After 14 iterations, T-Mobile can no longer call its “Un-carrier” events unusual. And after upending so many aspects of wireless service in past such announcements, the odds of a groundbreaking shift in its offerings get increasingly unlikely.
So what will the company do for the “Un-carrier Next” event that starts Wednesday at 8 a.m. Pacific?
The company has kept its descriptions as vague as ever, from CEO John Legere’s “one more thing” aside in its Aug. 1 earnings call (“Isn't it about time we shake things up in this industry again?” he said) to a video he tweeted Aug. 8 (showing him wheeling a wooden box labeled “Decommissioned” into a warehouse filled with boxes bearing such labels as “Contracts” and “Data Limits”).
But let’s take a look at what T-Mo has cast aside in the past.
No Un-carrier move did more to upend the industry than T-Mobile’s March 2013 ditching of two-year contracts and handset subsidies. The other three carriers all copied it, and the subsequent disconnection of service rates and equipment costs has opened up space in the U.S. market for such direct-to-consumer phone vendors as HMD.
In October of that year, T-Mobile dumped another customer-hostile practice, extortionate international-roaming fees. Sprint has since adopted T-Mobile’s practice of offering free texts and 2G data roaming plus cheap overseas calling, while AT&T and Verizon have added cheaper day passes.
T-Mobile’s April 2014 announcement of an end to overage charges—to be replaced by throttling back customers’ connections to 2G speeds, essentially “zero rating” services such as email and navigation that tolerate an EDGE connection—also led the other carriers to follow suit on their own plans with data caps.
The Bellevue, Washington, firm, however, has yet to see its rivals copy its January 2017 shift to fold taxes and fees into advertised rates. (It’s also worth noting that T-Mobile’s newest “Essentials” rate plan does not include taxes and fees in its advertised rate.)
And in recent months, some of T-Mobile’s moves have themselves imitated those of competitors. See, for instance, last week’s news that it would offer an Essentials plan with a fenced-in form of unlimited data much like the basic unmetered-data offerings at AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.
“What used to make a lot of waves,” said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, “now makes barely a ripple.”
And the possibilities for T-Mobile’s next news that he and two other analysts discussed don’t all suggest a major “wow” factor.
T-Mobile’s December 2017 purchase of pay TV firm Layer3, for instance, should result in some sort of phone-based video option for T-Mobile subscribers. Carolina Milanesi of Creative Strategies suggested in an email that time would be soon, adding that AT&T’s increasing emphasis on bundling video—eased by its purchases of DirecTV and Time Warner—would make a T-Mobile streaming video service “more a need than a differentiator for T-Mobile,” she wrote in an email.
Jeffrey Moore, founder of Wave7 Research, agreed. “T-Mobile has been hinting about ‘retiring relics’ and has been saying that the cable industry needs to be reformed, so it’s likely Layer3 TV,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Also, they’ve been doing some video-related hiring.”
Entner, however, argued that building a streaming app on Layer3’s traditional linear service will take longer than nine months.
“I don’t think that they’re going to announce over-the-top television on Wednesday,” he said. “It’s just not enough time between when they bought it and where we are today.”
What, then, about the mobile 5G service T-Mobile said in February will have coverage built out in 30 cities this year?
At the time, CTO Neville Ray said service wouldn’t go on sale until compatible phones arrived, but Reticle Research founder Ross Rubin pointed to Verizon’s recent launch of Motorola’s Z3 with a 5G add-on as reason to think that timetable could accelerate.
“It just does go to show that the chipsets are becoming available,” he said. Rubin added that T-Mobile could depart from competitors by offering more specifics (with the caveat that they might depend on government approval of its planned merger with Sprint).
“They could put out a timetable for national 5G coverage,” he said. “They could talk about pricing, which no one has touched yet.”
Milanesi offered a different theory of 5G marketing: T-Mobile could tout its accelerating deployment of ultrafast LAA (Licensed Assisted Access) LTE: “With their advanced LTE support, they could pitch this as a reality of today versus having to wait for 5G.”
The only big shift in phone distribution lately has been Sprint’s pivot to leasing phones instead of selling them, but Entner doubted that T-Mobile would follow suit. “Sprint can do that because they own their own handset trade-in business,” Entner noted.
Entner did, however, suggest one way that T-Mobile could build on an earlier Un-carrier move: let its U.S. subscribers benefit more overseas from its corporate kinship with Deutsche Telekom’s subsidiary of the same name.
“What would be really cool if T-Mobile USA would be basically using all the other T-Mobile networks as if they were in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s T-Mobile, it’s Deutsche Telekom, why can’t it be T-Mobile everywhere?”
There’s a precedent here: Sprint now lets U.S. subscribers roam in Japan for just $5 a month, courtesy of its corporate parent SoftBank’s wireless business there.
“That would really improve their international capability, and it wouldn’t cost them too much,” Entner said. “It would all stay in the family.”
Entner also pointed to another possible next step for T-Mobile that could augment earlier Un-carrier news: zero-rating 3G speeds overseas in the same way as it zero-rated 2G before. As is, T-Mobile’s sole options to get past 2G speeds are the twice-EDGE speeds offered by its T-Mobile One Plus add-on (which itself jumped from $10 a month on a single line to $15 a month starting Friday) or the $5 day passes it sells with LTE access.
“The difference between the pricing for 2G data, 3G data and 4G data has become negligible,” Entner said. “It’s counting on your frustration with 2G speeds.”