33 billion, smartphone penetration across the country stands at approximately 87%. There are of course factors in play which distinguish India from other markets, though there is certainly still more room for growth in the market.

Interestingly enough, while mobile is surging, demand for fixed broadband services is declining. The number of ‘wireline’ subscriptions across the market decreased by 5.47% to 21.17 million. There are roughly 250 million households in India demonstrating the vast room for growth in the country.

Country Number of households Broadband subscribers Penetration
India 249.5 million 21.17 million 8.4%
China 455.9 million 378.5 million 83%
US 138.5 million 109.8 million 79.2%
UK 31.8 million 26 million 81.7%
Japan 49 million 40.4 million 82.4%

As you can see from the table above, the number of broadband subscriptions does not tend to exceed the number of households, but 80% penetration seems to be a fair estimate in the more developed markets.

Due to the vast size of the country and the environmental challenges which are presented, there is perhaps good reason this market penetration is so low. Another factor to take into account is ARPU compared to the heightened expense of deploying a fixed network compared to mobile. These are all factors to consider, but for a company which can balance the equation, the opportunity is clear.

Jio is one of those which is attempting to crack the fixed market.

Having secured the attention of the Indian consumer, it will surprise few the ambitious Jio is seeking to compound this success with a venture into broadband. Last October, the firm announced it had acquired stakes in Den Networks and Hathway Cable to put one foot through the door, though it has not made the blockbuster move some are anticipating.

India has been one of the most interesting markets for telecommunications over the last few years, but there is plenty left to discuss if someone can figure out how to crack the broadband conundrum.

T-Mobile US bags another million, while AT&T makes doubles down on 5G claims

It’s been a busy day on the US side of the pond as T-Mobile US reported its full-year subscription figures, while AT&T promised a nationwide 5G rollout with few details.

Starting with the controversial and confrontational T-Mobile, the magenta army claims to have added total net customer additions of 2.4 million to the ranks over the last three months, while 2018 on the whole stood at 7 million total net adds. In the final quarter, the numbers stood at 1.4 million branded postpaid net additions, 1 million of which were branded postpaid phone net additions, making it the best quarter in four years.

“The T-Mobile team delivered our best customer results ever in Q4 2018 and we did it in a competitive climate while working hard to complete our merger with Sprint,” said John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile. “That’s 23 quarters in a row where more than 1 million customers have chosen T-Mobile – along with a postpaid phone churn result that’s below 1%. These customer results speak volumes about our company, our network and our brand.”

There is no question T-Mobile US has been a success story under the leadership of Legere, but the big question is how he has done it. In short, Legere has not conformed to the status quo, as you can probably pick up from his ranting and raving on social media, but hyper-targeted marketing has also played a role.

This is a strategy which has been in the making for some time now, the team promised to address markets and demographics which are apparently underserved, or blurred together with generic marketing campaigns. It seems to be the incremental increase approach to growth, but you can’t argue with success.

“…it’s the strategy we laid out for you, going back to 2015 and 2016 is in full effect now,” said COO Mike Sievert on the earnings call. “We said we were going to expand distribution, we did that. We said we were going to expand the segments that we go after and we did that. We were going to add a very serious focus on business, we did that. So, the results have the benefit of all those things in the runway now.

“So that’s a phenomenal uptick. Our suburban market share, we think is 14% to 15%. Our rural market share, we think is sub-10%. Military and older people, 55 plus, sorry Braxton. We think we have a 10%-ish share of both those segments that we’ve been focusing on for a year right now. So, lots of runway behind the strategy left to go, but you are starting to see, as we promised you would the effects of those investments now flowing through into our results.”

One segment which is in currently in the crosshair is enterprise customers. The team might have had one of the most successful quarters to date in this area, according to Sievert, but market share is very low currently. AT&T and Verizon naturally hold the lion’s share of the business, but T-Mobile US has already shown it is perfectly capable of making a challenge to the ‘duopoly’.

Looking ahead to the 5G bonanza, the T-Mobile team has decided to sit out the initial race, or how this has been spun by the PR ‘gurus’, instead focusing on the long-term nationwide charge.

“We are the only ones that have a plan to bring 5G nationwide in 2020,” said Sievert. “And the others are focused on millimetre wave in some places. We are bringing 5G everywhere we operate, and we are doing it by next year and that’s a real differentiator.”

In the pursuit of coverage and due diligence, Sievert is not being factually correct here, making a statement which is indeed inaccurate.

Looking over at the AT&T business, the team has made its own statement, perhaps an effort to redirect attention from the misleading statements it has made concerning ‘5Ge’. This marketing ploy is of course nothing more than an attempt to pray on the un-informed, using small print to its greatest effect, though whether the latest statement is any better we’ll leave you to decide.

Similar to T-Mobile US’ commitment to 5G, AT&T has now promised ‘nationwide mobile 5G footprint’ using sub-6 GHz spectrum by early 2020. The ambitions are certainly noteworthy from both parties, but what we are struggling to stomach at the moment are a lack of details; no-one has actually stepped forward to say what a nationwide rollout actually means.

Does this mean there will be a 5G footprint in every state? What percentage of the US will be covered by 5G? Will the rural communities have a taste of the new connectivity euphoria or will it simply be limited to the busiest sections of the largest cities? What transportation hubs will become a 5G hotspot? How many 5G cell sites are forecast for the time when nationwide 5G coverage will be claimed?

While we are being particularly critical of the claims, we believe this is necessary for an industry which is not always the most honest with its customers.

Although consumers should remain apathetic, though they probably won’t, to the 5G euphoria, or at least until there are 5G-specific services launched, the new networks will become a major marketing plug for the telcos. The marketing team need something new to talk about, and the ‘bigger, better, faster’ tendencies of these departments will ensure 5G is front-page news.

All of the 5G buzz means very little to the consumer right now, but don’t tell them that. However, on a more positive note, it is quite exciting at how quickly the 5G promise is becoming a reality.