Telecom giant AT&T (NYSE:T) has lagged behind the market in recent years. Even if you reinvested Ma Bell's generous dividends along the way, AT&T stock has only provided a 10% return since the start of 2013. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) has gained 40% on a dividend-adjusted basis.
What is AT&T doing to reverse this negative trend, setting its investors back on track for market-beating returns? I scoured AT&T management's latest earnings call, looking for clues. Here are the five most telling insights from AT&T's own executives.
More data, fewer subsidies
Half of our smartphone sales in the second quarter were on AT&T Next, and nearly half of our smartphone subscriber base has moved to Mobile Share Value plans since we first introduced value plans in February. Even better -- when customers do switch to Mobile Share, they are moving to larger and larger data buckets."
-- AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega
AT&T's family plans with shared data subscriptions were controversial at first, but customers have embraced the shared-data model. Moving roughly half of AT&T's 61 million smartphone users to a new billing plan is impressive enough; Later in the call, AT&T also noted that 70% of these subscribers are opting for large plans with at least 10 GB of shared data.
This is significant, because AT&T charges much more for these larger data plans.
Separated from the cost of calling and texting plans, not to mention the device itself, a 10 GB AT&T data plan costs $100 per month. A 2 GB plan adds just $40 to the monthly service cost.
Keep in mind that the average smartphone user consumed only 0.5 gigabytes of mobile data in 2013 and is expected to make do with less than 3 GB until 2018. In other words, a lot of the monthly 10 GB data allotment may go unused and doesn't roll over into upcoming months. So it's in AT&T's best interest to get consumers interested in high-cost data plans with more data headroom than they really need.
And so far, the strategy is working out according to plan. Americans are lapping up AT&T's bigger data plans by the millions.
Smartphone users tend to stick around
The shift into the no-device-subsidy model is unmistakable. More and more customers are choosing the simplicity of Mobile Share Value plans and AT&T Next. This model shift is driving impressive results. Postpaid churn was a record low 0.86%, the best ever for AT&T and likely an industry-best this quarter.
As far as I know, if you go back and look at the history of wireless, this is the second lowest churn ever reported by a company in the history of wireless. The one that was lower than that was only two basis points lower two years ago.
-- de la Vega
The Mobile Share Value data-sharing plan and the AT&T Next installment plan for device payments have helped AT&T keep its customers around longer. Customer churn is running at historically low levels.
Telecom carriers and their investors used to worry about the end of subsidized smartphone sales, since consumers would be exposed to the sticker shock of very expensive smartphones. A fully tricked-out Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 6 Plus, for example, comes with a $950 sticker price.
But AT&T and other service providers are running an end-around to avoid that sticker shock. That monster of an iPhone 6 Plus can be had with no money down, as long as you agree to add nearly $40 to your monthly service bill. The final handset price still works out to $950, but the buyer is never directly confronted by that scary figure.
More on AT&T's smartphone prices
We're very excited, because we see a new wave of low-cost smartphones where our customers can outright purchase the device for a very low cost and in essence bring in their own device by paying cash.
And the new lineup of smartphones that we'll have in the second half will have several options of good looking devices, very functional, large screen at lower cost, that will allow a customer to get our best price by a very simple purchase of the device.
-- de la Vega
And if that $40 monthly charge still looks daunting, AT&T is looking forward to a new wave of more affordable smartphones. And it's not all budget-conscious Android handsets, either.
This earnings call was held before Apple introduced the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. When those devices arrived, AT&T also dropped the cost of last year's iPhones. So when de la Vega spoke about his second-half lineup of good-looking, functional devices, he was at least partly thinking about the iPhone 5C and 5S models, now available for as little as $18.75 a month (or $450 upfront).
Across the U-Verse
In wireline, U-Verse continues its steady performance of subscriber gains and increasing revenue. It's now approaching $15 billion in annualized revenues, growing at about 25% year over year.
The big factor in the success of U-verse is our ability to bundle. More than 97%, or virtually all, of our video customers had some kind of bundle with us. And two-thirds of our U-verse TV subscribers take three or four services with us.
-- AT&T CFO John Stephens
There's more to AT&T than just a wireless phone service, which is running into hurdles to further growth as the industry matures. The AT&T U-Verse TV service has become a major growth engine, bringing Internet-based entertainment to nearly 6 million American households.
U-Verse is even more attractive when you consider the triple-play plan bundling opportunity. Adding broadband Internet services and a digital phone line to the TV bill tends to increase the profitability per customer -- and lower the monthly churn figures.
In AT&T's case, there's even a quadruple-play option, if the company can persuade users to take both wired and wireless phone services. Stephens mentioned "four services" in passing, but it's actually a fairly unique bundle. Verizon (NYSE:VZ) can match it with wireless services on top of its FiOS fiber-based bundles, but that's about it. No other cable, satellite, or fiber-based TV broadcaster runs a nationwide wireless network today.
How does DirecTV Fit In?
In the second quarter, we announced our intention to acquire DirecTV (NYSE:DTV.DL). This will take our video and bundling strategies -- and our cost structure -- to a whole new level. We're really excited about what this transaction can do. Service bundles are a proven winner for us, and we believe the ability to bundle services nationally will be a big plus.
-- John Stephens
If AT&T's pending buyout of satellite broadcaster DirecTV is approved, the bundling game steps up to a whole new level.
Nobody else can offer both a nationwide TV service and a coast-to-coast phone network. The wireless towers are already up and running, the satellites have been launched, and there's no new infrastructure to build. This is the bundle that can move with you from town to town, not tethered to hardwired cables apart from the broadband Internet component. A new breed of fixed wireless broadband could smooth over even that deficiency.