LightShed Partners on 5G, Unsustainable Wireless Growth Bubble, Revenue Opportunities

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Excerpts from LightShed Partners report – The Wireless Industry’s 5G Growth Problem, MAY 31, 2022 ~ by WALTER PIECYK AND JOE GALONE (Registration required):

Wireless operators in the United States committed to invest over $200 billion into 5G (spectrum licenses, network equipment and build out costs), but does anyone care? Consumers have shown little interest in switching between service providers because of 5G. They have also been slow to upgrade to higher-priced 5G rate plans with their existing provider.

5G has not been enough to attract wireless consumers to higher priced rate plans. The major telcos have enabled 5G on all of their unlimited post-paid rate plans. Verizon withholds its “Ultra-Wideband” 5G from entry level subscribers but includes this faster speed level on the rest of their rate plans. We are skeptical faster 5G is inducing many subscribers to upgrade.

Despite the macro headwinds, we expect 1.5-3.0% growth in post-paid phone subscribers going forward. That’s not terrible, but it implies that industry net adds will fall to 6.7 million this year from 9.4 million in 2021. That is 1.9 million (22%) below consensus. Our peers may be excluding ~950k of base “cleanups” and network shutdowns in their estimates. That is odd as this is churn of subs that are allegedly paying their bills. Even if we excluded this “clean-up” our estimate would still be 1 million below consensus in 2022.

So where can wireless operators find more revenue growth?

Our outlook for industry subscriber growth is clearly not enough to generate the higher sustainable revenue growth that many investors prefer unless a wireless operator is taking material share. It’s hard to make a long-term case for notable shifts in market share in the wireless industry. Network differentiation has tightened, churn rates are at record lows. Plus, any material change to pricing would have an unwanted impact to the free cash flow of their large subscriber bases. So then what?

Wireless operators can attempt to boost revenue growth with wireless home broadband (aka Fixed Wireless Access or FWA), wholesale and IoT. But post-paid phone revenue, which represents 75% of total service revenue, is still the primary driver of growth. We estimate that in 2022, post-paid phone revenue will contribute 260 basis points of the 3.4% industry growth that we forecast. And in 2023, we expect it to contribute 220 basis points of our 3.2% expected growth. Without post-paid phone revenue growth, these companies have major growth challenges.

We are skeptical that premium services like hotspot data or better video streaming quality are incentives to move up rate plans. We invite any company to offer data on why this will offer a tailwind of upgrades over the next five years.

How much extra growth does Home Broadband offer?

We expect wireless home broadband to add an incremental $1 billion of recurring revenue per year for the wireless industry. That represents about 40 basis points of our industry revenue growth estimate of 3-4%. The impact of home broadband on growth is meaningful to T-Mobile and Verizon, contributing 100 bps and 60 bps respectively to their total wireless service revenue growth. Our wireless home broadband estimates are below the guidance of these companies, and therefore also likely below consensus – as we highlighted on our recent initiation of Charter. (Link) AT&T prefers to pursue a fiber growth strategy.

Home broadband is enabled by spectrum depth not 5G:

5G proponents would note that home broadband is a 5G application that helps to justify the $200 billion industry investment. But if that money had been plowed into spectrum and capex for LTE, we believe there would be little difference in the resulting revenue generated by home broadband. The thick spectrum blocks that operators purchased or acquired help LTE speeds and capacity in largely the same way it enables 5G. In addition, we have yet to notice perceptible differences in latency between 5G and LTE as measured (perhaps incorrectly) by the ping on speed tests. Only Dish Networks appears to be taking the capabilities of 5G down a path that is materially superior than what can be achieved with LTE and traditional network design.

References:

The Wireless Industry’s 5G Growth Problem

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