How T-Mobile’s smartphone pricing could change the U.S. wireless industry

T-Mobile dropped a bomb on Thursday, and I’m not just talking about the iPhone. T-Mobile customers have been waiting five years for Apple’s iconic smartphone, but its decision to end phone subsidies will have a far bigger impact on its business and potentially change the U.S. mobile industry at large.

Put simply, T-Mobile is upending the established business and device distribution models of the U.S. wireless industry, separating the handset from the service. It’s a model that’s thrived in Europe and other countries, but it’s one that’s failed to gain traction in the U.S. except in the prepaid market, namely because U.S. consumers like getting even the most sophisticated high-end phones on the cheap.

Traditionally a U.S. operator sells a device at a steep discount in an effort to lure customers. It doesn’t just write off that subsidy. It makes that money back and then some by charging higher rates for voice and data over a long contract term. It’s a model that’s worked well for big operators like AT&T and Verizon Wireless, turning them into two of the most profitable and highest revenue-generating operators in the world despite the fact that many multinational carriers have far more subscribers.

T-Mobile proposes to reverse the equation with its Value Plans. Customers pay the full cost of their device, either up front or in installments, or bring their own compatible handsets. In exchange, T-Mobile will offer them cheaper rates, in many cases $20 a month cheaper than it would charge for a subsidized phone plan. Do the math: that’s $480 in savings over two years, which in many cases is much more than the up-front discounts operators are offering on subsidized phones (For instance, a Samsung Galaxy S III subsidy on T-Mobile is $350 including rebate). Given that T-Mobile’s subsidized rates are already much cheaper than its major competitors, the savings from T-Mobile’s Value Plans are compounded.

The repercussions of T-Mobile’s strategy will be felt far beyond the point-of-sale and monthly bill, though. If successful, T-Mobile’s elimination of subsidies could have a huge impact throughout the U.S. mobile ecosystem, changing how we value our devices and our relationships with our carriers and handset manufacturers.

The rise of phone financing: T-Mobile knows that it will take a while for consumers to overcome the sticker shock of a paying full freight for phones. T-Mo CEO John Legere said T-Mobile would implement financing programs that would mitigate those up-front costs. In the example he gave, a customer could get an “iconic smartphone” for $99 down with monthly installments of $15 to $20 for 20 months.  This will look pretty similar to a subsidy plan to most customers – the device payments will just be separate from the service fees on the monthly bill. But operators won’t necessarily be the only ones financing. Handset makers, electronics retailers could offer their own programs.

Greater portability of handsets between carriers: There will always be restrictions on where you can bring your phone due to huge variation in network technologies used by U.S. carriers. But moving to an unsubsidized model means for the first time consumers can buy their devices and then select their carriers. Keep in mind T-Mobile’s Value Plans are still contract plans (for now), but it offers prepaid plans as wells. By buying their phones up front consumers would have more flexibility in moving GSM/HSPA phones between T-Mobile, AT&T and the growing number of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that use their networks.

Less carrier control: If your carrier isn’t selling you your device then they should have less say in what services or apps you can use. That could be a simple as avoiding the pre-installed apps carriers load onto our smartphones, but it could also mean that you’re no longer dependent on your carrier to ship you OS upgrades. It will also be more difficult for them to restrict over-the-top services over their networks (read FaceTime) or limit you to their mobile payment services.

A larger selection of devices: Carriers have always acted as device gatekeepers in the U.S. Until recently, Nokia couldn’t make a dent in the U.S. because it couldn’t strike the right operator deals. Unsubsidized phones mean that vendors can start marketing and selling directly consumers with no carrier middleman.

Huawei and ZTE could become household names: These two Chinese juggernauts have made some in-roads to the U.S., but they’ve only gotten as far as the carriers have let them. Mostly their U.S. business consists of low-end feature phones or inexpensive carrier-branded smartphones like T-Mobile’s MyTouch. But a vibrant direct-to-consumer market could benefit Huawei and ZTE immensely. Both can make high-end smartphones at low prices, which would be very appealing to consumers paying the full cost of their devices.

The development of a vibrant phone resale market: Smartphones are expensive and sophisticated devices, but their low subsidized cost in the U.S. has caused us to treat them like throw-away electronics. But if customers are faced with full sticker price of their phones, they would be more inclined to reuse them and sell them to recover their costs, and customers on a budget would be more inclined to buy used and refurbished phones.

Of course, T-Mobile is just one carrier. The other operators have also expressed discontent with the subsidy model, but they aren’t going to give up on it overnight. In fact, they will probably attempt exploit T-Mobile’s big strategy shift for all its worth. Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have a huge advantage: they will “sell” the same iPhone for $200 that T-Mobile is asking customers to buy for $650 – that’s a powerful argument.

T-Mobile has a tough job ahead of it convincing customers they will save money and benefit from its model in the long run. If T-Mo succeeds, other carriers will follow its lead, changing the U.S. mobile industry for the better. If it doesn’t, this will be just another noble but failed experiment for the history books.

(c) 2012, GigaOM.com.

 
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