Editor's Corner—The 10 biggest stories of 2017 in wireless

Colin Gibbs Editor's Corner

Another eventful year in the U.S. wireless market is winding down, so it’s that time when we at FierceWireless offer up a list of the top stories of the last 12 months. We’ve ranked the most important deals, trends, product launches and other developments below from 10th to the most important story based on impact on the industry.

Once you've checked out this year's biggest stories below, don't forget to check out the biggest stories of 2017 from our sister publications:

10. Sprint inks MVNO deal with Altice: After Sprint failed to tie the knot with T-Mobile—more on that a little later—the nation’s fourth-largest wireless carrier unveiled a deal to serve as the network operator for an upcoming MVNO from Altice. The pact is the latest tie-up between cable companies and wireless network operators as the fixed-line and mobile industries collide. Sprint has touted the arrangement as a way for it to cut through some of the red tape that continues to plague small-cell deployments, but investors didn’t seem to see the value in it, sending shares of Sprint down 12% after the news was announced.

9. LTE-M, NB-IoT usher in new networks: Verizon launched a nationwide LTE Cat M1 network for the IoT in March, just weeks before AT&T brought its own Cat M1 network online. Meanwhile, T-Mobile said in July it had completed live network tests of LTE-based Narrowband IoT technology, and Dish Network said it expects to sign its first deals with tower companies early next year as it prepares to build an NB-IoT infrastructure. The varying strategies and technologies underscore the breadth of the IoT, which promises to connect a wide range of devices, networks and services to the internet and each other.

8. Prepaid plans become a priority: AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all launched unlimited-data plans for their prepaid customers in the first quarter, and Verizon followed suit within a few weeks. The moves highlighted the rush to provide all-you-can-eat services, of course, but they also illustrated the fact that prepaid users have become a top priority for carriers in a market where subscriber growth has slowed to a crawl.

7. Telecom gets into advertising: The two biggest wireless carriers in the country stepped up their expansion into digital media as Verizon agreed to pay $4.48 billion for Yahoo and AT&T prepared to fight a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice to defend its proposed $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Both operators are hoping not just to target consumers with cross-platform video and other OTT services but also to leverage vast amounts of data to deliver highly targeted ads.

6. Apple launches iPhone X: Apple released the iPhone X just ahead of the holiday season as the high end of the smartphone market heated up, but limited stocks dampened competition among carriers and promotional activity remained relatively tranquil. 

5. 600 MHz auction raises billions: T-Mobile and Dish Network were the two top bidders in the FCC’s incentive auction of 600 MHz airwaves, which generated $19.8 billion in bids, while Verizon opted to walk away empty-handed. T-Mobile is hastily putting those airwaves to use as it expands its coverage footprint in smaller cities in towns where it previously had very little presence.

4. AT&T wins FirstNet: The U.S. Department of Commerce awarded AT&T the FirstNet contract in March, giving the carrier the right to build the nation’s first nationwide wireless network dedicated to first responders. AT&T is competing with Verizon, Rivada Networks and others to serve that market, and has locked up customer commitments from the vast majority of states ahead of a looming deadline near the end of the year. But the fight to provide services to local agencies will continue long after the deadline passes.

3. Comcast launches Xfinity Mobile: Comcast launched Xfinity Mobile, introducing a no-frills MVNO it sells only to existing customers of its fixed-line offerings. The business said it had notched its 250,000th customer in October, though, providing service through Verizon’s network.

2. Verizon and AT&T go unlimited: Verizon launched an unlimited plan in February, following the leads of both T-Mobile and Sprint and reversing its long-held opposition to the model. Meanwhile, AT&T made its unlimited offering available to all customers—not just those with DirecTV subscriptions. The unlimited craze quickly proved costly for carriers, Cowen and Company noted earlier this year, but the segment has since stabilized as carriers have increasingly focused on maximizing profits rather than simply growing market share.

1. The Sprint/T-Mobile merger collapses: T-Mobile and Sprint called off merger talks in November, ending months of speculation about a tie-up between the third- and fourth-largest mobile network operators that would have dramatically transformed the landscape. The development was seen as a significant victory for the tower market but leaves Sprint—which carries $38 billion in debt—in a precarious financial position.

And thus caps our list of the most important stories in the wireless industry for 2017. Feel free to reach out to me if you think we missed something or got the order wrong. Thanks for reading, have a great holiday season, and we’ll see you next year. — Colin | @colin_gibbs

P.S. FierceWireless will be on a publishing break for the holidays. We will update the website with any breaking news during the week, and our newsletter will be back in your inbox on Jan. 2, 2018. Enjoy the holidays and have a happy New Year!