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US price war intensifies as DoJ mulls competition probe

By CAROLINE GABRIEL

Published: 7 July, 2009

READ MORE: US

The US Department of Justice is mulling whether to launch a probe into possible anti-competitive practises by the large telcos, just at a time when, on the wireless side, the business has never been more aggressively competitive. Such an investigation, if it proceeds, would likely headline on wireline and backhaul issues, and general net neutrality debates, though the possible inclusion of the large players' controversial handset exclusives are grabbing the column inches.

But AT&T and Verizon Wireless, for all their huge market share and control of backhaul lines, will certainly point to the first moves towards open access in the US (Verizon's 700MHz network and stimulus funded systems), and to the current sharp rise in new offers for consumers, many coming from smaller cellcos and MVNOs.

But from the consumer's point of view, the US mobile market is starting to look more competitive than it has for years, though the exploding price war may have a dangerous effect on some carriers' margins and survivability. The flat rate deals offered by Sprint's Boost Mobile unit, Leap Wireless, MetroPCS and T-Mobile have leapfrogged one another for the past six months, and now MVNOs are getting in on the act as well. Last week, Tracfone Wireless - a unit of Latin American giant America Movil - undercut its rivals with a $45 prepaid flat rate voice/text plan, called Straight Talk. This pushes down the $50 benchmark set by Boost early this year (piggybacking on Verizon's CDMA network).

So far, the big two cellcos have not been significantly impacted by the low cost plans, which have been pushing the other operators further towards low value consumers, with the consequent effect on profitability. Those most at risk from Straight Talk, then, are Boost, Leap and MetroPCS. "We believe that the $45 Straight Talk plan could substantially slow the growth of the unlimited carriers," Phil Cusick, an analyst for Macquarie Securities, told The Wall Street Journal.

MetroPCS was also busy last week, with an unlimited international calling add-on to existing plans, priced at just $5 a month. Sprint responded with comments that these propositions relied on limited actual uptake by users, while Boost said it offered more phones, in more locations than Straight Talk, and with no hidden charges.

Another MVNO, Zer01Mobile, went nationwide with its own unlimited, prepaid, voice/data plan, which runs on AT&T's network via distributors. It is different from most MVNOs in that it makes heavy use of VoIP, using its 'Veritable Mobile Convergence' technology. The service will not be marketed directly to consumers, but via third parties such as Buzzirk Mobile, which is offering an unlimited voice and data service for $79.95 per month. This MVNE (mobile virtual network enabler) model is gaining ground in many markets, and is also being pursued by cellco Hutchison 3 in Europe.

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