For those following the wireless industry closely, you probably know John Legere. For those who don't, he is the CEO of T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS) who has developed a cult following through his brash demeanor and willingness to take on the industry giants. From his (at times) NSFW commentary to his consumer friendly "Un-carrier" policies, he's been a breath of fresh air for the industry.
One thing Legere appears to be familiar with is Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals -- or BHAGs. Last year, he famously declared T-Mobile would edge out rival Sprint (NYSE:S) to be the third largest U.S. carrier by subscribers in 2014. While the numbers are still out for the final quarter, as of September, T-Mobile was within striking distance, trailing by just 2 million with 53 million subscribers to Sprint's 55 million. For proper perspective, at the start of 2014, T-Mobile trailed by nearly 8.5 million subscribers.
It's important to note that even with this incredible subscriber growth, T-Mobile -- and low-growth Sprint -- are far behind industry heavyweights, Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T (NYSE:T) which each have more than 115 million wireless subscribers. However, Legere is not one to rest on his laurels. On a blog post outlining his 2015 predictions, Legere announces his next BHAG: to beat Verizon's legendary LTE network.
T-Mobile filling its coverage gaps could put further pricing pressure on Verizon
If there's one thing T-Mobile has been faulted for, it's network coverage. In the blog post, Legere himself even references coverage gaps. But according to the blog, Legere argues his network is the fastest when compared head-to-head in areas T-Mobile serves, and the company will cover 300 million people with its network in 2015. With Verizon boasting of an LTE network that covers nearly 97% of Americans (approximately 303 million people), the two networks will be similar in that regard if T-Mobile executes on its plan for this year.
Beyond that, T-Mobile has reoriented the wireless industry with a focus on the end consumer. And many of these customer-friendly Un-carrier policies -- unlimited data, no domestic overage penalties, and data charge carve outs for streaming music services -- force other carriers to match its moves, offer compensating discounts, or risk potentially losing subscribers.
A short-term zero sum game
For shareholders, this is essentially a zero sum game -- at least in the short term. Any discount on wireless prices is money that will no longer flow down to shareholders' pockets as new subscribers become increasingly harder to come by amid saturation and competition. The competitive landscape has quickly changed in this industry.
In late 2013, Verizon famously appeared unapologetic for its industry-leading high rates with its CEO stating, "[W]e never have and never will lead on price." CEO Lowell McAdam went on to criticize unlimited data plans on the basis they are "unsustainable."
But what a difference a year can make -- last month the company's stock tumbled when it admitted that promotions were putting a dent in its margins and EPS. The company may not be leading, but it is definitely competing as a result of Sprint and T-Mobile's low cost and unlimited data plans. AT&T also warned investors of tighter fourth-quarter margins and increased churn due to new competition.
As a long-term-oriented shareholder in both AT&T and Verizon, I'm personally willing to sit on these income-producing giants, while they fight competition and monetize video, among other opportunities. But for those following the wireless industry, one thing's for sure: John Legere's effect on the industry cannot be denied.