Sprint-Softbank: how it will disrupt the US market


The Japanese and French markets have both been disrupted through the entry of low-cost competitors offering substantial price reductions. We think that Softbank’s acquisition of Sprint is a signal that the same is to soon come in the US given Softbank’s experience as a successful disruptor in Japan. (January 2013, Executive Briefing Service)

Digital Commerce Flywheel December 2012
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Below is an extract from this 23 page Telco 2.0 Report that can be downloaded in full in PDF format by members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing service here. Non-members can subscribe here or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

We’ll also be discussing our findings at the New Digital Economics Brainstorm in Silicon Valley, 19-20 March, 2013.


Once upon a time…

Japan used to be a mobile market with two serious competitors, high ARPUs and margins, and three laggard players that nobody took too seriously. France’s mobile market had three operators, a highly tolerant regulator, and high margins. And the US mobile market once had a relatively laissez-faire regulator, high ARPUs, two mighty duopolists, and two laggards.

The Japanese and French markets have both been disrupted through the entry of low-cost competitors offering substantial price reductions, and in Japan’s case the disruptor was Softbank. The US now has a regulator seemingly more influenced by voices from Silicon Valley than ‘big telco’ lobbyists, the duopolists have attractive margins, and Softbank now stands behind Sprint. The scene appears set for a disruptive play.

The lessons of history

In Japan, back in 2006, when Vodafone sold its Japanese operation to Masayoshi Son’s Softbank, the mobile market was relatively stable with two large players – NTT Docomo and KDDI – and three much smaller ones including Softbank which were not making money (hence Vodafone’s decision to withdraw from Japan). Softbank spotted the disruptive possibilities of the Apple iPhone, the advantages of being Japan’s only operator on the UMTS world standard, and the fat margins of the duopolists. It became the iPhone exclusive carrier, benefited from world 3G infrastructure competition, and set keen prices on data to cut into the duopoly.  And the results have been spectacular: Operating income has increased 6 times since Softbank acquired the business from Vodafone, and net additions in 2012 were running 127% higher than those of NTT DoCoMo and 51% higher than KDDI.

In France back in 2011, three French operators shared out the market, under the eyes of ARCEP, a regulator much more enthusiastic about planning for infrastructure development than driving competition. That year, Free.fr, a company that had already disrupted the fixed ISP market through mastering software and therefore having the best customer premises devices and the lowest costs, finally got a 3G licence. Using a radical new network design based on small cells and WLAN-cellular integration, Free tore into the oligopolists at staggeringly low prices.

In the United States, between 2005 and 2009, the friendly regulator – FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin – permitted three great mergers in wireless, creating the new AT&T, the new Verizon, and the new Sprint-Nextel. Out of those, execution was successful in the first two. Sprint-Nextel misjudged the importance of Nextel’s specialism in voice, made a bad bet on WiMAX, leaving itself excluded from the emerging smartphone arena, and anyway had the hardest integration challenge. This is now acknowledged by Daniel R. Hesse, Sprint-Nextel’s CEO.

“Hesse said that the AT&T’s failed attempt to consolidate two of the Big 4 made him realize that there was no longer such a thing as the Big 4. The industry had bifurcated into the Big 2 and everybody else.” … “With 20/20 hindsight, the Nextel merger was a mistake,” Hesse said. “The synergies, if you will, that we had hoped for and planned for didn’t materialize.” 

Source: GigaOm

AT&T and Verizon, however, made it across the merger swamp to found an effective duopoly, a dominating force that controls 68% of revenue in the world’s critical wireless market, and which regularly achieves 30+% margins while its rivals struggle to break even. Verizon’s decision to end the standards wars and go with LTE effectively killed the CDMA development path and left Sprint stuck with WiMAX. Was it strategy or happy accident?

So, what’s next?

Now, things have changed. Sprint has been bought out by none other than Softbank – the original Japanese disruptor. It is a reminder that strategic advantage is temporary and disruption is inevitable.

We expect that the new Sprint will take the pain to push ahead with its transition to LTE. The previous Softbank and Sprint experiences have shown that being outside the world standard is deadly from a devices point of view, which remains critical to success in mobile. We expect that they may make a much bigger effort with carrier WLAN, far better standardised, far more available, and in many ways technically more robust than WiMAX.

We also expect that Sprint/Softbank will aim for the simplest form of disruption, price war. Oligopolies are always either in a state of price stability or of price war. Whether a cartel controls the market, or a tacit balance of fear constrains action, stability reigns, until it doesn’t. Then, price war rages, as no-one can afford to resist. Customers will benefit. T-Mobile, trying to fight its way to the start-line, will suffer most of all.

Another lesson from Softbank, though, is that disruption on price needs a killer product if it is to be more than a race to the bottom. We explore some further strategy options for Sprint in the body of this report.

In addition to its impact on the core US telecoms market, the prospect of forthcoming disruption also raises the stakes on the question of whether the US telcos are transforming to new Telco 2.0 business models fast enough (see our report A Practical Guide to Implementing Telco 2.0). This is a topic that we will explore further in our research and at the next Silicon Valley Executive Brainstorm, March 19-20, 2013.

Orientation: The Softbank Experience

Masayoshi Son’s strategy at Softbank, after acquiring the Vodafone stake, was simple – sharp pricing, especially on data, and hot gadgets.

The iPhone: a disruptive innovation

Softbank was the launch partner for the iPhone in Japan and remained Apple’s exclusive carrier up to the release of the iPhone 4S. Softbank’s annual report shows the impact of the iPhone and repricing very clearly – the partnership with Apple was signed in June, 2008, and the iPhone 4S launch followed in Q3 2011. The disruption was transient, but it had lasting effects on the market, restoring Softbank as a serious competitor, in much the same way as it turbocharged AT&T in the US a year before.

Figure 1: iDisrupt – the June ‘08 iPhone launch reset the market in Japan

Softbank Results, January 2013Source: Softbank

The combination of keen pricing and iPhones had a lasting effect on subscriber growth, too. Throughout the exclusivity era, Softbank beat its rivals for net-adds handsomely.

The impact on price: enduring reduction in margins

However, this came at a price. On a quarterly basis, a steady erosion of operating margin is visible, driven partly by the pricing strategy and partly by the cost of the shiny, shiny gadgets. One way of mitigating this was to carve out the cost of the device from the cost of service. Rather than paying nothing up front, Softbank subscribers paid a monthly device charge, or else either paid cash or brought their own.

Softbank’s annual report says that their subscriber-acquisition cost was falling in their FY 2012 (i.e. 2011-12), but also that the average subscriber upgrade cost had increased – in a smartphone environment, users who were brought on board on a cheaper device will tend to eventually demand something better.

As a result, Softbank has been able to keep its share of net adds over 40%. In a market with four players, this is a major achievement. However, to do so, they have had to accept the erosion of their margins and pricing.

Figure 3: Softbank – keeping ahead of the competition…

Softbank Net Adds and Margins, January 2013Source: STL Partners, Softbank

Clearly, price disruption can work, and it is reasonable to think that something similar might happen in the US, a similar market. In the international context, US mobile operators are pricey: the US is the fourth-highest OECD market by ARPU.

On average, for instance, a triple-play package that bundles Internet, telephone and television sells for $160 a month with taxes. In France the equivalent costs just $38. For that low price the French also get long distance to 70 foreign countries, not merely one; worldwide television, not just domestic; and an Internet that’s 20 times faster uploading data and 10 times faster downloading it.

To read the note in full, including the following additional analysis…

  • Executive Summary
  • Orientation: The Softbank Experience
  • The iPhone: a disruptive innovation
  • The impact on price: enduring reduction in margins
  • The Disruption of EU High Price Markets
  • Target: The Duopoly
  • Context: Sources of the Duo
  • M&A Execution
  • AT&T: A Devil’s Bargain with Apple
  • Verizon – network leadership as a strategy
  • Sprint – post-merger distractions
  • The Future: Limits to the Duo
  • PSTN phaseout and Universal Service Fund transition
  • Very simply…a price war
  • Sprint: The Agenda
  • Recovering from the loss of the Nextel business
  • Future of the network
  • Future of the core
  • The spectrum issue
  • Sprint: the soft-shoe spectrum shuffle
  • Softbank: another 2.5GHz vision
  • Options for disruptive change
  • Happy Pipe
  • Telco 2.0
  • Comms-Focused
  • Conclusions

…and the following figures…

  • Figure 1: iDisrupt – the June ‘08 iPhone launch reset the market in Japan
  • Figure 2: Softbank accepted a drift-down in margins as the price of subscriber acquisition
  • Figure 3: Softbank – keeping ahead of the competition
  • Figure 4: Spain is a high-price market
  • Figure 5: Markets with premium pricing are the first to go
  • Figure 6: AT&T and Verizon Wireless dominate US mobile revenues and margins
  • Figure 7: The duopolists pull away in terms of subscribers
  • Figure 8: The duopolists’ subscriber gain has come without sacrificing ARPU
  • Figure 9: The duopolists dig in through capital investment
  • Figure 10: OneNet sent Vodafone UK powering ahead in the SMB market
  • Figure 11: Softbank Japan’s spectrum plan
  • Figure 12: Softbank and the US Carriers’ Spectrum Holdings
  • Figure 13: Softbank is more than confident on EBIT
  • Figure 14: Softbank ARPU – An “increasing trend” for one player, but only just

Members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Subscription Service can download the full 23 page report in PDF format hereNon-Members, please subscribe here or email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Full Article: QQ: China’s Monster ‘Facebook’ – on a screen near you soon

Summary: An analysis of QQ.com – a profitable Chinese social networking and instant messaging service with 1 billion usernames, 75 million peak concurrent users, and plans to grow beyond China.


The world is full of fast-growing, hyper-fashionable social networking and user-generated content plays. Almost to a man, they lack one thing – profits, or even revenues. An English-speaking technology media and analyst/investor community obsessed by the US West Coast has practically ignored QQ.com, one example of spectacular success, because it’s Chinese.

A Profitable and Valuable Social Network

At the 30th of June, Tencent (QQ’s owners) had thrown off RMB993 million (US$145 million) in free cash in six months, even after spending RMB1.9bn in CAPEX and a further RMB593 million in financing costs. For comparison, Facebook went marginally cashflow positive for the first time in August and isn’t yet profitable.

The bottom line is impressive too; at the last count, Tencent’s gross margin was at 67.3% and net margin was 41.75% – this smashes HP’s investment criterion of “fascinating margins”, i.e. 45% gross, and Iliad’s 70% ROI on new fibre deployment. We previously estimated the gross margin for October 2008 as 63.5%, so it appears that things have consistently been going well for QQ.

The shares (listed in Hong Kong) have gone from HK$60 to 120 since April, showing that this performance is also attracting plenty of demand from investors – albeit at a somewhat toppy price/earnings ratio of over 50.

Nearly a Billion ‘Users’

There were 990 million user identities on QQ as at the 30th of June, 2009. Given the current growth rate, the billionth user will almost certainly be announced in the next quarterly results – but a nontrivial percentage of these are inactive, are multiple aliases, or are spambots. [NB. This is true of all IM communities except, perhaps, for the 17 million users of IBM Lotus Notes Sametime inside their enterprise firewalls, as we pointed out in the Consumer Voice & Messaging 2.0 strategy report.]

As impressive as this is, instant messaging user bases are usually only weakly bound to the service, they are usually non-paying, and many people have multiple usernames. A more useful metric is peak concurrent users – the maximum number of users simultaneously logged in during the period in question. To be counted, a user name has to be active in that they are online, so it’s reasonable to deduce that they exist. It doesn’t prove that they are a human being (or for that matter a useful application rather than a pest); however, whether or not a logged-in user is human, they are consuming system resources.

So, measuring peak concurrent users provides us both with better data on uptake and a more useful indicator of capacity related costs. It’s a standard telecommunications engineering principle to “provision for the peak” – that is to say, it’s useless to build a network with only sufficient capacity for the average traffic, as 50% of the time it will be congested and probably non-functional through overload. To be available, the system must supply enough spare capacity to handle the peaks in demand. Peak load determines scale, and hence cost.

In 2008, at various times, QQ’s parent company Tencent claimed to have between 355 and 570 million users. At the end of June, 2009, the user count stood at 990 million – so the nominal user base had roughly doubled. In 2008, peak concurrent users were 45.3 million, growing to 65 million in June 2009. According to QQ.com’s live statistics readout (you can watch it grow in real time here), the record at time of writing was 79 million. According to Alexa, 3.26% of global Web users visited one of the various qq.com sites in September 2009.


For comparison, Skype’s all-time peak concurrent user count is 15 million, although it has the advantage of using user-provided infrastructure, whereas QQ has a client-server architecture and therefore a constant need for rack-space.

Not just users, but Paying Users

In 2007, out of 12 million peak concurrent users, 7.3 million had spent money with QQ, or to put it another way, 61% of verifiable QQ users were buying value-added services. (How many mobile operators can claim that?)

In March, 2009, we thought it unlikely that this high proportion would continue to pay as the service grew – and that it was quite possible that the 7.3 million earlier payers were dominated by early adopters and power users, so that future recruits would be less committed to the community, less geeky, and lower-income.

However, when Tencent’s Q1 results appeared at the end of March, 36.9 million users had purchased value-added services during the quarter, growing at a monthly rate of 8.4% to reach 40 million by the end of June. This latter figure was against a concurrent user base of 65 million, meaning that 62% of concurrent users were paying users.

We think this is an impressively high proportion at such volumes, and suggests that the revenue may scale reasonably well as it grows penetration further. As one might expect the cost model of such a volume business to scale efficiently, this implies further prospects of profitability. It is likely that such thoughts are one of the influences on the aforementioned growth in QQ’s share valuation.

So, how did they do it?



In our Serving the Digital Generation Strategy Report, we identified a list of key factors that anyone who wants to attract the customer of the future would have to address, which together describe what we call the participation imperative. Specifically, four axes define the customer’s aims:

  1. To interact socially with a peer group
  2. To personalise and customise their environment
  3. To express creativity – e.g. user generated content
  4. To maintain privacy/anonymity or seek notoriety

These require and depend upon four key affordances:

  1. Portability – broad ability to work across multiple PCs, mobiles
  2. Payments – virtual currencies, transactions
  3. Feedback – ratings, comments, discussion, personalisation, hackable APIs
  4. A directory – to find other people

We assess that QQ hits 7 out of 8 criteria squarely. Really, the only one they don’t cover is privacy – although they do have rich presence-and-availability control, it’s in the nature of such a community that going offline could be a noticeable act, and there have been problems with the Public Security Bureau (Chinese secret police).

NB. The Customer of the Future can be a complex and powerful character. When the Shanghai PSB demanded that QQ filter references to the Diayou islands (a controversial nationalist cause in China), the ensuing user revolt caused even the PSB to back off.]

QQ caters to user creativity and the need for personalisation much more deeply than most social networks with the possible exception of Facebook. Although officially proprietary, the system API is documented and QQ, the company, positively encourages a hacker ecosystem of interesting new applications. This goes some way beyond the skins and avatars most socnets offer. Similarly, you can’t offer more effective feedback to more advanced users than the ability to tinker with the works. Portability is well catered for – there are multiple client applications, SMS integration, various mobile clients, and the Web site.

Print your own Digital Money

QQ’s in-world digital currency is no trivial add-on. QQ derives revenue from selling applications, other in-game goods, and extra services such as a blog, games, and a streaming music service, in return for its internal digital currency. This market creates a sink for the digital currency, and therefore gives it value, which creates a further demand for it as a gift and reputation good. It shares revenue from the store with the creators of in-game goods, thus feeding user creativity.

In Telco 2.0 terms, QQ’s business model is collecting money from the downstream side and subsidising the upstream partners, in order to encourage the creation of saleable goods and the purchase of digital currency. In return for their participation, users get the core functions of the directory and the messaging layer to service their peer group and burnish their on-line identity.

In-World Currency dwarfs Advertising

Although QQ also does contextual advertising, its core business is the in-world economy. We remarked back in March that the ad business was overshadowed by the VAS business, and this is even more true now. Online advertising grew just under 10% year-on-year, but now makes up just 9% of total revenues, falling from 11%. Internet VAS revenues were up 107% and mobile VAS was up 38%.

In part, this is the unavoidable downside of being hackable; advertising is a tax on your attention, so some people will want to be rid of it. Just as many Mozilla Firefox users install Adblock Plus to screen out Web advertising, multiple unofficial QQ clients exist that strip the ads. But if the users buy the clients from the QQ Store, who’s complaining?

QQ’s ‘Two-Sided’ Business Model Strategy

We’ve identified three types of generic ‘two-sided’ business model strategy, and concluded that the most successful companies were those who operated at the creative edge between each type.

  • Strategy One involves giving away services before and after a transaction, and collecting a percentage of the transaction. Think Amazon – or a casino.
  • Strategy Two involves giving something away to create a trading hub, then selling something to the crowd. Think of the original Lloyds’ Coffee House – it didn’t write marine insurance itself, it sold coffee to the insurance brokers, who came for the liquidity and rumours, and stayed for the coffee.
  • Strategy Three involves selling access for third parties to the trading hub – like BAA plc renting shops at Heathrow Airport, or Google giving away a whole range of services in order to create inventory it can sell adverts next to.

QQ would initially appear to straddle Strategies Two (selling to the crowd) and Three (charging for access) in the two-sided business model. But the domination of in-world trade over advertising in its P&L statement suggests something else – much of what it sells to the crowd originates in the crowd. Isn’t this an example of the Amazon-like Strategy One, facilitating transactions in return for a turn on the deal? If so, they’ve brought off the impressive feat of exploiting creative ambiguity between all three.

Next: your market?

Where does QQ go from here? The answer appears to be “right here” – in August 2009, Tencent launched an English-language portal (imqq.com). Interestingly, the site is marketed directly at business, which is an extension of a strategy shift they have already undertaken in China. For some time, Tencent has been marketing a version of the client at business users which borrows the look-and-feel of Microsoft Live Messenger (apparently being boring can be a valid strategy).

The business version of QQ is paid for – sensibly in our view, Tencent don’t expect small companies to be spending much time trying to achieve legendary status in the QQ user community. As (supposed) serious, responsible adults, they’re meant to have a secure identity and reputation already, so they’re not likely to contribute that much to the in-world economy by trying to burnish them. Therefore, a traditional, one-sided model is being used to derive revenue from this submarket.

Conclusion: Watch with Care

Our conclusion is at this stage that the Telcos who aren’t yet familiar with QQ should keep a close watch on them in both home and away markets. At a minimum there’s a lot to be learned from how this smart and complex operator employs the ‘two-sided’ business models. At other extremes are competitor threat and partner opportunity scenarios that we’ll be looking at in more depth in our future analysis.

Even though there are a lot of mobile industry execs with scars from trying to transplant successes from (usually) Japan into WENA (Western Europe & North American) markets, complacency would be extremely unwise faced with a potential competitor that has demonstrated such a deft grasp of two-sided business models, such a close understanding of user needs, and such a solid base of competence in high scalability Internet engineering.

And Finally…

Bill Gates recently gave a speech in which he claimed that two out of the five most profitable firms in China “don’t pay for their software”. He was telling the truth, in a sense; a quick “curl -i im.qq.com” demonstrates that Tencent isn’t paying a penny for its server software – the site is served with Apache running on BSD Unix machines. That may not be what Bill meant, but perhaps he should have.