Despite T-Mobile’s booming success with net additions and Sprint’s turnaround narrative, a broader snapshot of the wireless industry’s third quarter stubbornly refused to yield a rosy picture.
According to a Tuesday research note from MoffettNathanson, the wireless industry continued its battle with “growth starvation” in the most recent period as average revenue per user (ARPU) continued to fall. Industry wide, MoffettNathanson said, total APRU dropped 7.2 percent year over year while post-paid ARPU stood at negative 6 percent.
Deterioration in the wireless market both in the third quarter and overall stems from several factors, the note said, including the bursting tablet bubble and slower upgrade cycles that are eating away at margins, slowing subscription growth, and pushing churn rates higher.
MoffettNathanson painted AT&T as the poster child of this struggle, noting its loss of 1.4 million postpaid phone subscribers (offset by 2 million prepaid additions for 600,000 branded phone net adds), sliding market share that dropped from 33 percent to 22 percent from 2012 to 2016, and postpaid phone ARPU that dipped by 1.9 percent in the most recent quarter.
“These persistently weak ARPU trends compound the impact of weakening volume trends seen earlier, putting further pressure on industry revenue growth rates,” MoffettNathanson Analyst Craig Moffett wrote. “Whether margins can be sustained at anything like the current levels will depend on whether churn and upgrade rates remain low – or, at least, if they return to low levels after what will inevitably be higher rates in Q4 due to the iPhone 7. Either way, the issue of growth starvation remains, and it will remain for as long as ARPU continues to decline.”
In the long term, MoffettNathanson said a number of factors will shape ARPU. The firm pegged the entrance of cable operators into the market as a negative, but noted a merger attempt between Sprint and T-Mobile could help push prices up.