Insights

Is Handset Exclusivity Really the Wireless Issue of the Day
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Is Handset Exclusivity Really the Wireless Issue of the Day

Roger Entner, Senior Vice President, Research and Insights, Telecom Practice

Over the past few months, the government’s interest in the practice of handset exclusivity has intensified. On the heels of Congressional hearings in July, Verizon Wireless agreed to dial back its exclusive deals with cell phone manufacturers to accommodate smaller carriers. This week the FCC, which has already begun a review of handset agreements, has made the issue a focus of its regular monthly meeting. But no matter what the setting or circumstances, whenever U.S. lawmakers and regulators discuss competition in the wireless industry, the elephant in the room these days is almost always the iPhone.

Since Apple first gave AT&T exclusive rights to carry its groundbreaking device in the United States, concerns about unfair competitive advantages have become a hot-button issue. Apprehensions increased as AT&T sought to extend the deal beyond the 2009 deadline, and reached a fever pitch when Apple rejected a Google Voice application earlier this summer.

Nonetheless, many both inside and outside the industry question the need for more government intervention.

Indeed, before the iPhone came along, far fewer consumers (or lawmakers and regulators for that matter) cared a great deal about handset exclusivity, because most cell phones were utilitarian at best. According to Nielsen’s Mobile Insights report, which surveys 300,000 wireless users every year about their opinions and behaviors, in Q3 2006 – a full year before the iPhone launched – “device” was only the seventh most important factor in choosing a wireless carrier. The percentage of respondents on device has since increased from 2.9% to 6.4% in Q1 2009, yet the category remains in seventh place.

There is no doubt AT&T has benefited from the arrangement. New subscribers between the first quarters of 2008 and 2009 who signed up for “a phone not offered by my carrier” (i.e., the iPhone) jumped from 11% to 23%, and the company has reported that 40% of its iPhone customers switched from other services.

Still, the mobile industry is home to many operators who sell a wide variety of handsets. Currently, there are more than 100 different phones offered by the nation’s “Big 4” service providers in their retail store, plus hundreds more from the large carrier’s websites and the more than 100 smaller carriers that are operating in the United States.

Even if every handset were required to be accessible across all four networks, only the largest of manufacturers could invest in the infrastructure necessary to produce identical products with different technologies. Neither legislation nor regulation could nor should be expected to change that situation.

It can be argued that exclusivity actually enhances innovation and creates more choice. If, for example, Apple’s iPhone or Motorola’s RAZR were initially available on all U.S. carriers, there would have been minimal incentive for handset manufacturers to create rival products. Though competition would exist, the options would be considerably less diverse.

What is more, the iPhone’s significant technological lead over virtually every other smart phone would probably have virtually destroyed the market for the other handset manufacturers. T-Mobile, like several other carriers, would have had less reason to invest in the development Android-based devices. Palm would not have been able to build the Pre and sell as many as it did in the first few weeks without the support of Sprint. In fact, Palm would have likely died without the Centro, which was custom built for Sprint under an exclusive pact that has since expired.

Beyond the iPhone’s distinct technological advantages, AT&T’s infrastructure would almost certainly limit competition as well. Early on Apple had decided to build its phone on a GSM technology path, the most popular standard for mobile phones in the world. But in the United States there are but two GSM networks – AT&T and T-Mobile. Were the iPhone originally available on both, consumers would pick their carrier based largely on price and coverage. Since pricing can be easily matched, T-Mobile’s nascent footprint would have a hard time going up against AT&T’s more built-out network.

In time – perhaps as early as next year – Apple will likely drop its AT&T exclusivity and build an iPhone in the U.S. that can be used across other wireless technologies. That is about to happen in Europe, where the company is reportedly moving away from exclusive deals because it can now derive greater profitability by not having restricted relationships with only single providers. At that point, new and current iPhone users will migrate to carriers that makes that the most sense for them – still driven by the factors other than “device.”

A version of this article also appeared at FierceWireless.com.