Sid Gorham, President, Telecom Practice
Pressure has been mounting on U.S. mobile carriers to lower pricing in response to slow growth and the weakened economy. The Big 4 national carriers (Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) each introduced unlimited usage plans in Q1 2008 that offered unlimited calling for approximately $99 per month. While these plans lowered rates for high usage subscribers, they failed to spark a full-on price war in the mass market as many analysts predicted at the time.
Today, the Big 4 national carriers are increasingly challenged by regional carriers that exclusively sell unlimited plans. These "All You Can Eat" (AYCE) carriers offer unlimited service in the $40-$50 per month range. Their services lack many of the capabilities of the Big 4's offerings, but for budget-challenged consumers who don't travel frequently, they are an attractive option.
The largest AYCE carriers, MetroPCS and Cricket, serve 13 and 78 metropolitan markets, respectively. Boost Mobile, a subsidiary of Sprint, recently launched a similar service nationwide. In total, there are only 12.1m subscribers on AYCE plans in the US or 5% of the total wireless market. However, because the AYCE carriers only provide service in certain markets, the national subscriber numbers don't tell the real story.
Nielsen measures subscriber counts and market share in each of the top 75 metropolitan areas in the US via its Subscriber Flowshare Metrics service, and tracks growth of AYCE carriers to analyze their long-term impact on the category. One of the most interesting markets is Las Vegas, where both Metro and Cricket launched over a year ago. Boost launched its unlimited service there in January 2009.
Across the U.S., AYCE services still claim a relatively low 6% of total market [chart]. However, AYCE carriers have been gaining subscribers [chart] (positive net additions) for each of the last 12 months while the Big 4 as a group have lost subscribers (negative net additions) for every month except during December's holiday push.
There are several reasons Las Vegas is an extra attractive market for AYCE carriers. It has been hard-hit by the recession. Its flat topology allows new carriers to build network coverage cost effectively. It is an insular market without any closely adjacent metropolitan areas, making local-only wireless service more attractive.
However, even considering these local factors, subscriber growth in AYCE services in Vegas has been impressive and the message for the Big 4 is cause for concern. Both Cricket and Metro acquired significant amounts of new spectrum aiding their reach. T-Mobile is clearly concerned that what happens in Vegas may not stay in Vegas. The smallest of the Big 4, T-Mobile began offering an Unlimited Loyalty plan that provides unlimited calling for $49.99 to subscribers with longer than 22 months tenure. Most recently, TracFone has launched its Straight Talk service on Verizon's network at $30 per month for 1,000 minute, 1,000 text messages and 30 MB data, clearly aimed at the more budget-conscious buyers of the AYCE target audience. This offer is a competitive response from Verizon to increase the pressure on AYCE providers in their existing markets and scorch the earth in their expansion markets.