Editor's Corner—TV is now clearly the wireless industry’s new battleground

T-Mobile said it will acquire Layer3 TV in order to launch its own “disruptive” TV service sometime next year. That move will position T-Mobile directly against AT&T and Verizon—its main rivals in the wireless industry—because both AT&T and Verizon are working to either expand or launch their own TV services.

Of course, T-Mobile’s acquisition of Layer3 TV isn’t the first major move by a wireless provider into the TV space. Indeed, T-Mobile for years has offered MobiTV’s mobile TV service, which streams live TV into a smartphone app.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg that sits at the intersection of wireless and TV. Perhaps the best example of the wireless industry’s infatuation with TV was Qualcomm’s MediaFLO network, launched more than a decade ago. MediaFLO was a mostly nationwide service that ran over a small slice of 700 MHz spectrum and broadcast a handful of TV channels to phones with a built-in MediaFLO antenna. AT&T and Verizon were among the companies that sold MediaFLO services to customers, generally for an extra $10 per month. The service failed to generate any momentum, and Qualcomm sold its MediaFLO spectrum to AT&T roughly six years ago.

AT&T has been driving the wireless industry’s more recent push into TV. The company announced its plan to acquire DirecTV in 2014, and leveraged that acquisition to launch its DirecTV Now streaming service late last year. AT&T recently announced it now counts 1 million DirecTV Now customers; the company is planning to launch a major update to its DirecTV Now service next year.

Partially in response to AT&T’s DirecTV Now, Verizon launched its Go90 service, T-Mobile said it will offer Netflix for free to its customers, and Sprint recently said it will offer Hulu for free to its own customers.

But, at least for Verizon and T-Mobile, that’s clearly not enough. Already T-Mobile has laid out its plans for a TV service next year—one that will include multiple pricing tiers and an advertising component, but no original content—and Verizon too has said it plans to launch a full-blown virtual MVPD service. However, Verizon’s planned vMVPD service appears to have suffered some setbacks: Marni Walden, the architect of Verizon’s Go90 offering and the executive who promised in June that Verizon’s streaming TV service wouldn’t be “a ‘me too’ thing,” is leaving the company. Possibly as a result, Bloomberg reported in October that Verizon delayed its planned streaming TV launch to the spring 2018.

Even T-Mobile’s own executives hinted earlier this year about their interest in the pay-TV market. “Talk about a poster child for an industry that has really kind of ignored customers and ignored customer cares and gouged at every corner,” T-Mobile’s John Legere said in February. “Clearly, I salivate when I think about the possibilities of changing some of those (video) industries. And frankly, I’m fascinated with how little AT&T has done since they spent the mother lode buying DirecTV, and pretty much have let it sit on the side, and still be an old, crappy linear TV that they bundle weakly with their unlimited offer, so maybe more to come.”

During a call to discuss the company’s acquisition of Layer3 TV today, Legere largely echoed those comments in discussing T-Mobile’s reasons behind the deal. He also said that T-Mobile’s acquisition of Layer3 TV would have happened even if T-Mobile’s merger negotiations with Sprint hadn’t fallen apart.

Complete T-Mobile/Layer3 coverage:
T-Mobile to acquire Layer3 TV, launch 'disruptive' video service next year
T-Mobile not planning on buying original content for its pay-TV service
Editor's Corner—TV is now clearly the wireless industry’s new battleground
Editor's Corner—T-Mobile’s Legere declares disruption for ‘arrogant’ pay-TV biz … that’s already plenty disrupted

So why are wireless companies moving into the TV market? “ARPU [average revenue per user] is still declining, both for the industry as a whole and for each of the Big Four carriers individually,” wrote the analysts at MoffettNathanson in a report last month. Additionally, the Wall Street research firm reported that wireless industry EBITDA margins remain near all-time highs, but that churn rates appear to be rising.

For T-Mobile specifically, the firm noted that T-Mobile’s growth has “somewhat moderated,” as its wireless service revenue growth has fallen from a high of 15% in 2014 to around 6% in its most recent quarter.

And T-Mobile appears to have the best financial footing of any of the major wireless operators. For example, Verizon recently laid out a plan to cut $10 billion in costs by 2021.

The wireless industry may well be slowing after a few years of heated growth largely driven by LTE networks and smartphones. And thanks to the internet, the TV industry is undergoing some dramatic upheavals as customers of all ages eschew traditional TV hookups in favor of ones that are cheaper, simpler and more mobile. It’s those two factors that likely drove T-Mobile into Layer3’s arms, and it’s those two factors that will likely reshape both the TV industry and the wireless industry in the years to come. – Mike | @mikeddano

Article updated Dec. 13 to correct information about DirecTV Now prices.