The Wireless Tipping Point

Why Wireless Operators are Shifting Focus from Capex to Opex

In the book, Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell describes a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” The point where the sociological scale tips and “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.”  Gladwell gives interesting observations of how once unknown products and behaviors reach the “tipping point” and become wildly popular and eventually commonplace.  I argue that such a phenomenon will occur in the near future in the wireless industry.  No, I am not making some bold prediction but rather simply pointing out an obvious fact – with nearly everyone in possession of a cell phone, the cellular industry is nearing market saturation and is transitioning into the mature phase of the business life cycle. 

In the cellular industry, operators rapidly blew through the introduction phase and are deep into the growth phase where it has been for the last ten to fifteen years.  With the onset of the maturity phase, however, comes the cellular tipping point. 

Here’s Business 101. When companies reach the maturity phase of the business life cycle they attempt to prolong a product’s life span by stretching this phase for generations.  It is a business school fundamental that the best way to prolong this phase is to reinvent yourself as many times as possible and simultaneously optimize margins.  While struggling as of late, the auto industry is a classic example of success in this endeavor.  Each year they introduce new models of old cars aimed at getting consumers to trade-in for a new/improved version. But auto makers only paid attention to one side of the equation. It has been the mismanagement of opex over the last several decades that has caused American auto manufacturers to falter – they simply can’t compete with foreign manufactures that can produce an equal or better car with substantially lower labor costs per vehicle. 

Back to the cellular industry. Operators are making the same competitive adjustments to their products.  Each carrier is upgrading their networks to the next “G” in an effort to reinvent themselves faster than Madonna. They are introducing new über-cool handsets so quickly you’re in constant phone-envy and the end of your two-year contract comes slower than a child’s Christmas morning. 

But unlike the auto industry, don’t think operators are ignoring opex. FierceWireless recently published an article entitled, “Operators now playing the opex game”, which points out that mobile operators can no longer focus on subscriber acquisition to grow and that they are now focusing on opex in an attempt to manage margins. While I have been forecasting this phenomenon as “the perfect storm” ever since AGL published my first article, I want to declare again that the tipping point is very close.  Over the next twelve to twenty-four months I argue that key industry executives and Wall Street analysts will make the reduction of wireless opex such common speak that the masses will shift from focusing on capex and speed-to-market to scrutinizing operating margins.  Are you prepared for this tipping?

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The Perfect Storm for Wireless Operators

Clooney

According to Wikipedia a “perfect storm” is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically.” The term gained popularity when George Clooney stared in a film called The Perfect Storm (based on the book by Sebastian Junger of the same name) about the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter in which three weather conditions combined to generate a perfectly fierce and deadly situation:

• warm air from a low-pressure system coming from one direction,
• a flow of cool and dry air generated by a high pressure from another direction, and
• tropical moisture provided by Hurricane Grace.

Today in both Europe and North America, the wireless industry shows its own combination of circumstances which could create a future perfect storm:

market saturation – it is estimated that 85-90% of Americans own a cell phone and the number in many European countries are estimated to be at or over 100%,
cheaper “all-you-can-eat” rate plans – in the USA, all of the four major carriers offer voice/data plans for $99/month and Metro PCS offers voice plans for as low as $50/month, and
increasing OPEX – the two largest expenses for wireless carriers are payroll and rent roll and both are inflating.

It doesn’t take a meteorologist to forecast enormous pressure on cellular operating margins. And it is safe to assume that cellular operators have and will continue to focus on this issue.

On the revenue side of the equation, operators will battle it out for the final 10-15% of market share, and operators will continue to search for more ways to increase ARPU by adding cool apps and services as well as introducing cooler handsets to encourage subscribers to remain loyal and/or switch to their service. The iPhone/Blackberry battle is the classic example of this.

On the expense side, these conditions place pressure on payroll and rent roll and operators are looking for ways to lower OPEX. Expect to see more outsourcing and tighter cost controls. Also expect to see more rigorous scrutiny applied to lease costs. With annual rent rolls in the billions, operators will be keeping a close eye on the rent expense.