TC2's David Rohde on Telecom
By Mark Sheard Posted October 17, 2014
The following is a guest post by Mark Sheard, Managing Director of TC2 UK.
For some time in European mobile deals, the availability of smartphone daily roaming plans for mobile data services was a novel and often cost-effective differentiator for Vodafone. Daily plans began by providing an inclusive daily data allowance for a one-off daily fee while roaming in the EU. They may have started out at often only a few Euros a day, but now to analyze them you need to understand many new variables. These include variances among regions of the world, how daily roaming is bundled or not in various overall plans, and whether we’re talking voice or data or both.
These plans were particularly suited to the occasional user, for many were more cost- effective than relatively expensive monthly plans, and provided an excellent way to minimize “bill shock” for the unwary traveler. Vodafone’s competitors lagged behind and didn’t provide comparable alternatives.
Now the market is changing. First there has been a rise in the number of different types of daily plans available. They are extending across other regions (such as the US), being offered by more suppliers, and are coming in more flavors than data only.
Second, the “sticker” price per megabit has fallen even further. Simple – more choice and more for your Euro! Well not quite. With the increased choice comes greater complexity in assessing what is right for your business.
Beyond the headline rate for a daily bundle, you need to consider the scope across voice, data and messaging, the regional coverage for different plans, monthly or multiple-days capping, inclusive allowances, what happens when exceeded, what usage alerts users get, what limits and blocks might be applied, and what the activation requirements are. Sounds more challenging, and it is. In essence, you need to be able to assess the utility and total cost of the daily roaming products from different suppliers against your own usage profiles and user needs.
To do an effective assessment can be difficult. It can be hard to get the data in terms of: quantity of “roaming days”; what the average monthly consumption is; what is happening with the top users; and where the roaming is occurring. Traditional review of total megabytes of roaming data consumption is not good enough given the potential contribution of such plans to total costs. More creative modeling and sensitivity analysis are often required to overcome ambiguity in data.
However, the increased availability of daily plans and their apparent attractiveness makes the assessment of their contribution to total costs more important than ever.
By David Rohde Posted October 16, 2014
If I say “telecom debt,” what comes to mind? CLECs? Junk bonds? Venture capital? Chapter 11? 2002?
All that and more is associated with the pile-up of borrowed money that telecom seems to require. But the biggest telecom debtor in the country is in many people’s books the assumed safest carrier because it has the perceived best wireless position – Verizon.
Verizon dramatically outstrips the industry with $130 billion of debt in its books. Remember all that money it had to ship to Vodafone to buy out the 45% of Verizon Wireless it didn’t own? That pushed the pile way over $100 billion. And imagine if the old WorldCom, a.k.a. MCI, hadn’t gone through debt-cancelling bankruptcy – think of where Verizon (the buyer/savior of WorldCom) would be then!
Is there a “Big 2” of debt? AT&T holds a tidy $84 billion of the stuff. But the difference here between Verizon and AT&T counts for something.
Of course both carriers can hold high debt levels because they have something nobody else has – the perception of virtually guaranteed revenue streams. At one time that was considered ILEC territories, with their perpetual payments for landline residential primary lines. Those of course are going away, although broadband triple-play connections aren’t a bad replacement if the telco holds its own with the cableco.
But now wireless subscriptions basically play the same role. For all of T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” noise and the consumer wireless price “war” (which I might call a skirmish), both Verizon’s and AT&T’s churn rate per quarter is under 1%. Multi-year wireless contracts with loyal customers are a sweet deal in the world of evaluating even a debt-laden vendor’s financial sustainability.
But Verizon’s extraordinary $130 billion puts it in a special category. Basically it cannot go out and do another big acquisition right now. It can’t match AT&T’s pending acquisition of DirecTV (although that is going to require $7.5 billion debt issuance at AT&T), and it can’t compete for what everyone knows is AT&T’s desire for a global acquisition, like today’s Vodafone.
And Verizon’s debt service kind of “addicts” it to the highest-margin services. Already in the investment community Verizon is referred to as a “wireless carrier” with a little wireline on the side. Enterprises have to watch wireless account executives take over and then sometimes perform poorly in wireline RFPs, at least in the first round, if not subsequently. (Unless of course they are for high-margin managed services. SIP Trunking is another story, where Verizon also can step up right from the beginning, although that depends.)
Now Verizon certainly wants to reduce or stretch out its debt. It’s expected to fetch about $6 billion in a sale of 12,000 cell phone towers to American Tower Corporation. It’s working on a replacement of its 2016 and 2018 debt maturities with new debt maturing in 2020, taking advantage of the same near-zero short-term interest rate environment (in which bond investors salivate to lock in real yields for longer terms) that Level 3 has used to push off billions in near-term maturities to 2020 and beyond.
Verizon also has an advantage that no second-tier carrier has with its debt – the ability to issue bonds that compete with 30-year or longer Treasury bonds. About $23 billion of its total debt actually matures in 2037 or beyond. Many of these were originally denominated in the name of its subsidiary LEC operating companies and are considered a kind of “widows and orphans” income stream to their holders.
Speaking of which, the other way in which Verizon conserves a little investment capital is through its shareholder dividend, which equates to 4.5% of its current stock price, compared to AT&T at 5.4%. (Wall Street considers this justified because of Verizon’s perceived greater “pricing power” on wireless and thus potential higher growth. We’ll see about that.)
But all this starts to play around the margins. For enterprises, the overall concern here is not some financial house-of-cards issue as it would be with another type of supplier. It’s the pressure on the supplier’s operational decision-making process. We’ve discussed, and will continue to discuss, the phenomena where 1) Verizon wants to maintain its own pricing premium on wireless; 2) is aching to turn off legacy TDM/POTS networks; 3) likes to replace requested TDM access above T-1 with Ethernet access in proposal responses – not necessarily a bad thing but definitely an RFP wrinkle to deal with, and 4) has developed squirrelly new patterns in RFP behavior overall, putting renewed importance on getting the best account teams who can muscle through the organization.
All of this tracks back to Verizon’s debt pressures. Knowing this helps anticipate the paths through procurements that you will see in your big wireless and IP transformation projects.
By David Rohde Posted October 7, 2014
Sprint’s first official layoff announcement following new CEO Marcelo Claure’s clear orders to slim down only gave the required financial disclosure: $160 million in severance costs. Talk about begging the question – the number of actual people laid off went unmentioned.
But Sprint’s hometown business publication, the Kansas City Business Journal, has been sniffing around the headcount since long before Claure showed up in Overland Park. Yesterday the publication reported that the reality is that Sprint “has quietly shed about 5,000 employees since December.”
The startling impact is that across the U.S., Sprint now has fewer people working for it than T-Mobile.
Basically what’s happening at Sprint is a rolling cost purge meant to enable Sprint to offer broadband wireless plans at much lower prices. Of course that is what many industry observers and even the regulators who blocked AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile in 2011 were hoping for in recent years from Sprint. But they didn’t get it as Sprint’s model evaporated in a miasma of crushing equipment-subsidy contract commitments, a customer-unfriendly 4G network changeout, and an asinine marketing campaign for which Sprint’s new majority owner, Japan’s SoftBank, can take a lot of the blame.
The rolling purge has targeted the familiar areas of call center headcount and retail store closures, and is now proceeding to technical positions, according to the KC Business Journal. Some of that is caught up in the innards of Sprint’s own internal deals, such as acquisitions of spectrum holder (and one-time WiMax partner) Clearwire, which is basically going to shed three-quarters of its workforce.
But part of the ongoing story of the technical-position slimdown is clearly related to the brain drain of wireline product and account managers, who for some time have been quite logically offloading themselves to other carriers in such Sprint employment centers as Northern Virginia as well as in Kansas City and around the country.
If and when Sprint sells its wireline network and customer accounts outright, the deal almost certainly will fit much more into this “dramatic reduction of the cost base” model than provide any great windfall for Sprint, given the low offers Sprint is likely getting for the wireline business.
What’s key to watch in the enterprise wireless market is the pecking order. Low prices are great, of course, but typically carriers in any field of enterprise networking have a hard time meeting rigorous enterprise expectations when their focus is on slimming down and valuable expertise invariably flies out the door. And it’s a bit of a shock to the market to see T-Mobile, whose enterprise experience and presence is historically very thin, move into third place in U.S. on everything from the touchy-feely notion of “brand value” to the hard facts of employee headcount.
But hey, market shocks are part of the topsy-turvy arena of telecom, and Sprint’s slide to its new, lesser industry status is just the latest one.
By David Rohde Posted September 19, 2014
Sprint never did issue a press release announcing their attempt to buy T-Mobile under terms agreeable to both SoftBank and Deutsche Telekom. They didn’t have to – everyone knew the deal was in the works. Announcing the proposed deal would have just provoked the regulators, who behind the scenes told them no anyway.
The same is now true of Sprint’s sale of its wireline business to formalize the reality that Sprint is only interested in the wireless market. No announcement is needed – the words and actions of new CEO Marcelo Claure in his first month speak loudly enough. Already Wall Street bankers and analysts are leaking information as part of the bargaining over the bidders and the price, which could be shockingly low for such a venerable supplier.
One big difference between the two situations: There’s no reason for the U.S. government to turn down a deal to move Sprint wireline somewhere else. If anything, it could restore at least the sense of a No. 3 carrier in the first tier of the wireline market. Sprint will clearly require the buyer to lease back its network to Sprint for wireless backhaul purposes, but will almost certainly offload the customers.
The game began last week when, at a Goldman Sachs investment conference, Claure all but hung a “for sale” sign on Sprint’s wireline division. “There are a lot of businesses that we shouldn’t be in,” Claure flatly declared. “I am a believer that you have got to be in the businesses where you have a chance to win.”
Claure then explained that Sprint had “accumulated” a lot of excess businesses. You could consider that disrespectful of the many fine people who enabled consumers to “hear a pin drop” on their Sprint long distance calls in the 1980s and made Sprint the disruptive player in the 1990s-2000s frame relay market with its clean and cheap zero-CIR service. That is, if anybody cared about that stuff anymore, which I’m sure Claure’s boss Masayoshi Son at SoftBank doesn’t.
(Fun side note: The original MCI alternative long distance service in the 1970s and early 1980s really was atrocious – almost worse in quality than a cell phone call between the side of a mountain and the underpass of a bridge in the early 2000s. That was the target of Sprint’s “pin drop” jab.)
Claure then doubled down in a Wall Street Journal interview published last weekend. He repeated that Sprint should only be in businesses where it’s likely to win (I’d say Sprint’s recent habit of non-response or bad responses to SIP trunking RFPs is not even trying, much less winning) and said he’d inform employees before revealing what he’d sell. The WSJ reporter didn’t even care enough about wireline networks to ask the obvious follow-up question.
A couple of days ago the first trial balloon from a prospective buyer went up when Investors Business Daily reported that an Oppenheimer analyst was speculating that Level 3 could pay $4 billion for Sprint wireline. If that sounds like a lot of possibles and maybes, it is. Keep in mind that IBD is a stock traders’ publication where the mere possibility of a rumor moves the needle on stock prices, and many of its readers have no real interest in the long-term outcome for the industry. But the report, however sketchy, caused the more focused Telecom Ramblings to start handicapping the odds among possible buyers CenturyLink and Windstream as well as Level 3.
As the story unfolds, keep in mind these three factors of key import for enterprise users:
Claure is the very definition of an eager seller. One reason that the sale price is likely to be nominal – even Level 3’s acquisition of the previously low-profile TW Telecom is higher, at $5.7 billion – is that the sale price probably isn’t really the point for Claure. Instead, he’s laser-focused on dropping Sprint’s operating expenditures – headcount, first and foremost – to create a new cost base for his rapid conversion of Sprint to an Uncarrier-like consumer wireless disruptor. Speed may be more important than billions, believe it or not. Some analysts believe Sprint may actually be sold for essentially zero if the buyer assumes a healthy bunch of Sprint’s debt instead.
What’s on everybody’s plate is obviously a factor. Level 3 of course already has an acquisition to digest, although once again the jigsaw puzzle works in its favor – Sprint completely failed at TWT’s specialty, metro buildouts, while Sprint wireline would bring at least some of the Fortune 500 customers that TWT on its own couldn’t win. Windstream also has a big debt pile but acquiring Sprint would also give it the national customer base it’s been a little behind in acquiring (although some of Windstream’s recent SIP and other bids are very encouraging). CenturyLink has the cleanest shot at tucking Sprint in financially, although it may judge it doesn’t need the headache since it has good enterprise name recognition and major accounts already.
Culture and experience will count, as always. Sprint has been bleeding wireline business but leaves behind an echo of professional enterprise experience embodied in its contractual paper trail. You can see this in its business terms and conditions, where Sprint understood how to provide term commitment structures and rate reviews while avoiding pernicious per-circuit terms for standard bandwidths – exactly the kind of accommodation to the serious enterprise market that second-tier carriers have a hard time learning. Will the resulting sale therefore be easier than it looks to integrate? Of course not – a bloody mess of integration is quite possible. But one can hope any new holder of Sprint’s wireline accounts will learn how to compete better on both prices and terms.
So let the whispers and jockeying for position commence. When it comes to the end of the wireline enterprise effort under the Sprint name, the inevitability of it all suggests that it’s better sooner than later.
By David Rohde Posted September 2, 2014
Just because the U.S. government basically forced Sprint to go it alone in the wireless market doesn’t mean that T-Mobile can’t still be sold to somebody else.
A successful buyout of T-Mobile US would mean the third time’s the charm. AT&T failed in 2011 and Sprint for all intents and purposes failed this year (since the deal was never going to be announced unless Sprint parent SoftBank had the regulatory politics lined up in its favor).
Here’s my bet: T-Mobile’s principal owner Deutsche Telekom will only sell out if it gets north of the $39 billion AT&T originally offered in 2011. Why not? T-Mobile’s a hotter brand now than it was then.
There’s no sense for DT in reverting back to the $32 billion that SoftBank and Sprint put on the table. No other prospective buyer would have Sprint’s and AT&T’s ultimately disqualifying problem from an antitrust standpoint – that they’re one of the other national U.S. carriers. Not unless Verizon’s planning a T-Mobile takeover (I’ll call an ambulance if you just had a heart attack).
Now here’s the problem in all this: What it would take any other acquirer to get to $40 billion might require slicing and dicing T-Mobile’s finances to such an extent that it would render T-Mobile even less of an enterprise factor than it is now.
Today’s post-Labor Day news tidbits demonstrate the challenge. You remember that a French carrier named Iliad SA put a slightly laughable offer for T-Mobile on the table (well, on the world financial markets rumor mill) a month ago. Iliad only got to a bit more than SoftBank’s offer for T-Mobile through a financial sleight-of-hand with little more heft than a PowerPoint bullet: the promise to “count” $10 billion of “synergies” in the value of the deal to the seller.
I get that two merged companies don’t need two human resources departments, but the only way to get to anything remotely near $10 billion in synergies is to cut network investments – the last thing T-Mobile, or any U.S. wireless carrier, needs right now.
As if to acknowledge the credibility issue, Iliad clearly leaked over the holiday weekend that it has prospective partners among name-brand global companies with interests in the IT communications markets talking about a joint bid. Stories in outlets like London’s Financial Times and Reuters imply that these partners could include other diversified conglomerates like SoftBank, and there’s always the cash hordes stashed at U.S.-based tech giants.
Our friend Rob Powell at Telecom Ramblings astutely notes that the prospective partner in Iliad’s next bid could be none other than Dish Network, the ostensible “loser” when SoftBank “won” the bidding for Sprint (although at a higher price than SoftBank wanted to pay). With AT&T on track to get its acquisition of DirecTV approved and sealed, Dish is almost universally assumed to be poised to go after its own blockbuster merger deal.
But reviewing this speculation basically redoubles the synergy concern rather than alleviates it. In the Financial Times’ telling, T-Mobile comes across as practically a plaything for global captains of finance. An Iliad official who promotes a joint bid with a partner then talks about raising T-Mobile’s operating margins from the 20s to the 30s in percentage terms. How? By “better managing call center costs.” Maybe some ex-Sprint customer service executives might want to relate their experience on that (better yet, their customers might). In the enterprise you can read that as cutting “account team costs” in an era where bad or reduced account teams spell nightmares for business users.
There’s also the “successful business guru” trap in U.S. wireless that we’ve already discussed. Rob Powell notes the likely ambition of Dish’s Charlie Ergen in the T-Mobile partner-bid speculation. Iliad itself features yet another of these “disruptive business heroes” in the figure of Xavier Niel, who has beaten down French consumer wireless pricing. What has so far defeated the hubris of this archetype in the U.S. wireless market is geographic size and cultural challenges. It bears repeating that the U.S. is neither the European Union nor a Pacific Rim archipelago.
I doubt that any of these guys will put a hamster in their TV commercials as Softbank basically forced Sprint to do. But unless they’re prepared to stream NFL games starting this weekend to a tablet in Anywhere USA as Verizon repeatedly brags it can, they’re not likely to be able to grab subscribers at much of any profitable price point.
U.S. regulators played their part by holding firm on four national carriers in the face of SoftBank’s Washington public policy spin. But that’s only half the game. More will have to happen to prevent wireless as well as wireline from effective duopoly status, especially in the face of AT&T’s new unification moves among its divisions. Of course there’s always the quarter trillion or so in cash stashed at the five biggest tech companies that could change the game instantly. Buying into wireless devices has been enough of a challenge, but could the margins in wireless carriers attract them? Stranger things have happened.
By David Rohde Posted August 28, 2014
Let’s play a word association game. If I say “Ethernet access,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? “10 megabits per second”? I can understand that answer. It’s what I would have said up until recently.
As of now, though, I don’t think that’s the right frame of mind.
Dedicated access of 10M, 20M and up is still a ways “out there” for most locations for most users. It makes Ethernet access seem like a specialized product for specialized locations, no matter how attractive Ethernet is to network managers schooled in computer networking over local area networks.
But Ethernet out to the WAN is in fact becoming mainstream. Even if you don’t ask for it, carriers from the largest incumbents to the most specialized competitors may be pushing Ethernet dedicated access on you. Often it’s a replacement for NxT1 requirements – if you ask for 3xT1 or 4.5M in a demand set it may come back to you as 5M Ethernet.
The good news: It now often comes with a better price than 3 “Ts”. The bad (or uncertain) news: Do you know what it’s being provided over? Frankly, does the carrier itself know (especially if it’s not the ILEC in the area, which it probably isn’t)? Are you prepared to accept Ethernet over Copper (EoC)? What are you going to tell your branch offices in terms of installation intervals?
Here’s the worst – or let’s say the most challenging – news of all: It’s now clear that the telecom industry is not going to wait until there’s fiber everywhere and Ethernet installation becomes routine before essentially ripping up the way they propose dedicated access. Remember, for all the talk and preparation for “voice” over IP to replace TDM-based Plain Old Telephone Service, we also have to deal with the fact that T1 and T3 are TDM technologies and subject to the scrap heap as well.
The great thing about T1 is that it’s universally available and even the newbiest CLEC with little or no last-mile physical facilities of its own knows how to order it, price it out, and give you some sort of predictable installation projection. But by the time Ethernet access becomes the default option as carriers say sayonara to TDM, it almost certainly will not be the case that Ethernet rollouts will be as operationally routine as T1 is today. Availability will not be 100%, and pricing will be all over the map with some carriers still struggling to get away from location-by-location pricing. Even the largest carriers may still be favoring their own ILEC territories in their pricing.
And installation intervals? Get familiar with the troubling concept of “Special Construction.” Listen, it’s great that the fiber footprint in the country is changing, perhaps driven by the experience of recent years where arguably the fiber footprint to residences overtook that of business locations. In fact, the pending merger of Level 3 and TW Telecom is largely driven by TWT’s buildout in 80 metro areas and nearly 22,000 on-net buildings.
But a great deal of Ethernet access is sold with the promise of on-net installation. At least TWT is honest about the fact that it builds out to business locations to provide Ethernet access based largely on the sales it makes. Can you say the same for AT&T and Verizon? Have you heard that installation intervals for migrations are no longer 30-45 days per location and more like 90-120 days on a routine schedule, maybe 6 months if “Special Construction” is required, and even 9-12 months in situations where the (big incumbent) carrier only revealed the need for Special Construction after the fact?
All this might even be comprehensible if Special Construction were strictly a question of fiber builds in the carrier “last mile,” but it’s not. Often the really thorny issue is in-building remediation. Talk about finger-pointing! A core skill going forward for corporate telecom professionals will be structuring carrier deals and financial incentives to anticipate and fulfill Special Construction requirements such that they keep your new Ethernet access-based network as economically efficient as it should be and your migration schedule predictable and credible throughout your enterprise.
As usual, the better this issue is handled right up front – in your competitive RFP’s text of requirements and the demand set triggering your bidders’ financial proposals – the better your final result will be. Because of that, we are introducing a new session on Ethernet access at our semi-annual Negotiate Enterprise Communications Deals conference. In next month’s edition of the conference in San Diego, TC2′s Technology Director David Lee and LB3’s Hank Levine will join me in diving into all aspects of Ethernet access for enterprises.
If you know anything about this conference, you know that there’s also likely to be great input from experienced peers of yours who’ve already tackled this issue. You don’t have to wait for the Ethernet access session itself on Friday morning – just bring up the subject at any lunch table or conference social function and you’re bound to get educated.
And so back to the word association game. Those users who have dealt with this issue might have a different instinctive answer when I say “Ethernet access” and I ask for the first thing that pops into their heads. Their answer would likely be “Special Construction” (uttered with a sigh and a slump of the shoulders). There’s a lot of experience to learn from. About now is the time to make preparations for the onrushing wave of change in dedicated access for corporate wide-area networks.
By David Rohde Posted August 27, 2014
Carrier executives come and go, and sometimes they just play musical chairs. Still, a shift yesterday in AT&T’s top ranks portends more than the usual seat-shifting.
Ralph de la Vega, formerly AT&T Mobility’s CEO, is getting a brand new position as CEO of the “Mobile & Business Solutions Group.” That means that Mobility itself is getting a new CEO (everyone’s a “CEO” these days), and that will be a former chief of wireless partnerships named Glenn Lurie.
The fact that there’s now anyone at the top of the org chart who’s an overseer of “Mobile and Business Solutions” tells you something about AT&T’s future direction. That direction is something like Verizon’s, and not likely to make things easier for large enterprises.
Verizon some time ago shifted control of all facets of many of its enterprise accounts away from “Verizon Business” to veterans of Verizon Wireless, an organization whose stock-in-trade is charging more for non-commodity service and not necessarily providing commensurate flexibility or responsiveness. Remember that Verizon Wireless didn’t used to be totally owned by Verizon, and never really engaged in the sort of hand-to-hand combat that today’s Big 2 carriers inherited from their most important original links to the enterprise market.
Those historical organizations – the legacy AT&T interexchange carrier business that RBOC SBC bought in 2006, and the legacy MCI that was folded into RBOC Verizon at the end of the WorldCom bankruptcy saga – were schooled in competition across market-leading prices, business terms, network performance, and national and global scalability. MCI turned into “Verizon Business” and carried forward its scrappy, competitive practices until it began getting subsumed under the haughty, top-dog-and-we-know-it attitude of Verizon Wireless in the account control sweepstakes. Now the question is whether the same thing will happen at AT&T.
Some of the difficulty here revolves around carrier economics. Carriers today make more money on wireless than on wireline. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that AT&T and Verizon make a lot of money on wireless and Sprint and T-Mobile make no money on wireless. And tellingly, one of the very reasons that AT&T and Verizon lead the wireless pack is that their still-healthy (and recently, actually slightly growing) margins on wireline give them an “in” to corporate wireless business in a way Sprint has basically forfeited and T-Mobile never had.
But now AT&T may let the complacency of wireless money-making creep across its entire enterprise effort as it integrates wireless and wireline under de la Vega. AT&T officials say they have been working for some time to integrate their wireless and wireline operations, including folding its marketing and distribution for the business solutions group into AT&T’s Mobility division.
In dealing with all this, the first thing you’ll want to watch out for is what I call “lumpy” behavior. One of the things that can happen with an organization in thrall to its 45%-50% wireless margins is to fail to put its best foot forward out of the gates on a wireline procurement, and then react with shock when they find out you’re serious about competition.
You can still get to a great result with AT&T vs. Verizon competition on a core enterprise procurement – our own stock-in-trade at TC2 is to ensure that – but the path to get there has been changing. These days you can almost hear the pounding of tables in the background when a Verizon makes a lazy effort on its first-round proposal and their account executives have to climb up the ladder inside their organization to get a serious bid on the table in Round 2. If this becomes industry-standard practice it might be time to buy some furniture-industry stocks for all the tables that will have to be replaced at Big 2 carrier offices.
There’s also going to be a real premium going forward for users in understanding unified contracts for wireless and wireline (and local and hosted and managed) services with comprehensive term revenue commitments. It’s one of many subjects we’re discussing at next month’s Negotiate Enterprise Communications Deals conference in San Diego, and AT&T’s organization shift just ramps up the importance of this topic even more.
Of course there are always silver linings and offsetting factors to AT&T’s shift. I can think of three right now:
- Culturally AT&T has always had a buffer against losing respect for wireline telecommunications, more so than any other carrier. Its very name still conjures up Alexander Graham Bell and “telephones.” No media outlet would dare call AT&T “a wireless company” as it does almost everybody else (including, sometimes, Verizon). It’s typically last to phase out a service because of legacy revenues. It remains to be seen whether they will handle this organization shift in the same way as Verizon or in a more modulated fashion.
- Accelerating price competition in consumer wireless, now headlined by Sprint’s desperation to turn around subscriber losses under new CEO Marcelo Claure, are bound to cut wireless margins somewhat. Since wireless executives everywhere can’t be quite as fat and happy about their business as they were even 6 months ago, account executives had better not let too much wireline business float away or they’ll be in for a shock come Christmas time.
- The fourth quarter of 2014 will feature a completed merger between Level 3 (with its enthusiasm for SIP Trunking) and TW Telecom (a champion of Ethernet access), and continued progress by CenturyLink in moving away from its local telco roots to national wireline business (where its so-called “strategic revenue” hit 51% of total company revenue in the second quarter). Several other players are awaiting any slip-up by the Big 2 in core wireline and getting ready to pounce.
Just be prepared for the change. It really is likely to be a “new” AT&T for once. The sooner you recognize behavioral shifts and their underlying causes, the better you can react.
By David Rohde Posted August 18, 2014
Marcelo Claure, Sprint’s new CEO, is an impressive guy. He started cell-phone recycler and distributor Brightstar Corp. in 1997, built it to $10 billion in revenues, and sold most of it last year to SoftBank for $1.26 billion. He owns a soccer team in Bolivia, where he was born. He’s equally comfortable in the U.S., where he went to school. He works 28 hours a day. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He hobnobs with David Beckham. He’s 6½ feet tall.
My question is what difference any of that is going to make for Sprint.
I know that’s not a very trendy thing to say. What I’m supposed to do here is to accept the way that SoftBank/Sprint Chairman Masayoshi Son (also a foreign-born, U.S.-educated billionaire) lauds Claure as a younger version of himself – a hard-charging, convention-defying, dream-catching wizard of global business. Then I’m supposed to declare this a new day dawning for Sprint under its exciting new leadership.
But telecom is a funny business. By “telecom” I specifically mean carriers – the actual network services providers. The fact that Claure (pronounced “claw-RAY,” more or less) succeeded in a related business – the shuffling around and insuring of handset devices – is almost a detriment because it may lead him to easy analogies that are wrong.
Telecom carriers are exceptionally capital-intensive. It’s a remarkably tactile business – ironic when we’re talking about wireless carriers, but no less true nevertheless. It requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure – you know, actual stuff – around the country, even if some of it is leased back from independent real estate owners, as cell towers often now are.
And networks are unforgiving, especially when end-users are losing their patience for distinctions between wired and wireless networks for coverage, throughput and reliability. It’s very hard to sell people on choices according to lesser or greater network quality across multiple price points, like so many cans of green beans at a warehouse store vs. fresh vegetables at the organic market. Yet this is the way Claure seems to think the market works, based on his hardware distribution experience.
This disconnect was evident on Claure’s second day on the job last week during a “town hall” meeting for Sprint employees. The news out of the town hall was that Sprint is preparing wireless-plan price cuts of the sort it’s already testing in limited markets – a $50 unlimited-data plan for individuals, and the same $160 family-of-four pricing that AT&T and Verizon now promote but with 20G of shared data rather than 10G.
But in a telling moment of candor, Claure gave this explanation of Sprint’s upcoming pricing moves: “When you have a great network, you don’t have to compete on price. When your network is behind, unfortunately you have to compete on value and price.”
Gee thanks, Marcelo. If that isn’t straight out of Verizon’s playbook – “For Best Results, Use Verizon” (and pay up for it) – I don’t know what is. While advertising yourself as an inferior product may have some play in the consumer market – what the marketing gurus might call “value positioning” – it’s really a non-starter in the enterprise market.
Behind that fact is a bunch of recent historical context that Claure, who’s been a member of Sprint’s board since January, may have missed. Having dropped its pursuit of T-Mobile in the face of regulatory opposition, Sprint now has to go out for deals on its own with what is becoming a degraded brand. In the business market, Sprint’s image woes can be chalked up to a number of factors. There’s obviously the mess with Nextel, whose push-to-talk subscribers scattered across the industry when the network was turned off in June 2013. There’s also the failed 4G adventure with WiMax, which Sprint scrambled to replace with LTE. And there’s its also-ran status with Apple, whose iPhone burrowed its way to enterprise acceptance.
But a much more insidious factor has hurt Sprint in the enterprise. As the company started to pull away from the wireline market, it actually continued to offer high-quality MPLS and other WAN services. But it fell into the terrible habit of refusing to bid on plain old long distance service over the PSTN in corporate RFPs combining voice and data requirements. Hey, old-fashioned POTS – what could be more backward-looking, right? Or at least that’s how Sprint clearly looked at it. Unfortunately, that left the field for comprehensive enterprise wireline RFPs to AT&T and Verizon. Share of mind dramatically declined for Sprint in the enterprise.
Could Sprint still grab attention in the wireless business market with price cuts, if it were married to dramatic quality improvements? Of course it could, and we’d love to see it because we’re in the business of obtaining market-leading prices for our clients. But here’s where Sprint’s money woes get in the way. Its $27 billion debt overhang dramatically limits its ability to do all of the following at once: finish its LTE buildout, bid for billions of dollars’ worth of new spectrum in a 2015 auction of low-band, high-propagation frequencies previously assigned to UHF television, and fully absorb the gargantuan equipment subsidies it’s committed to Apple, Samsung and others rather than burden users with some of the cost.
There’s really no chance Sprint can pull off all that, and Claure himself last week also said he will drive Sprint to be “extremely cost-efficient.” That’s a very typical thing for an executive in a distribution-chain type business (such as Brightstar) to say. For capital-intensive businesses (like Sprint), not so much.
If Sprint wants to distinguish itself with customer service going forward, a different messaging and mindset is required. Great customer support begins with a happy employee base, and I can tell you that folks in Overland Park, Kansas (Sprint HQ) and elsewhere are no longer sure what’s worse for their own personal future – a merger with T-Mobile or a hard-charging, cost-watching barn-burner with a track record like Claure’s.
Thankfully, the enterprise wireline market is throbbing with energy from second-tier players, including the soon-to-be-merged Level 3 and TW Telecom, and in wireless T-Mobile looks set to continue pushing on aggressively although its enterprise share hasn’t really broken out yet. But new, exciting CEO or not, Sprint’s position looks tenuous.
My best advice to Claure would be not to overdo the analogies with his past success – it hasn’t worked too well for Masayoshi Son either in his Sprint adventure in the U.S. so far. Only a no-excuses network, top customer services and price competitiveness will play here. Right now, for the erstwhile member of the once-upon-a-time U.S. “Big 3,” that is, dare I say it, a very tall challenge.