To subsidize or not to subsidize, that is the question. Whether 'tis more profitable to lock customers into long-term contracts by practically giving away smartphones and suffer the slings and arrows of investor ire over outrageously thinning margins, or to take up arms against the tyranny of demand for Apple's
The Danish solution
Last year several Danish wireless carriers decided to find the answer. They stopped subsidizing phones and "… saw that the customers valued lower prices on calling plans, and simpler calling plans, higher than the subsidy on the phone," Jon Erik Haug told The Wall Street Journal. (Haug is the CEO of Telenor's Denmark unit.)
Google is taking advantage of the unwillingness of many southern European mobile carriers to pay high subsidies. The company's Android operating system runs many of the mid-tier smartphones that can cost less than $200. Only 5% of smartphone buyers in Greece and 9% in Portugal went for the $680-and-up iPhone.
In the United States, second-tier carriers like MetroPCS and Leap Wireless are strictly prepaid (month-to-month) carriers. They offer only subsidy-free or minimally subsidized phones to their customers. The prepaid wireless business is growing and now holds 25% of U.S. customers.
For the month-to-month carriers, lower smartphone costs will be essential for their success. MetroPCS, which now has a 4G LTE network, has pinned its hopes on the holy grail of offering a $100 LTE smartphone -- without having to subsidizing its cost. MetroPCS Chairman and CEO Roger Lindquist considers the $100 to $150 range the company's "sweet spot." Lindquist says they'll be in that ballpark by the second half of 2012.
On the other hand
It was also a challenge even for the deeper-pocketed Verizon and AT&T. Both giant carriers saw their profit margins shaved even as their revenues increased after the release of the iPhone 4S.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the iPhone subsidy that Sprint has to pay is 40% higher than the average for its other smartphones.
Will Apple change its pricing model?
Apple CEO Tim Cook told the Goldman Sachs Conference in San Francisco last month that emerging markets are critical, with a particular focus on China. But it didn't sound like he's ready to go for a lower-price/lower-subsidy version of the iPhone there. What people want, he said, is the best-quality product, not a cheaper version of that product. To that end, he convinced China Telecom to offer the iPhone on a postpaid basis, beginning March 9. Of course, we don't know the terms of Apple's iPhone agreement with China Telecom.
Meanwhile, a third smartphone system has recently been dropped into the subsidize-or-not equation. I'm referring to Microsoft's
As reported by Light Reading last January, Chris Collins of marketing research company Compete said, "Carriers won't publicly talk about this, but they're dying for a third ecosystem to emerge. Having an Apple/Android duopoly doesn't play to their best interest."
Apple is not ready to give up its very profitable iPhone pricing unless forced to. What would force that to happen? Competition. And companies like Samsung, Huawei, ZTE, Nokia, and Microsoft are all working hard to bring down their costs even as they raise their smartphones' capabilities.
And don't forget the carriers. There will come a day when the decreasing returns on their subsidy payouts will force them to say enough is enough. Ah, perchance to dream.
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Fool contributor Dan Radovsky owns shares of AT&T and Nokia. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Nokia, Microsoft, and Apple; creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft; and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.