AT&T Earnings Puts Wireless Saturation And LTE in Focus

T: AT&T logo

AT&T (NYSE:T) is set to announce its Q2 FY2012 earnings on July 24th. During the earnings call, we will take a close look at subscriber additions to see how the carrier is performing amid an industry-wide saturation in wireless growth. Increasing smartphone penetration should however enable the company to post a sequential increase in postpaid ARPU levels, bolstered by data ARPUs. In addition to the company’s financials, we will also take special interest in the uptake in LTE subscriber numbers as with the impending iPhone 5 launch, AT&T will look to promote LTE widely this year challenging Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and Sprint (NYSE:S) in the wireless market.

See our complete analysis for AT&T here

Saturated wireless market

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The U.S. wireless market has become increasingly saturated recently with wireless connections having exceeded the population in mid-2011. This has made the acquisition of new subscribers, especially those that pay for the higher-margin data plans, highly tough for the wireless carriers. In the last quarter, for example, AT&T added only about 187,000 postpaid subscribers in all, down by more than 40% over the same period last year. The story at Verizon was also similar with postpaid net adds declining from 906,000 in the year ago quarter to only about 501,000 last quarter.

As the wireless industry gets more saturated, the focus has shifted from acquiring new subscribers to converting more of their existing base to smartphones. At the same time, new growth areas in other non-smartphone connected devices such as M2M, telematics, tablets, e-readers are being explored. One of the major reasons why wireless penetration has exceeded 100% is because of these connected devices whose market is growing really fast. Last quarter’s numbers showed that tablets accounted for almost all of AT&T’s postpaid net adds and more than half of Verizon’s.

This bodes well for AT&T which is currently the market leader in the connected device category. However, these are early days and the equation could change in the coming years with Verizon also getting serious about this segment, as is evidenced by its acquisition of Hughes Telematics this quarter. (see Verizon Picks Up Hughes Telematics For Connected Devices Push)

Data Share Plans

AT&T will therefore look to fuel the demand for these connected devices with the recent launch of data share plans that make it easier for users to add more such devices to the carrier’s wireless network. While this might decrease the average revenue per device seeing as these connected data-only devices consume much less data, AT&T revenues from each individual subscriber will rise as users connect more devices to its wireless network. Moreover, since their data consumption is low, it will help shore up the service margins for AT&T.

It is also likely that, sometime in the future, AT&T, which has been a vocal critic of unlimited plans in the past, will follow in Verizon’s footsteps and prohibit its unlimited plan users from availing smartphone subsidies in case they want to continue using their plans. This, we believe, will be a step in the right direction since it will help AT&T more efficiently manage network resources that are not exactly unlimited in nature and monetize every bit of data that is transferred on its pipes. (see AT&T Looks To Reduce Subsidy Pressures While Boosting Revenues Through Shared Data Plans)

LTE Rollout Continues

With AT&T’s LTE coverage expected to lag Verizon’s well into the next year, it is looking to double its current coverage by the year-end and close the gap. (see AT&T Expanding Its LTE Network As Juicy Data Revenues Flow) AT&T has already been investing heavily in its LTE infrastructure, rapidly rolling it out in new markets to make up for its relatively late entry into the space, and we expect this to continue in the future.

While AT&T’s LTE network may not have a country-wide presence right now, we do not see it impacting AT&T much in the longer-term since LTE adoption has been sluggish so far. As of last quarter, Verizon had converted only 9% of its subscriber base to LTE despite having such a wide lead in terms of LTE coverage over others. AT&T plans to complete its LTE roll-out and be on par with Verizon’s LTE coverage by the end of 2013. We expect LTE adoption to pick up after the iPhone 5’s launch and strengthen in 2013. So, longer-term, AT&T may not miss out by a lot so long as it continues to deliver on its current roll-out plans.

An increased adoption of 4G in the long term will reduce dependence on AT&T’s 3G networks, which are under great strain due to the heavy data usage of smartphones such as the iPhone. Also, LTE as a network technology not only supports higher speeds but is also more efficient than current 3G networks at handling data, reducing maintenance and handling costs. Further, higher LTE speeds will see subscribers increasingly use data-intensive applications on their smartphones.

This will drive data revenues, thereby increasing ARPU levels for AT&T over the coming years. In the near-term, limited LTE coverage may be a deterrent for many but a fallback option in the form of the carrier’s HSPA+ network, which provides higher speeds than 3G and has a wider coverage area than its LTE network, should offer an interim solution.

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