Craig Moffett of Bernstein Research recently published a very informative report titled “The Long View: U.S. Telecom – The End of the Line(s).” In it, he shares his learnings from very detailed analysis of the cost and revenue models of wireline businesses.
Mr. Moffett is a very smart guy. I can’t possibly fairly represent the depth of analysis he has provided in this 40+ page report. I recommend you consider becoming a Bernstein client so that you can read this full report and to follow what he has to say about the industry. He won’t always be right, but his analysis is always worth considering.
And after considering this report, I think it’s clear that the Mobility Revolution, and the resulting displacement of wireline services by wireless services, may prove deadly for the Big Bells.
To give you a sense for the challenges they face, here are some quotes from the report:
- “The Wireline business – encompassing both the TelCo and Enterprise segments – still accounts for more than half of Verizon’s revenues (after adjusting for Vodafone’s 45% ownership of Verizon Wireless), and a similar amount of AT&T’s. Similarly, Wireline accounts for a majority of assets – at Verizon, about 69%. And Wireline accounts for an even larger portion of costs – the best measure of activity, or what these companies actually do - at about 65%. Indeed, if one were to also include the in-region wired portion of the wireless network as part of the broader wired picture then these companies’ still-overwhelming dependence on their wired franchises becomes even more striking, with what is almost certainly three quarters or more of the revenues and assets depending on the wired infrastructure.”
- “The TelCo (or regional Wireline segment) represents a larger share of profitability than it does of revenue within the Wireline business. Although not disclosed in Verizon’s and AT&T’s published financial reports, both companies are quick to concede that the TelCo segment is significantly more profitable than Enterprise, even if the TelCos’ trends are deteriorating. At both AT&T and Verizon, we estimate that TelCo accounts for approximately 40% of total EBITDA.”
- “The combination of competitition, technology, and regulation is a potent brew, and fifteen years after “Being Digital,” the world of the TelCos is a far different place. Consider that, at the time of the ’96 Act, local residential phone service was essentially ubiquitous, with 97% of households connected to the wired ‘grid.’ Nearly 30% of those homes had a second line, either for their AOL dial-up connection, their fax machine, or perhaps for their chatty teenage daughter. That’s an ‘effective’ penetration rate of ~125%. Fifteen years later, more than a quarter of all homes have ‘cut the cord,’ and a quarter of those remaining have left for cable voice. Second lines have dropped to 11%. That’s an effective penetration rate of ~60%; effective residential penetration has been cut in half. And if we look forward just five years from now, we are on a trajectory for more than 40% of homes to have gone wireless-only, for cable to have 40% of what’s left, and for second lines to be a thing of the past. Do the math. Five years from now, in the residential market the TelCos will preside over 60% share of just 60% of homes… an effective penetration rate of just 36%. That’s close to another halving, but this time in five years. That decline rivals that of the film business at Kodak.”
- “The rate of margin compression appears to be accelerating. Two things have happened in the two years since the end of our ARMIS data set (ARMIS reporting was discontinued afer 2007). First, the rate of access line losses has dramatically accelerated; the country is no longer averaging -4.8% total access line losses as it was from 2000 to 2007. This year, the average has been north (or south?) of a -10% annual decline. Second, broadband growth has slowed dramatically. Indeed, DSL growth tipped slightly negative for the first time ever in Q3. As a result, operators can no longer count on offsetting gains in ARPU to lessen the impact of a declining access line base.”
- “There is a troubling tendency to dismiss this progression as ‘yesterday’s news,’ to view the big TelCos as wireless operators, or to assume that the wired phone business will decline gracefully. It won’t. The Wireline phone business is a quintessentially fixed cost business. When fixed cost businesses decline – and especially when they decline rapidly – they leave huge and intractable costs in their wake.”
- “…Intuition suggest, however, that Wireline costs are primarily fixed, and this intuition can be empirically confirmed by the steep slope of correlations between access line losses and cost per access line – drawn from our extensive analysis of state-level FCC ARMIS data through 2007. The correlation suggest an overwhelmingly fixed cost structure for the Wireline business (in a ratio of roughly 50 to 75% fixed and 25 to 50% variable).”
- “Importantly, it is the nature of fixed cost businesses like telecommunications that ‘threshold effects’ become increasingly pronounced over time. As volumes decline, variable costs are shed. The remaining cost structure is therefore, by definition, more fixed and less variable than it was before. In any high-fixed-cost business, it is always the case that initial unit cost escalation yields even greater sensitivity to further unit cost escalation; as the margin ‘cushion’ gets smaller and smaller, it requires a smaller and smaller subsequent change to volumes to trigger a larger and larger subsequent change in profitability. If this ‘negative operating leverage’ dynamic is at work – as it appear to be – then it is plausible to expect that Wireline margin compression will not lessen; it will accelerate.”
- “The combination of falling revenues and falling margins is a noxious combination; the dollar amount of EBITDA generated by the U.S. Wireline industry has dropped from an annualized run rate of $52B seven years ago to an annualized run rate of just $38B in the just reported Q3.”
- “The implications of our analysis of the Wireline segment are troubling for the industry going forward. That access lines will continue to decline from here is a foregone conclusion. That Wireline margins will decline with access lines is more controversial, at least to judge by consensus estimates.”
- “Our AT&T model projects a decline from 31.8% in 2009 to 26.3% in 2013 in overall Wireline margins. … As a context, each 100 basis
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point decline amounts to about $650M in reduced Wireline EBITDA or operating income. Our 550 basis point variance from today’s margins amounts to a $3.6B gap by 2013, equal to 17% of ‘consensus’ EBITDA and 54% of ‘consensus’ operating income.”
- “Our Verizon model projects an even steeper decline, as Verizon’s costs appear somewhat more fixed and less variable than AT&T’s. We project a decline in Wireline margins from 24.2% 2009 to 17.0% in 2013. … Every 100 basis points of margin contraction at Verizon translates to about $460M in EBITDA or operating income. Our 720 basis point variance from implied consensus amounts to a $3.1B gap by 2013, equal to 30% of ‘consensus’ EBITDA and 153% of ‘consensus’ operating income, putting income firmly in negative territory.”
Mr. Moffett is a very smart guy. I can’t possibly fairly represent with this tiny sample from his report the depth of analysis he has provided. I recommend you find a way to read this full report and to follow what he has to say about the industry. He won’t always be right, but his analysis is always worth considering.
Although Verizon and AT&T are clearly being very successful in benefitting from the growth in mobility, they are undoubtedly also carefully weighing how to slow the impact of mobility on their core wireline economic engine.
Some of us, however, would rather mash the accelerator to the floor and say – bring on that Mobility Revolution – full steam ahead!