Unlimited data boosts Verizon’s phone net additions though wireless margins continue to diminish
by Steve Vachon, TBR Analyst
In 2Q17 Verizon was able to report consolidated year-to-year revenue growth (+0.1%, on a historical, non-adjusted basis) for the first quarter since 1Q16, but this was mainly due to $693 million in revenue generated from acquisitions that have closed in the past year, including Fleetmatics, Telogis and, most recently, Yahoo, which closed on June 13, 2017.
Verizon’s core businesses continue to feel the weight of pricing pressures and market saturation within the mobility, video and business services markets. These trends are exemplified by wireless revenue remaining in decline (-1.9% year-to-year) despite the recent launch of unlimited data, competition from over the top (OTT) preventing Fios video subscriber additions and growth within Verizon’s new Business Markets unit being largely contingent on the XO Communications acquisition.
The launch of Verizon’s unlimited data plans in February boosted postpaid phone net additions, totaling 358,000 in 2Q17 compared to 86,000 in 2Q16, as more customers are shifting to unlimited data for its convenience and to support increasing mobile video usage. TBR believes the price point of Verizon’s unlimited plans is also benefiting subscriber growth while minimizing average revenue per user (ARPU) declines as they strike a happy medium, starting at a lower price point than AT&T’s Unlimited Plus program, competing on-par with multiline T-Mobile One Plus plans without yielding to the overly aggressive pricing of Sprint’s Unlimited Freedom promotions.
Maintaining sufficient LTE capacity is critical as the carrier is continuing to rely on its reputation of providing superior network coverage as its primary differentiator to attract unlimited data coverage. TBR believes Verizon is well-positioned to sustain its unlimited data strategy long term as currently only 50% of its spectrum is being used for LTE and the company can continue to add network capacity via small cells, deploying AWS-3 licenses and refarming 3G licenses for LTE. However, Verizon’s network distinctions are becoming less pronounced as competitors continue to densify their networks and move towards 1Gbps data speeds by implementing LTE-Advanced technologies, which will require Verizon to implement new differentiators to stand out in the unlimited data market.
Despite the success of Verizon’s unlimited data plans, wireless EBITDA margins fell for the third-consecutive quarter in 2Q17, declining 170 basis points year-to-year to 45.8%. Verizon’s diminishing wireless (profit) margins are in part due to the carrier’s shift to a non-subsidy device pricing model as decreased equipment subsidies are failing to offset service revenue declines stemming from lower-priced wireless plans offered under this model. Postpaid ARPU is also being limited by Verizon Plan features including Carryover Data and Safety Mode that are helping tiered data customers conserve data usage. Conversely, TBR anticipates the adoption of unlimited data plans will mainly have a stabilizing effect on postpaid phone ARPU over the next year as migrations from customers on less expensive plans will be offset by the cost savings heavy overage customers will realize by transitioning to unlimited data.
Highlights of Verizon’s Earnings Call Transcript:
Matthew D. Ellis – Verizon Communications, Inc.
We had a strong quarter of execution. First, we invested in our 4G network leadership position, resulting in a sweep of third-party network performance surveys for the first half of 2017, while prepositioning for 5G services. Second, we delivered solid wireless operational performance and financial results in a competitive environment with an increase in both postpaid and prepaid accounts. Third, we successfully completed the acquisition of Yahoo’s operating assets to scale our media business.
Network leadership is the central element of our strategy, and we are continually investing in our network to extend our leadership in 4G capacity growth with densification using small cells, which includes expanding our fiber capabilities. As we prepare for the network of the future, we announced the acquisition of Straight Path for $3.1 billion, which we expect will close by the end of first quarter 2018. Straight Path complements our spectrum portfolio and positions us to lead and further drive 5G technology and its ecosystem. We have begun the pre-commercial fixed wireless trials in eight out of the 11 markets and have our first batch of customers on this technology. As we have previously highlighted, we will have trial results later in the year, and I look forward to sharing them with you.
We had a strong quarter, adding and retaining wireless customers as the momentum from the launch of our unlimited plans was sustained throughout the quarter. We delivered a strong wireless operational performance that reflects customer demand for our high-quality network in a highly competitive market. Finally, we completed the acquisition of Yahoo’s operating assets and immediately began executing on integration plans that we’ve been working on for over a year. We are confident in the execution of our strategy, which we expect to drive profitable growth, generate strong cash flows, and return long-term value to our shareholders.
Total wireline revenue on a reported basis grew 1.2%, including the recently acquired XO operations. On an organic basis, wireline segment revenue decreased 2.8% compared to a decline of 3.2% last quarter. This shift in the wireline revenue trend towards fiber is growing. Organically, fiber based products grew more than 3%, which supports our plans to further invest in fiber. Our emphasis on delivering value to all business customers, from the very small to the large enterprise, was recognized recently in a leading third-party study. More importantly, we won the large enterprise business award for the second consecutive year in the same study.
Consumer markets revenue increased 0.6%, driven by Fios Internet activity. Consumer Fios revenue growth of 4.1% was consistent with the past several quarters. During the quarter, we launched Fios Gigabit Connection in certain markets, which offers symmetrical speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. In Fios Internet, we added 49,000 customers. Fios Video results were pressured due to softer secular demand for traditional linear video, given growth in the over-the-top offerings, as well as competitive promotional activity. Fios Video losses were 15,000 in the quarter. For the second quarter, Enterprise Solutions revenue fell 4.1% on an organic basis, which was due to persistent trends in our legacy products and pricing compression in the marketplace. On a constant-currency basis, revenue was down 3.5%.
Partner Solutions revenue declined 6.8% on an organic basis, while the revenue mix towards fiber has been trending higher. Within business markets, fiber revenue is expanding, driven by Fios broadband demand, offset by continued pressure in legacy products. On an organic basis, revenue declined 4.9% and improved slightly sequentially.
On a comparable basis, the second quarter wireline EBITDA margin was 20.8%, compared to 13.3%, which included the work stoppage, last year. Sequentially, wireline EBITDA margin was down 120 basis points, primarily due to lower revenue from Enterprise Solutions and Partner Solutions and an increase in operating expense as a result of leasing data center space related to the sale to Equinix.
Commentary from Fierce Wireless:
Whether Verizon can maintain its network edge in an era of unlimited data is unclear, however. Recent data from Ookla indicates that the networks of both Verizon and AT&T have suffered as traffic has ramped up in recent months, as T-Mobile recently pointed out. So Verizon must continue to move quickly to meet the ever-increasing demands of consumers as mobile data traffic soars.
“Subscriber trends recovered sharply this quarter; however, this is partly due to an aggressive push behind unlimited that we don’t think is sustainable for Verizon,” New Street Research analysts said in a note to investors. “They have the least capacity per sub of all the carriers, and their network performance is already deteriorating both in absolute terms and relative to peers. Verizon is also paying for improved subscriber trends with ARPU and service revenue pressure. The recovery in subs is also partly due to record low churn across the industry in general, which we suspect will reverse later in the year with the new iPhone launch.”