Verizon back at bat: Revisiting the last inning

A month ago I wrote an exposé on the problems I felt Verizon was facing with their smartphone strategy: Verizon Strikes Out in Smartphones [Updated]

Given new information on subscriber growth and the relationship between Verizon and Apple, it’s time to look back and assess how the conclusions are standing up.

The conclusions I drew were that Verizon had three strikes against them:

  1. The iPhone has stolen their growth
  2. They are facing the prospect of a single OS platform supplier
  3. Android is not competitive vs. iOS

Did iPhone really hurt Verizon?

I pointed out that based on retail sampling data from ITG and what we know from AT&T own sales data, that iPhone at AT&T was outselling Android at Verizon by a ratio of 2.5 to 1.

The latest comScore data closely matches the assumed units of Android shipped by Verizon. Here’s why: The comScore data shows the number of active users of each platform. So, for example, as the number of Android users at Verizon grew, it follows that the new users had to buy new Android phones. However, you can also sell more phones than just those for new users. Some phones are going to go to replace those of existing users.

When it comes to Android however, all the Verizon Android devices are pretty new, having been purchased less than a year ago. Replacements would only be sold for damaged or lost devices not covered by warranty.

So from comScore the change in subs at Verizon comes out to about 2.2 million and my original estimate was about 2 million. That’s pretty close.

On the other hand, if you look at the chart, you’ll notice that the number of iPhone users at AT&T grew by a similar amount (about 2 million). However, AT&T activated over 5 million. That means that about 3 million devices were upgrades. This makes a lot of sense since we know that iPhone is the bulk of AT&T smartphone users.

This is highly supportive evidence that iPhone at AT&T did indeed outsell Verizon Android by at least a factor of 2. Each of those phones came with a 2 year lock-in so indeed AT&T did manage to “steal” growth from Verizon.

Another data point in support of this conclusion was provided by Turley Muller in a comment.  AT&T smartphones make up a significantly higher proportion of contract subs at 44% vs Verizon at 23%. Effectively, as a result of their sweetheart deal with Apple, AT&T got double the penetration of smartphones than Verizon since these devices are targeted only to contract subscribers. Those are high ARPU customers that either moved from regular voice plans or switched from other carriers.

So far, the first conclusion seems to be holding up pretty well.

Was Android a strategic constraint to Verizon?

Verizon revealed that they had been negotiating with Apple at least since 2008 and that they were testing the phone for a year. This is not as big a surprise as it may seem. Deals of this kind easily gestate for years. The commitment may not be made until the last minute.

Nevertheless, my point was about the fact that Android was making up to 75% of Verizon’s smartphone volume in Q3. This might be a strategic constraint. But “so what?” you may say: AT&T’s dependance on iPhone was even greater.

That’s precisely my point though. As we’ve seen with the shift by Apple to multi-carrier distribution, AT&T is now facing serious constraints on growth and the share price is suffering. Although Verizon did not deal with Google as a direct supplier, they were at risk of having much of the IP on their network at least orchestrated by a company that was not always aligned with their strategic goals. Much the same predicament AT&T is facing now.

The tale of AT&T and iPhone does lend support to the premise that Verizon felt a bit too constrained by Android hegemony on its network.

Is Android Competitive with iOS?

This last point was supported by the data showing a widening higher sell-through rate for iOS vs. Android on comparable addressable markets. Although the data has been confirmed with survey data, there are issues with this interpretation. First, because the addressable base for iPhone is higher at AT&T with the post-paid contracts being more popular there, iPhone had an easier time getting sold. Second, because 3/5 of the phones were upgrades.

The jury is still out but the apparent pent-up demand (admittedly anecdotal) for iPhone on Verizon does seem to show that given similar pricing, and a similar demographic/geographic addressable market, people do prefer the iPhone.