AT&T aims to change the game in wireless upgrades

AT&T says it's “uncomplicating wireless,” so that every customer – new and existing – can get the same deal on all smartphones.

"It doesn’t matter if you switch from another carrier, add a line or upgrade to the latest device, everyone gets the same great deal,” the company says.

It's part of a process that started last year. AT&T did some research and started working to remove customer pain points, and one of the biggest complaints was the new-customer only deal – customers feel like they’re unfair, according to Jennifer Van Buskirk, SVP – Wireless Marketing at AT&T.

So, in August, AT&T decided to change that and began offering all of its 5G Samsung smartphone deals for new and existing customers. “We saw great success, so we’re excited to extend that across our device portfolio, leading to iPhone 12 pre-orders beginning today for $0 with trade-in,” she told Fierce via email on Friday.

“It’s a game changer – we really want to reward our loyal customers as well as welcome new ones by offering the same great deals – and on the fastest 5G nationwide network,” she said. AT&T recently flagged the latest results from Ookla Speedtest showing AT&T had the fastest nationwide network in the third quarter of 2020.

'Breaks the rules'

It’s right there, front and center, on the operator’s home page: Best deals for everyone. But for the last several years, the best deals from the postpaid carriers have been about new lines and switchers – not for their existing customers, and that’s probably the most surprising change that AT&T is implementing, according to Jeff Moore, principal at Wave7 Research. “That really breaks the rules for what we’re seeing in wireless,” he said.

Of course, as the industry consolidates and moves from four big national players to three – with Dish Network set up to become the fourth – and T-Mobile taking share where it can, AT&T most certainly needs to entice existing customers.

“AT&T very much wants to defend their base,” Moore said, and it probably will be heavily subsidizing phones for the near term. Then again, a customer who signs up for an unlimited plan will be paying on an equipment installment plan (EIP) for 30 months, or until 2023.

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Moore sees four major components to AT&T’s strategy, three of which he says are fundamentally new and a fourth is semi-new.

One of them is “Unlimited Your Way,” which allows a customer to pick the perfect unlimited plan for each member of the family, starting at $35 a month per line for four lines. The second is offering the aforementioned best deals for everyone, both new and existing customers. The third is AT&T’s nationwide 5G coverage, which dates back to August.

The fourth component is related to the pandemic: Shop the way you want. That includes the "Right to You" delivery service, curbside pickup and free express shipping. The curbside launch occurred this past spring and while the delivery service is not new, it has been getting more emphasis during the pandemic, according to Moore.

“AT&T is changing the way they sell wireless,” he told Fierce. “This is one of the most fundamental changes we’ve since T-Mobile did their ‘un-carrier’ moves.”

Long time coming

According to AT&T’s Van Buskirk, the company has been executing a “rolling thunder” approach to put its customers first. Late last year, it introduced a simple price point for its Unlimited plans, starting at $35 per line. Moving into 2020, it launched Elite for the price of Extra for its Signature customers. It also included HBO Max for free on its best Unlimited plan, and then launched 25% off Unlimited offers for nurses, physicians and teachers.

In addition, “we simplified our billing process to make it easier for customers to understand their bills. We followed that up with the launch of Unlimited Your Way – where customers can pick and choose which Unlimited plan works best for each line on their account. When we reached nationwide 5G, we added 5G to all of our Unlimited plans – at no additional cost. We also added enhanced security to our Elite and Extra plans – also at no extra charge,” she said. “All that leading up to our new and existing customer offer. So this is really a culture shift in the way we approach our business.”

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Moore said the jury’s still out as to whether AT&T will do as well as T-Mobile did on the “un-carrier” messaging. “They have work to do” if they want to get to that level.