In Q1, it’s all quiet on the wireless front

Morgan Stanley expects T-Mobile to accumulate the bulk of the industry's postpaid customers in the first quarter. (Morgan Stanley)

As the industry closes the door on the first quarter this week, a range of Wall Street analysts said they don’t expect many surprises from the wireless operators.

“We expect 1Q18 results to show low subscriber activity, which we think is broadly in-line with consensus expectations,” wrote the analysts at Morgan Stanley Research in a note to investors yesterday.

“We expect low volume subscriber activity in 1Q18, following a 4Q17 that saw postpaid phone net adds up 31% Y/Y for the Big 4. For Big 4 postpaid phone net adds, we are looking for 461k in 1Q18, vs 203k in 1Q17," they added. "This improvement Y/Y is driven by better phone net adds from the Bells, as 1Q17 saw a partial quarter without unlimited offerings. We expect total postpaid phone net adds (including US Cellular) of 468k in 1Q18, up from 175k in 1Q17. Similar to 4Q17, we expect a lot of the gain in postpaid phone net adds to come at the expense of prepaid.”

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Here’s what the Morgan Stanley analysts expect when wireless network operators begin reporting their first quarter results later this month:

  • Verizon: “We are looking for postpaid phone net adds of -83k in the quarter, given the slow 1Q activity and increased promotional offerings from AT&T,” the analysts wrote.
  • AT&T: The analysts said they expect AT&T to report the loss of around 70,000 net postpaid phone customers. “Despite select promotional offers from AT&T during the quarter (BOGO on the iPhone 8 nationwide), we expect 1Q18 to see light activity overall for the industry,” they noted.
  • T-Mobile: “Overall, we expect phone net adds to decline ~20% Y/Y, to +626k, as T-Mobile is now competing with an industry that has gone all-in on unlimited, in addition to Comcast's new wireless effort (though the company has maintained that they are not seeing a material impact from Comcast in its markets), and more generally, a maturing wireless market,” said the Morgan Stanley analysts.
  • Sprint: The firm said it now expects the operator to report a net loss of 12,000 postpaid phone customers in the quarter, which is a reduction from its initial expectations of a gain of 14,000 for the period.

Notably, the Morgan Stanley analysts pointed out that carriers generally relied heavily on buy-one, get-one-free offers during the first quarter to gin up subscriber additions.

“We did see an increase in BOGO offers in the quarter. AT&T led the way with the most aggressive offers, eventually adding the iPhone X to the list of BOGO offers on February 9th. Verizon also ran an iPhone BOGO from 1/29 - 3/1, while Sprint, and to a lesser extent T-Mobile, ran a variety of BOGO offers throughout the quarter”

Indeed, just this week Verizon said it would reduce the price of its Google Pixel 2 and iPhone X by up to 50%, for customers who agree to trade in their existing device.

Finally, the Morgan Stanley analysts said that industry churn overall is likely to remain stable during the first quarter at around 1.8%. They also said that average revenues per user among the nation’s four largest wireless operators ought to decline during the period by around 1.3% year over year.