Saturday, November 26, 2011

What Next for T-Mobile USA?

AT&T easily will survive any failure of its bid to buy T-Mobile USA. T-Mobile USA, on the other hand, will continue to face strategic problems. A distant fourth in the U.S. mobile market, with no spectrum available to launch a fourth-generation network, T-Mobile USA either has to spend lots more money to try and catch up to AT&T and Verizon Wireless, or must exit the U.S. market. Few think its parent, Deutsche Telekom, has the appetite for investing.

That suggests T-Mobile USA will still be looking to sell, in the event of a failure of the AT&T bid to buy T-Mobile USA. One issue is the pool of potential buyers. But a significant strategic issue is the value of the asset in a mobile market where being "in the middle" is difficult.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless clearly lead the higher end of the market. Many other larger-regional providers lead the lower end of the market, especially the prepaid segment. That leaves firms such as Sprint and T-Mobile USA in an arguably exposed position, vulnerable to lower-cost providers on the lower end and pressure from the market leaders at the top. 

At a practical level, competing with the larger national contestants means heavy advertising and marketing costs. In some cases, the regional providers can be more targeted about such spending. And that's part of the rub. The providers of lower-cost prepaid services succeed in part by controlling their overhead costs, allowing them to offer lower prices. 

The contrast is perhaps not so stark as the positioning of a mass market retailer between Tiffany and Wal-Mart, or between Tiffany and, but it is the same general problem. 

T-Mobile USA has lost 850,000 contract customers in 2011. In the third quarter, sales fell 2.3 percent to $5.23 billion, though earnings rose 3.8 percent to $332 million. One wonders if earnings rose because T-Mobile USA essentially stopped investing as it would have, if it thought it was going to be an on-going business.

T-Mobile gained 826,000 prepaid customers in this year's first nine months of 2011. The problem is that profit margins for such customers are lower than margins for prepaid customers. Also, T-Mobile USA is the only service provide of the top four without the ability to sell the Apple iPhone. Deutsche Telekom's unsolved problem
Spectrum assets are another issue. T-Mobile USA’s CEO, Philipp Humm, made the point at a May 2011 hearing on the merger before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “As data usage continues to explode, spectrum is becoming a constraint to our business, with T-Mobile facing spectrum exhaust over the next couple of years in a number of significant markets,” Humm said. “Moreover, our spectrum holdings will not allow us to launch [Long Term Evolution]. ” No independent future?

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