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How 5G Could Make T-Mobile's TV Aspirations a Reality

By James Brumley – Apr 9, 2020 at 8:05AM

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Merger-related matters have dominated the headlines and management's mindshare, but there's been much talk of television in the recent past.

At first glance, the partnership between wireless service provider T-Mobile (TMUS -2.01%) and new short-form video platform Quibi is an interesting but ultimately fruitless one. Quibi's 10-minute clips of serialized programs are perfect for watching on smartphones while we're waiting for a bus or waiting on an appointment. And T-Mobile wants more consumers to use its mobile services; giving them free entertainment is a decent selling point. Quibi isn't looking to limit itself just to T-Mobile though, and T-Mobile surely can't think Quibi is the game-changer it needs to compete with AT&T and Verizon.

A closer look at all that new T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert has said and done since he was named COO in 2015, however, suggests T-Mobile may have bigger television ambitions. The advent of 5G wireless connectivity is just the technology the company's been waiting for to make that move.

Hand holding smartphone with the letters 5G floating above it

Image source: Getty Images.

Already in the TV business

During T-Mobile's third-quarter conference call -- of 2018 -- then-COO Mike Sievert commented:

... [W]e have our heads down building a TV service that is free from having to have wires, that has hundreds of high definition choices coming in wirelessly, that's free from a particular cable box, that puts you in control. ... [W]e are the only company with a strategy to bring 5G nationwide to every customer instead of just some parts of some cities like our competitors. And that's why the TV service will also follow with a mobile TV service next year ... We're very excited about the strategy and it plays very tightly to the 5G strategy of the new T-Mobile.

At the time it seemed like another meandering, throw-away comment. But Sievert wasn't just blowing smoke. TVision launched in April of the following year, and Quibi, while not T-Mobile's, is indeed a mobile TV service even if it's unlike any other sort of streaming subscription brand.

Granted, you've likely heard little about either. Quibi officially launched earlier this week. TVision has been around for a year, but at a price of $90 per month and still not available everywhere, it's hardly been the cable killer T-Mobile's then-CEO Mark Legere has vaguely touted since it first started to materialize.

There's been more of a television-based plan in place for T-Mobile than there may seem on the surface, however. The company just needs more 5G coverage to make it happen. It also needs a more affordable offering than the current TVision service, but it's not like T-Mobile doesn't know where and what it is within the TV world.

Thinking strategically

Legere arguably earned his reputation as a blowhard, more of a marketing mouthpiece than a technical administrator of telco matters. But he was actually rather insightful when you could catch him not poking fun at rival telecom names.

Case in point: In an answer to a question posed during the company's Q4-2018 earnings call, Legere explained:

...[We] don't have plans to develop an undifferentiated skinny bundle out there. There are plenty of those. But we think there's a more nuanced role for us to play in helping you get access to the great media brands out there that you love. And to be able to put together your own media subscription in smaller pieces, $5, $6, $7, $8 at a time, it's an exciting future for us.

He's right about the aggregating multiple subscriptions into one platform, just as he was right about offering mobile access to them, and at-home wireless broadband, and those price points. Quibi may be initially free for some T-Mobile customers, but is priced for other consumers at (curiously) $5 per month with ads and $8 per month for commercial-free access. Meanwhile, some T-Mobile consumers can also gain subsidized access to similarly priced Netflix (NFLX -4.49%), paid for through T-Mobile's platform.

It's outsourced video content that only fleetingly makes T-Mobile the middleman. But it's another relationship that brings video customers into the fold.

Connecting the dots

It remains to be seen if Quibi and/or Netflix are stepping-off points for a more mainstream video product from T-Mobile. And even if they are, the company isn't quite ready for proverbial prime-time. The current TVision offering is pricey, where it's available. It also requires 5G speeds at customers' homes, but T-Mobile's coverage is still fairly sparse.

That's changing, however. With its merger with Sprint now a done deal, T-Mobile estimates it will be able to offer wireless broadband speeds in excess of 100 megabits per second to two-thirds of the country by next year, and to 90% of the nation by 2024. The time in between will give the company a chance to continue refining its television offerings; TVision's pricing could be problematic. That time will also let T-Mobile figure out how (or if) it wants to leverage the access it offers to Quibi and Netflix as a tool to funnel people into a more lucrative product.

Given how much T-Mobile has already done on the television front, though -- and how much Legere and Sievert have talked about it -- it would be naive to think more isn't in store now that the needed 5G infrastructure is finally falling into place.

James Brumley owns shares of AT&T. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix. The Motley Fool recommends T-Mobile US and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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