T-Mobile threw down the gauntlet this summer with its new Mobile without Borders plan, pre-empting and expanding on AT&T's plan to make the US and Mexico one calling area. Within a few weeks the rest of the industry adjusted their price plans, highlighting the very fluid and dynamic competitive situation in the wireless industry.
T-Mobile US started its amped-up summer by introducing Mobile without Borders, extending its free calling area to Mexico and Canada at no additional cost. The customer-friendly move was made possible when Mexican and Canadian carriers renegotiated their roaming and call termination deals with T-Mobile US. One reason AT&T purchased Iusacell and Nextel Mexico was to create a USA/Mexico free calling area and it was very public about it. The competition got the message -- and got going.
Telcel and Telefonica in Mexico are clearly worried about what AT&T will be up to in their home market, and are eager to make life more difficult for AT&T in Mexico and the USA alike. Canadian carriers are still up in arms about rumors from two years ago that Verizon Wireless could buy a smaller Canadian carrier. When those rumors surfaced, they led to a $15 billion valuation hit. I am pretty sure they didn't forget that, and were itching to show Verizon Wireless that they can make its life difficult too. By working with T-Mobile, both the Canadian and Mexican carriers made their respective markets less profitable for a U.S. carrier to attack, eliminating the cross-border calling threat and giving a non-threatening (at least to them) U.S. carrier a leg up. A classic the enemy of my enemy is my friend scenario.
The new offer positions T-Mobile very well for the Hispanic customer segment, with about 22 million people living in the United States either born in Mexico or having at least one parent born in Mexico. While companies like AT&T or Sprint provide calling to Mexico for $5 per month or 1 cent per minute, the appeal of free calling -- especially free international roaming -- cannot be underestimated, especially for businesses (long a segment in which T-Mobile US has struggled).
How quickly and to what extent the other U.S. carriers can respond largely has to do with whether Mexican and Canadian carriers could agree to reasonable terms with the U.S. carriers. The Mexican and Canadian carriers have little incentive to deal with the Americans, as they view many U.S. carriers as competitors with, in the case of T-Mobile, decent urban and rural coverage. Why give up a high margin business that makes life any easier for competitors?
Of all the U.S. carriers, AT&T is probably the closest to providing a competitive answer to T-Mobile. It would have to accelerate free roaming on its own network in Mexico and eat some margin in order to match T-Mobile's positioning, but it's doable. For Verizon Wireless and Sprint, the Mexican problem is more significant as only Iusacell has a CDMA network in Mexico -- and Iusacell is now owned by AT&T, which is looking to convert the CDMA network to GSM/LTE.
A week after Mobile without Borders, T-Mobile re-amped its family plan offer with a promotional plan of up to four lines -- with 10 GB of data each -- $120. (The first two lines are $50 each, the third is $20, and the fourth line -- normally $20 -- is free during a promotional period ending Labor Day.) The family plan comes with free calling and roaming in Canada and Mexico. For an additional $10, T-Mobile will double the data allowance. This offer eliminates a plan giving customers two lines with unlimited data for $50 per line with additional lines for $40 each. Basically, consumers are trading unlimited data for Mexico and Canada. Doubling the data for $10 only benefits only the heaviest data users.
The main question -- is the new deal better? -- depends on how often you call and travel to the two countries, versus how much data you use, and whether an unlimited data bucket appeals. The plan and associated rhetoric seem to double down on T-Mobile's attack on Verizon Wireless that started earlier this year -- without significant success, it seems, as T-Mobile's porting ratio of customers who take their phone number with them actually went down. It's going to be interesting to see if four times the data will do the trick where unlimited data failed.
Where Mobile without Borders was a real amped-up uncarrier move, the re-amped family plan offer merely rejiggers the puzzle pieces, falling short of the high bar that T-Mobile's previous uncarrier moves have set. Only a day after T-Mobile announced its new family plan, it made unlimited Mexico calling and roaming available from its prepaid brand Metro PCS for $5 per month, waiving the fee for the remainder of 2015 on plans $40 or higher. If a customer is on the extremely competitive $30 plan, getting the unlimited Mexico ups the price to $45 after the promotional period.
While not an "amped-up" move, T-Mobile followed this by launching RCS, the next evolution of text and multimedia messaging. T-Mobile plans to make it the default messaging app, starting with initially one device and then rolling out to more. RCS in itself is a solid improvement over regular text messaging: Features like enhanced messaging that allows multimedia sharing during voice calls, emoticons, presence and locations are a significant step forward. However, it is highly doubtful that RCS will make a significant business impact as consumers have moved on to other rich messaging apps. Judging from the lack of impact that RCS had on the messaging fortunes in Europe -- where dozens of carriers have rolled out RCS under the Joyn brand -- as well as Sprint's and MetroPCS's results, this is exactly the solution that was needed ten years ago, before iMessage and WhatsApp took over. Even when RCS becomes interoperable between Sprint and T-Mobile, and rolls out to more operators and devices, customers long accustomed to other applications are unlikely to abandon their new solution -- either due to the network effect or merely due to ingrained preference. I highly doubt any messaging provider will have a sleepless night over this announcement.
At the end of July, T-Mobile added Apple Music to its free music offerings. This comes hardly as a surprise, considering that T-Mobile wants to differentiate itself in the marketplace by including every music streaming service in its zero-rating plans. T-Mobile also adjusted its iPhone 6 leasing option by guaranteeing customers that they can upgrade to the next iPhone for the same $15 lease when the next iPhone comes out this year. This will protect the important back-to-school sales period -- August being the second biggest sales month after December -- by taking away customer uncertainty without impacting next generation iPhone sales. Interestingly, the newly announced offer partially addresses the criticism of Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure regarding T-Mobile's Jump On Demand program calling it Uncarrier bullshit as Claure said that originally T-Mobile didn't adequately disclose that the low lease price quoted was only for the first device leased. This offer is good as long as customers get the iPhone 6 before Labor Day, and upgrade before the end of the year; customers who are on Jump On Demand with the iPhone 6 are grandfathered. How financially sensible this move is depends on the price T-Mobile gets from its trade-in partner.
In August, Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and AT&T responded to T-Mobile's competitive salvos. Sprint went first, oddly replacing its 40 GB for $100 promotion with a 20 GB for $100 promotion. How this is going to help to attract more customers is a bit difficult to understand. Sprint's second announcement was a lot better: Sprint expanded on T-Mobile's Mobile without Borders plan, offering an Open World plan that added several other Latin American countries. After AT&T closed the DirecTV acquisition, AT&T rolled out several plans making it much cheaper to combine an AT&T wireless plan with a TV and Internet plan, where available. Consumers could save up to $500 by taking AT&T up on the offer.
In early August, Verizon Wireless -- which initially had been the most cautious around equipment installment plans -- went all in, abolishing contracts and lowering prices again. Verizon Wireless simplified its pricing structure around four buckets (1GB for $30, 3GB for $45, 6G for $60, and 12 GB for $80), while also lowering its device access fees. This price plan restructuring came after a slew of promotions that Verizon ran for most of the year, and sets a new baseline.
Not even a week later, AT&T reacted and adjusted its price plans too. It replaced its old 3GB for $40 plan with 2GB for $30, and its 6GB for $70 plan with 5GB for $50. For plans above $100, AT&T offers now 50 percent more data and unlimited calling and texting to Mexico and Canada, which it normally sells for $5 per month. Since Verizon charges less as access fees for devices, AT&T and Verizon Wireless are very close to price parity again as the two premium providers in the market, with minor variations depending on how many people share the data.
Now as everyone has responded to T-Mobile, we can't wait for the next round of the wireless boxing match. The competitive pressure in wireless hasn't been higher and consumers have been the big winners as prices have come down, options have expanded, and borders been eliminated.
Roger Entner is the Founder and Analyst at Recon Analytics. He received an Honorary Doctor of Science from Heriot-Watt University. Recon Analytics specializes in fact-based research and the analysis of disparate data sources to provide unprecedented insights into the world of telecommunications. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner.