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Do the new Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T plans signal a big smartphone downturn?

Published Jul 16th, 2013 11:35AM EDT
Smartphone Plan Analysis

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Last week, Bloomberg reported that T-Mobile is about to announce the first quarter of contract subscriber growth since 2010. The timing of the Bloomberg bombshell was interesting, because just one day later Sprint unveiled new contract pricing. Sprint brought down the price of its cheapest mobile plan featuring unlimited data from $110 to $80. This new contract is fairly similar to the $70 unlimited plan T-Mobile launched last March. If T-Mobile has discovered new traction with its bargain plan — and if Sprint is now feeling pressure to mimic the emphasis on budget customers — it could be a sign that the U.S. mobile market is in trouble.

U.S. carriers are also introducing or refining new plans that allow consumers to upgrade their smartphones more frequently; AT&T just joined T-Mobile and unveiled its new plan to promote faster upgrades on Tuesday morning. This new activity on the mobile plan front may be another sign that the American smartphone upgrade cycle has started slowing down. The first indications of this came last winter, when Apple’s iPhone 5 upgrade numbers started missing expectations by a mile. After that, BlackBerry, HTC and Samsung all reported disappointing quarters defined by soft high-end smartphone sales or sharp increases in marketing costs.

When high-end smartphone sales in the U.S. mobile market start slipping badly, one would expect mobile operators to start focusing on marketing cheap monthly plans and launching new deals that are designed to goad consumers into more frequent high-end device upgrades. And now, both of these things are happening.

As a caveat, some analysts have been quick to point out that the new Sprint move is not as radical as it seems, because Sprint had already been offering an “Any Mobile Any Time” plan that combines 450 wireline minutes with unlimited mobile data, voice and texting. Nevertheless, Sprint may have been feeling pressure to highlight a new plan that is close to matching T-Mobile’s unlimited offering.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.