Wireless carriers used to rule smartphone suppliers. In 2007, Steve Jobs upended such rules. Why can’t the carriers accept the change and enjoy the revenues the iPhone generates for them… and why do tech journalists encourage their whining?

Until about two weeks ago, it seemed that our major wireless carriers had given up whining about the unjust subsidies imposed by a certain overly-confident (they said) handset maker. I hoped that their silence on the topic meant that they had finally realized that the extra revenue (ARPU) generated by these smartphones more than made up for the “subsidy burden”, for the exorbitant amounts of money that (they thought) ended up in the wrong coffers.

Then, I saw this this headline:

Everyone Pays No 5c

The article’s lede promises to reveal secret Apple deals that squeeze rivals and tax you. According to the piece’s “logic”, Apple’s one-sided agreements force carriers to swallow inordinate numbers of iPhones, an arrangement that produces all-around nefarious results. To meet their volume commitments, carriers allocate disproportionate amounts of shelf space to iPhones, thus crowding out competitors. And because the Apple contracts drain their finances, carriers are forced to price other handsets higher than they otherwise would. Hence an “iPhone Tax” that everyone must pay, even when using another brand.

In the same piece, we find dark suggestions that Verizon is threatened by a $12B to $14B shortfall in meeting it’s $23B commitment to purchase Apple handsets. A bit of googling led me to a pair of July 2013 articles (here and here) that back up the prediction by pointing to an anal-ist’s write-up of Verizon’s SEC filings (a medium that, as Regular Monday Note readers know too well, I happily wallow in, especially the always-rich MD&A [Management Discussion and Analysis] section where execs are supposed to help us navigate the filing’s sea of numbers).

I went to Verizon’s SEC Filings page and looked up quarterly and annual reports. The first mention of an Apple agreement appears in the 10-K (annual) filing of February 28th, 2011. Since then, no word whatsoever of any purchase commitment, whether for the iPhone or any other device. If you search for “purchase” and “commitment” in the latest October 2013 SEC document, you’ll only find talk of pension funding and share-repurchase obligations:

Verizon 10-Q Oct 2013 Commitments

One would think that a looming $12B to $14B shortfall — more than a third of Verizon’s $30B quarterly revenue — would be mentioned to shareholders. The worried articles fail to explain Verizon’s silence.

This is both novel and familiar.

The novelty is finding Apple guilty of forcing carriers to raise prices on competitors‘ handsets. I hadn’t seen this angle before.

The familiar is the carriers’ use of journalists who present themselves as independent observers/reporters when, in fact, these practitioners of access journalism carry water for their corporate connections. During a lunch conversation some years ago with a Wall Street Journal repentito, I pointed to a fellatious Microsoft article in his old paper and questioned the excessive reverence: ‘Access, Jean-Louis, access. It’s the price you pay to get the next Ballmer interview… ‘

We saw the process at work in a December 2011 WSJ article titled How the iPhone Zapped Carriers, a devotional piece that makes the key points in the carriers’ incessant complaint:

Carriers do all the grunt work while handset makers and software developers take all the money.
The $400 subsidy per iPhone (and now a similar amount for its best competitors as well) is clearly excessive and must stop.
We need a new business model to account (to monetize) the shift from voice to voracious use of data.

Let’s rewind the tape. Once upon a time, there was The Way of The Carrier. Verizon, Sprint, AT&T treated handsets makers the way a supermarket chain treats yogurt suppliers: We’ll tell you the flavors and quantities we want to carry, we’ll set the delivery schedule, dictate the marketing/branding arrangements, define the return privileges and, of course, we’ll let you know what we want to pay for your product — and when we want to pay it.

Then Steve Jobs hypnotized AT&T’s management. He convinced them to let Apple set the terms for iPhone distribution in exchange for AT&T’s “running the table”. This meant no AT&T fingerprints on Apple’s pristine iPhone, no branding, no independent pricing, no pre-installed crapware — content and software would be downloaded via iTunes, only.

In this arrangement, the iPhone helped AT&T steal customers from its main competitor, Verizon. When Verizon finally signed up with Apple in 2010, they were in a much weaker position than if they had obliged at the very beginning of the Smartphone 2.0 era.

Apple is master of the slow-but-steady, surround-from-below approach. First, sign up a weaker player who will accept Apple’s stringent control in exchange for the opportunity to take business away from the dominant player who balks at Cupertino’s terms. After enough customers have switched to the smaller competitor, the market leader changes its mind and signs up with Apple — on Apple’s terms.

The drill has worked in Japan. The smaller SoftBank signed up with Apple while DoCoMo, Japan’s largest wireless carrier, refused. DoCoMo wanted to install its own software on the iPhone; Apple wouldn’t budge. Subscribers migrated to Softbank in numbers significant enough to change DoCoMo’s mind. The happy ending is DoCoMo and its competitors now appear to sell large numbers of iPhones.

Turning to China, the same maneuver is at work. China Unicom and China Telecom have been selling iPhones with the expected result: They’re taking customers from the giant China Mobile. (There are rumors of an Apple-China Mobile agreement, but it’s unclear when this will happen. We should know soon.)

This only works if – and only if – the iPhone is a great salesman for the carrier. Apple extracts a higher price for its iPhone for two reasons: strong volumes and higher revenue per subscriber compared to other sets. In Horace Dediu’s felicitous words [emphasis mine]:

‘I repeat what I’ve mentioned before: The iPhone is primarily hired as a premium network service salesman. It receives a “commission” for selling a premium service in the form of a premium price. Because it’s so good at it, the premium is quite high.’

Carriers should stop whining; these are robust companies run by intelligent businesspeople with immense resources at their disposal. As explained in previous Monday Notes (here and here), there’s no rational basis for their kvetching. Assuming they bleed an extra $200 when subsidizing an iPhone (or a top Samsung handset, now that the Korean giant followed suit), they only need $8/month in extra subscriber revenue from the “offending” smartphone. And yet here we are: Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s CEO, predicts the end of subsidies because  “wireless operators can no longer afford to suck up the costs of customers’ devices”.

I don’t know if Stephenson is speaking out of cultural deafness or cynicism, but he’s obscuring the point: There is no subsidy. Carriers extend a loan that users pay back as part of the monthly service payment. Like any loan shark, the carrier likes its subscriber to stay indefinitely in debt, to always come back for more, for a new phone and its ever-revolving payments stream.

I was told as much by Verizon. In preparation for this Monday Note, I went to the Palo Alto Verizon store and asked if I could negotiate a lower monthly payment since Verizon doesn’t subsidize my iPhone (for which I had paid full price). Brian, the pit boss, gave me a definite, if not terribly friendly, answer: “No, you should have bought it from us, you would have paid much less (about $400 less) with a 2-year agreement.” My mistake. Verizon wants to be my loan shark.

In the meantime, AT&T has finally followed T-Mobile’s initiative and has unbundled the service cost from the handset. If you pay full price for your smartphone, an AT&T contract will cost you $15 less than with a subsidized phone on a 2-year agreement. This leads one to wonder how long Verizon can keep its current indifferent price structure.

All this leaves carriers with conflicted feelings: They like their iPhone salesman but, like short-sighted bosses who think their top earner makes too much money, they angle for ways to cut commissions down.

On the other side, Apple’s teams must be spending much energy finding ways to keep generating high monthly revenues for their “victims”.


Other carrier news: Sprint, now owned by SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, is said to be preparing a $20B bid for T-Mobile. We barely avoided excessive concentration when the Department of Justice nixed AT&T’s attempt to acquire T-Mobile; now we again risk a three-way market and its unavoidable collusions. As much as I admire SoftBank’s founder and am happy he took control of Sprint, I hope our regulators won’t facilitate more concentration.

This might be the last Monday Note for 2013. I’ll soon be in Paris where jet-lag and various (legal) substances will conspire to make writing more difficult. If so, Happy Holidays to Monday Note readers and their loved ones. –

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