Where’s the Money?

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 12:36pm

Sometime around the beginning of this year, I started to ponder the question: Who would you rather be: a U.S. wireless carrier or a device supplier? Of course, it quickly revolves around which wireless carrier you’re talking about and which device supplier, and then it rather very quickly boils down to one supplier: Apple.

Surely anyone would rather be Apple than any other character, with the possible exception of Google, in the wireless ecosystem right now. With a market cap of more than $500 billion, Apple’s in a great negotiating position when it comes to getting its devices into operator channels. (Are they still considered “negotiations” when you reach that status?) It also helps to have amassed a fantastic number of fan boys and girls who love your products.

All of this seems quite obvious and what more is there to say? The severity of the situation became even more apparent after operators released their fourth-quarter financial reports with the theme being: iPhone subsidies pushing margins down, down, down.

Last week, Bernstein Research senior analyst Craig Moffett and his colleagues wrote a spot-on piece sizing up the current state of the U.S. telecom market, titled: “If This Is a Duopoly, Why Aren't the Duopolists Making More Money?” While public policy makers bemoan excessive market concentration on the part of the biggest carriers, Wall Street doesn’t give them much respect. Go figure.

The report points out the irony. Verizon and AT&T now account for 79 percent of wireless industry EBITDA and they generate nearly all of the industry’s unlevered free cash flow. Returns on invested capital (ROIC) for the Big Two in their wireless businesses are “passable, but taken with their underperforming wireline businesses … their consolidated returns are anemic (AT&T) or worse (Verizon),” the analyst writes.

Available at three of the four biggest U.S. carriers, Apple’s iPhone activations exploded during the fourth quarter, and Apple’s iPhone gross margin dollars grew by 239 percent year-over-year. Meanwhile, the wireless industry saw the most significant, sequential drop of EBITDA less capex it ever had, from $10.6 billion to $6.9 billion, Moffett points out.

Queue the violins? No, I don’t hear anyone suggesting that a single tear will be shed for operators that each month collect a sizable figure from millions of customers for their mostly limited data services. Everyone loves Apple, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one person stepping up to say the same about an operator – any operator. Even though, you know, a certain someone employs a Chinese supplier whose employees want to jump off buildings.

There may be a ray of hope, but it’s not going to be easy. Moffett suggests that operators’ proposals for reverse billing for bandwidth – a kind of 800 service for apps where app developers pick up the bandwidth tab so usage won’t count against a customer’s data caps – are worth watching. He suggests that reverse billing could become not a nice-to-have but a must-have “toll” for applications intent on reaching bandwidth-capped consumers.

Reaching Moffett by phone late last week, I had to ask: Isn’t that going to create a firestorm? Everyone remembers what happened with the net neutrality fights. You bet, he said, it most certainly sets up a holy war between the carriers and the Internet companies – and as the battles over SOPA and PIPA bore out, don’t assume to know which way that battle ends up.

Like a lot of folks in telecom see it, the Internet players want “free rider status” (Moffett’s term). Although it’s not a popular stance, it bears pointing out that somebody had to build the networks and somebody has to invest in upgrades and somebody has to pay for the right to lease – not own, mind you – the nation’s airwaves in order for us to enjoy a little – or a lot – of video on our smartphones. But that argument is not going to get the hipsters in an uproar and blogging about it.

Maybe it’s for the best that Verizon’s and AT&T’s returns are as low as they are. Moffett points out that if they were to spike higher, they would most certainly face outrage and calls for regulation. But he also points out that Google earns an extraordinary ROIC of 54 percent and Apple’s is at several hundred percent. Where’s the outrage in their returns? Not going to find it. And if operators end up faring not so well but Apple and Google continue on their joy rides, what happens? I don’t know the answers, but it’s certainly something to think about. 

Bottom line: If operators ultimately fail, where does that leave Apple? Up a creek without a paddle, I guess. But then it would probably have enough money to buy the river.




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