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Reality Check: T-Mobile USA’s pricing plan blitz and what it means to Sprint Nextel

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly Reality Check column. We’ve gathered a group of visionaries and veterans in the mobile industry to give their insights into the marketplace.

It’s been a very interesting week in telecom, and, as approvals are completed or underway for two large transactions, it’s worth spending some time recapping activity and looking ahead to the strategic implications.

MetroPCS shareholders this week are scheduled to vote on whether to approve their merger with T-Mobile USA (owned by Deutsche Telekom). In the near future, Sprint Nextel shareholders will vote to approve their acquisition by Softbank, and likewise Clearwire shareholders to approve Sprint Nextel’s purchase offer.

“To sweeten or not to sweeten?” was the question this week as analysts and reporters focused on comments made by DT management regarding the proposed T-Mobile USA merger. In this case, the sweetening value would likely come from debt and/or interest rate reductions with respect to $15 billion of notes the parent is going to fund for the combined company.

As is carefully outlined in the proposed merger agreement filing (see around pages 83-85 in the link), DT’s commitment to backstop a large portion of the debt was an important negotiation point. Many proposals outlining third-party debt financing were exchanged during the months leading up to the Oct. 3 merger announcement. Any reduction in debt and interest rate is likely to be accompanied by changes to the equity structure (likely more equity, which means more dilution of the MetroPCS shareholder). Given the multiple, complex facets of this deal, it’s likely that DT settles for mere tweaks rather than a fundamental restructure.

Operationally, this merger cannot come soon enough. Those who are opposed the current merger structure ignore the dire straits of MetroPCS (see first quarter 2012 earnings here) as well as the competitive intensity that will be unleashed by others in the marketplace during the remainder of 2013 (see the column entitled “Verizon’s Transition Advantage” here).

Absent a counteroffer, why wouldn’t MetroPCS descend to $6 to $7 per share (see chart)? Has the no-contract market magically turned into a profit machine (see Leap’s and Sprint Nextel’s earnings for the answer)? Has the ability to obtain LTE roaming agreements from Verizon Wireless emerged, changing out-of-region economics and potentially opening up new addressable markets? Has subscriber growth ceased to become an objective for any of the other wireless players in MetroPCS markets?

All of this strategizing culminates in a shareholder vote Friday. The only certainty is that the drumbeat for some changes will crescendo through April 12. In case you forgot, April 12 is also the day T-Mobile USA releases the iPhone in stores (pre-orders started on April 5).

The strategic implications of the combined T-Mobile USA/MetroPCS deal are enormous, not only to Sprint Nextel, but to the rest of the wireless industry. Value-conscious buyers (and families) will have similar choices to those offered by AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel across a network that, while not quite as large and robust, will be worth the price difference. This value proposition will extend not only into the family, but into small businesses as well. Here is the visual of the T-Mobile USA current family offer:

For $100 per month, two lines with 2.5 gigabytes of data each is a bargain, especially if you are bringing your own devices and you anticipate equal usage between phones (more than 500 megabytes from the parents, and less than 2.5 GB from the teenagers on the plan). That number is comparable to $150 to $160 per month on Verizon Wireless, although sharing is less restricted by device.

Adding in the smartphone “pay by the month” option is what narrows the gap. An iPhone 5 at T-Mobile USA runs $99 (16GB) plus $20 per month per device. Adding in $40 per month for two lines and the gap narrows considerably ($140 per month vs. $150 to $160 per month at Verizon Wireless). Every dollar of savings matters in this economy, and in the T-Mobile USA plan customers need to shell out $200 less up front for the iPhone 5, but to lure entire families away from Verizon Wireless (or AT&T Mobility), the gap needs to be more meaningful. Once duplicated by one or more of their peers, the value of customers in their second year diminishes rapidly.

This is exactly the effect that T-Mobile USA hopes to create. Weakening the value proposition for an AT&T Mobility or Verizon Wireless family plan (as the marketers put it, increasing the “most want to investigate” level) opens up an entirely new addressable market, or at least enough to add an additional 500,000 to 1 million customers per quarter. The no-contract nature of T-Mobile USA’s plan structure allows new members of a family to be added without the burden to the entire family of an extended service term.

Increased subscriber growth resulting from plan attractiveness will result in continued network speed improvements. Improving in-home and in-building coverage will be paramount over the next two years, and T-Mobile USA lacks a robust enterprise/in-building strategy. Frustrated by the inability to get an emergency call from their child’s school while in the office, I can see many moms saying “It’s just not worth it.” Coverage matters, and T-Mobile USA will need to invest in this coverage for the bring-your-own-device users. Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility have been in this game for nearly a decade, and are formidable competitors. It’s the key to a sustaining a pricing plan change in metropolitan areas.

Given T-Mobile USA’s pricing plan innovations, what’s Sprint Nextel to do? First, start with a simpler explanation of pricing plans. Here are Sprint Nextel’s current family plan options:

Comparing to T-Mobile USA’s plan structure above, which pricing plan will be easier for a Best Buy or a Walmart employee to explain? An $80 two person plan with 500 Mb of included data per line, or the nuanced 1,500 vs. 3,000 minute bucket option explanation? Provided that network coverage is (nearly) equal, it’s going to be a tough day for Sprint Nextel absent price plan simplicity. Sprint Nextel’s Simply Everything plan, which was revolutionary in 2008, is showing its age.

Let’s look at a two-line conversion, both iPhone 5 models, between Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA. T-Mobile USA would cost $200 less at purchase ($100 difference per phone). Let’s assume each device ordered the 2 GB option and that neither user did a lot of talking (1,500 minute plan). That would leave Sprint Nextel at $150 per month and T-Mobile USA at $140.

Today, a customer would receive $200 more in their pocket and $10 more in savings per month for new iPhone 5 service. This savings would only go up with additional members on the same plan ($10 per added member per month, provided that the family member did not use more than 2 GB in T-Mobile USA data).

If T-Mobile USA’s pricing changes go answered in Q2 and Q3, Sprint Nextel will begin their new Softbank life with a smaller customer base. Early indications are that these changes are having a significant effect on T-Mobile USA subscriber losses (see T-Mobile USA’s Q1 here). Sprint Nextel needs to respond to T-Mobile USA firmly and decisively, not only with a network that is rock-solid, but also with pricing plans that make switching easier. Simply put, Sprint Nextel’s Simply Everything plan needs a makeover for the new generation of smartphone users (and Walmart/Best Buy salespeople).

Jim Patterson is CEO of Patterson Advisory Group, a tactical consulting and advisory services firm dedicated to the telecommunications industry. Previously, he was EVP – Business Development for Infotel Broadband Services, the 4G service provider for Reliance Industries Ltd. Patterson also co-founded Mobile Symmetry, an identity-focused applications platform for wireless broadband carriers that was acquired by Infotel in 2011. Prior to Mobile Symmetry, Patterson was President – Wholesale Services for Sprint and has a career that spans over twenty years in telecom and technology. Patterson welcomes your comments at jim@pattersonadvice.com and you can follow him on Twitter @pattersonadvice.

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