The sudden battle over unlimited data plans will spur “fundamental readjustments” in the wireless market that may include some major consolidation among service providers, according to Chetan Sharma Consulting.
All four major U.S. wireless network operators offered unlimited data plans as recently as seven years ago, Sharma observed in a report on the U.S. mobile market released this week. But the smartphone craze fueled explosive growth in the consumption of mobile data, forcing carriers to rein in those limitless offerings in favor of tiered plans that enabled them to better monetize their customers.
Unlimited data plans have resurfaced in a big way, though: T-Mobile and Sprint reintroduced new plans in August, and the nation’s two largest carriers have followed suit in recent months. And operators have continued to up the ante, lowering prices for unlimited data and adding perks such as HD video and hotspot usage.
But whether the unlimited model is sustainable in the long term is far from clear.
“Competition is a funny business,” Sharma wrote. “It can force one to commit unnatural acts. T-Mobile brought back unlimited and Verizon was the last chip to fall. As of early 2017, the market has circled back to 2010. However, the data consumption has grown over 5,000% since then. Can this possibly continue?”
The heightening competition has led analysts to predict a wave of consolidation on the horizon. M&A activity has been stifled largely due to the anti-collusion rules of the FCC’s incentive auction of 600 MHz airwaves, but that event will wrap up in the next few weeks, opening the door for carriers and would-be service providers to negotiate deals. And industry insiders believe Donald Trump’s administration is likely to be far more receptive to tie-ups between wireless carriers than Barack Obama’s White House was.
Speculation has focused primarily on a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, but tie-ups between existing carriers and those looking to join the wireless market are also possible.
But while significant consolidation may be in the offing, it may not offset waning profit margins in an ultra-competitive U.S. market where smartphone penetration may have reached the saturation point.
“There is still a fair amount of margin in the business before operators go in (the) red,” Sharma wrote. “A round of M&As can potentially stop the declines but it is not a sure thing. (The) industry is in for some fundamental readjustments. We will have more to say about the subject in the coming months.”