Sprint's cut in data prices won't help its network woes

'Sprint is hobbled by its network,' one analyst says

Sprint's new lower-priced shared data plan sounds ambitious, but analysts say it doesn't go far enough and won't address the carrier's network performance sore spot.

On top of that, some analysts say that carrier-revenues overall could drop in the current price war, cutting into network technology advancements for all the major carriers over the long run.

The new Sprint Family Share Pack, which was announced Monday and goes into effect Friday, offers four lines and 20 GB of data for $160 a month. It is open to current subscribers, and Sprint confirmed Tuesday that its current "Framily" plan will still be available, although it is not considered competitive by many analysts.

Sprint's new CEO Marcelo Claure followed through with his earlier statement and announced price cuts for shared data plans. (Photo: Sprint)

By comparison, both Verizon Wireless and AT&T charge $160 for 10 GB of data, while T-Mobile has a deal through September charging $100 a month for four lines and 10 GB of data, with each line restricted to 2.5 GB.

Also, until Sept. 30, Sprint will offer new subscribers in a family 10 lines to get 20 GB of data to share plus unlimited talk and text for $100 a month, good through 2015. That promotion also adds another 2GB of data per line (with the emphasis here on per line, which is distinguished from the 20GB shared).

Also, for a limited time, Sprint said it will buy out a family's contract for a limited time when the family switches from another carrier to Sprint, a deal worth up to $350. T-Mobile offers a similar buyout, but hasn't set an end to its program.

The Sprint's data promotions through Sept. 30 caught the eye of analysts, but even so, they don't see a major impact in the short term from the move.

Sprint lost 220,000 subscribers in the last quarter, and "I'm skeptical they can turn around net adds [of subscribers] in order to make a meaningful impact on this fiscal quarter," said Carrie MacGillivray, an analyst at IDC.

"Sprint is putting itself on a more even playing field with the competition, but it's a brutally competitive market right now," MacGillivray added.

Many analysts doubted that price reductions will matter if Sprint can't improve its network performance. "While the data packages are attractive, we believe that they will have a limited market impact until Sprint has a more competitive network offering," said New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin in a note to investors.

"Ultimately, customer will not stay on a network that doesn't meet their expectations for availability, reliability and speed," added Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "Sprint has a lot of convincing to do in this regard, as did T-Mobile, which still struggles with the 'low-cost but inferior performance and coverage' label."

Independent testing firm RootMetrics on Tuesday found that Sprint finished last of the nation's four biggest carriers in the first half of 2014 for overall network performance, network speed, data performance and call performance. Sprint finished third with T-Mobile last in network reliability and text performance.

The new Share Pack "looks very good on paper, but it's almost too good to be true ... because Sprint is hobbled by its network," added Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. "By next year, Sprint's network should be pretty good, but it can't get worse. It got much worse for a while and is improving now."

Based on customer feedback, including large enterprise users, over the past two years, "Sprint lost more customers because of a poor network experience than because of lack of promotional prices like the ones announced Monday," said Gartner analyst Bill Menezes. He noted that some markets, such as Denver, still don't have LTE service from Sprint. "That's mind-boggling," he added.

Analysts are also studying whether Sprint and other major carriers have hurt long-term network growth and technology upgrades by cutting prices so much. Entner said recent aggressive price cuts at AT&T have hurt that carrier's stock price. "So, what's good for the consumer also impacts the ability of carriers to improve the network," he said. "That network improvement money has to come from somewhere," he said.

Entner said carriers usually build new network capacity for an estimate of demand from the number of users that will come on board in another 12 months.

"Sometimes they are right and sometimes they aren't," Entner said in an interview. "Even the mighty Verizon underestimated how much data would be used last year. When demand is up, it bites both consumers and carriers in the butt. So carriers have to invest continuously."

Current price cuts probably won't abate network improvement investments in the near future, "but long term, [price cuts] could certainly jeopardize the investment. There's only so much money to go around," Entner said.

IDC is analyzing the impact of price cuts on the carrier revenues and investments, MacGillivray said. T-Mobile has seen some declines in average revenue per user, "which has to be attributable to their pricing schemes and early termination fee relief," she said. It will also be expensive for Sprint to absorb a $15 access fee per line in its latest promotion that lasts until Sept. 30. "So yes ... revenues are going to be affected," she said.

Gold said that since SoftBank owns 80% of Sprint, it has access to a substantial bankroll to "be able to weather any storms associated with price-cutting." While consumers benefit from price competition, carriers can only afford to keep prices low as long as they can do so profitably, he said.

As time goes by, "consumers will demand better performance and network improvements even as the carriers may struggle to have the revenue to make the required investments in upgrades," Gold said. "Time will tell how successful this will be, but Sprint had to do something and this is the first salvo in a more aggressive Sprint."

Still, even with some impact on carrier revenues from price cuts, Menezes said that most customers don't change carriers that often, which gives carriers an advantage. "Because much of the market is less transient, price wars like the current one are fairly ephemeral," he said.

Read more about wireless carriers in Computerworld's Wireless Carriers Topic Center.

Tags Mobile/Wirelesswireless carriersNetworkingat&twirelessmobileVerizon Wireless

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