What Happened to the Competition For Telecom?

Includes: CTL, T, VZ
by: William Trent, CFA

After the 1996 Telecom Act, the pricing environment for voice calls - particularly for landline phones, got ugly. Between wireless substitution, competition from cable and competition from other sources such as Skype, the price to make a voice call kept dropping. Until recently.

PPI for wired telecom

The ability to raise prices on wired telecom services has done wonders for the stock prices of wired carriers such as AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), Qwest (NYSE:Q) and CenturyTel (NYSE:CTL). But can it continue? For clues I turned to the recent conference calls.

Verizon attributes some pricing gains to its broadband bundle.

Increases in broadband and video revenue, more bundled customers, as well as certain strategic pricing changes all helped drive consumer retail ARPU up $5.64 or nearly 11% year over year. The 3.3% sequential growth in ARPU is primarily broadband and video-related. In Texas the retail ARPU growth was in excess of 20%, and there are several other large markets with double-digit growth including New York, New Jersey and Virginia. We continue to see growth and retention opportunities in the retail consumer market, particularly as we introduced new bundles, many of which will include wireless.

(Excerpt from full VZ conference call transcript)

No wonder they are spending so much on their FiOS buildout.

Qwest is benefiting from having fewer competitors around.

Dick Notebaert

Yeah. Jonathan that's the model that we have to follow, because we proven we can do the productivity; we have to execute against the marketing opportunity, we have got less competitors, new products. So, yeah, that's the model that we are executing against. So, yes, we would expect to see margin expansion as we execute and if we execute, which we've already got the sales and we just got convert into revenues.

(Excerpt from full Q conference call transcript)

But AT&T sees more cable competition on the horizon.

In small and medium business, the situation there really in the last several quarters in terms of the results and the trends we’re seeing hasn’t changed dramatically. We are continuing to see growth in both voice and data in small and medium business and in our regional business overall. We are continuing to see access line gains and we are seeing relatively low churn rates for both access lines and broadband services.

Where we do have competitive losses and maybe a good way to say this would be if you look at our access line disconnects in the regional business space, most of them are related to technology migration. Only about 30% of access line disconnects are competitive disconnects. In terms of cable competition up to this point of that 30%, the disconnects that are cable related are very small, four to five percentage points of that 30. So we are not seeing a lot in the market at this point, other than probably from Cox who has been in the market for some time. But I do expect over this next year we’ll see more activity as Comcast and Time Warner both begin to roll out their plans.

Again, I think where we will see them will tend to be more in the lower end of the small/medium business space, kind of 10 lines and under, maybe even four lines and under.

Again, so far we are not seeing much impact there. In fact, our small/medium business revenue growth was in the mid 6% range this quarter, about the same as last quarter.

(Excerpt from full T conference call transcript)

As does CenturyTel.

Gaurav Jaitly - UBS

It’s Gaurav Jaitly, UBS. Couple of questions. First, yesterday Citizens mentioned on their call that they were seeing some aggressive promotions in their, rest of the [ph] markets from Charter. Just curious given your relatively large overlap at Charter, if you saw the same… we saw access lines kind of pick up a little bit to 5.2% from just in the 5% in the first quarter.

And then secondly, just wondering if you had any thoughts on the upcoming 700 MHz auctions, if you would consider joining a coalition or just bidding on your own, that would be great, thanks.

Glen F. Post III - Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, Gaurav, we have seen Charter pick up the promotions in recent weeks and months. And this did have a slight impact because we have access line losses, we do have about 25% overlap with Charter today and… 23% I think overlap with Charter today. And it’s, they’ve been very aggressive, but we don’t see unusual impact. It will be some tough competition, increased competition in some of those areas, but we don’t expect major impacts right now. But they are being more aggressive than they have in the past.

(Excerpt from full CTL conference call transcript)

For investors, it may pay to stick with the companies that are seeing less pressure from competition. In particular, Verizon has taken the biggest steps to stave off future competition rather than merely benefiting from the current lull.