Sprint is feeling pretty positive about itself these days. Most obviously, it dodged a bullet when AT&T failed to acquire T-Mobile, but since then Sprint's last quarterly results were better than usual by Sprint's usual standards — though perhaps that's damning the company with faint praise. Nevertheless, Sprint was eager to tout them to a small group of reporters at its headquarters today, noting that its ARPU, OIBDA, FD-LTE, and churn were all headed in the right direction.
"ARPU, OIBDA, FD-LTE and churn" are all terms that the average human will justifiably ignore, though they are critically important to understanding whether Sprint will still be a viable carrier in a few years. Fortunately for those of us not deeply embedded in the minutiae of the mobile industry, CEO Dan Hesse has a much simpler idea that customers can keep in mind: Sprint wants to be the "good guys." Another way to put it: he's betting that nice guys don't always finish last.
"At Sprint, we describe it internally as being the good guys, of doing the right thing," he said today. That moral component pervades many of the PR-friendly activities Sprint engages in, from eco-friendly recycling programs to distracted driving prevention, but it also, Hesse says, informs what would otherwise seem like calculated business decisions like continuing to offer unlimited data.
"At Sprint, we describe it internally as being the good guys, of doing the right thing"
The topline example is Sprint's place in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which since Hesse's four-and-a-half-year tenure as CEO have gone from worst to first amongst carriers. Hesse says that "doing the right thing" when it comes to better customer service not only makes customers happier, but saves the company money: "Customer care costs are roughly half of what they were four and a half years ago."
While Sprint is making some headway in customer service and its cash position, that's not to say the company or its CEO has illusions that everything is great, "What you’re not going to see around here are any mission accomplished signs," Hesse says. Amongst the reasons Sprint is struggling is the vastly more powerful and entrenched competition it's up against: AT&T and Verizon.
"The industry does have an issue with the size of the duopoly of AT&T and Verizon"
Hesse didn't mince words about those larger competitors: "There’s no question that the industry does have an issue with the size of the duopoly of AT&T and Verizon." As for how Sprint itself will deal with that issue, it's probably not a mistake that Hesse's next comment was to express his belief that there would be "more consolidation" in the industry. Smaller players will have to try to size-up so they can compete "because the gap between the top two and number three is so large." Sprint reportedly considered acquiring MetroPCS recently, but whether Sprint has a similar merger in its future is still up in the air — without naming names, Hesse only reiterated that consolidation amongst the smaller players would be "beneficial" to the industry.
Beyond direct competition, Sprint's other big challenge is staying on track to launch LTE with its "Network Vision" strategy. After a major hiccup with the LightSquared fiasco, the company is working hard to deploy special "Multimode" boxes at towers that can handle both 3G and 4G signals in a cabinet that has a much smaller footprint than traditional cellular tower systems. Sprint has officially launched LTE in 15 cities with more on the way.
While Sprint is optimistic about its own plans, it can't control what its partner, Clearwire, does. Clearwire is committed to launching a (slightly different, from a technical perspective) LTE network, which is "part of [Sprint's] spectrum plan going forward," Hesse says. When we asked if it was an "essential" part, Hesse said that it is. In fact that with the Clearwire partnership, Sprint "would run out of capacity sometime in roughly a couple years, including our 800[MHz] and 1900[MHz bands]." Should Clearwire fail to get its LTE rolled out, Hesse didn't dance around the fact that Sprint would have to find other ways to acquire spectrum.
"The net net today, yes, I think [launching WiMAX] was the right decision."
Hesse's optimism about Sprint's future isn't leavened with quite as much humility about its past as you might expect. Specifically, he defended the decision to roll out the WiMAX network — the very network that Sprint is now slowly turning off in its transition to LTE. Asked whether he would do it all over again, Hesse replied "Yes." According to Hesse's view, "it was the right decision" from a brand perspective, because if nothing else it made Sprint "first" to a 4G network. Even so, it's hard to get around the fact that, as with the iDEN network it acquired from Nextel, Sprint has spent a large amount of money on dead-end wireless technology and is spending still more to shut it down.
Another recent challenge for Sprint was the decision to carry the iPhone. Not surprisingly, Sprint simply had to wait to get "the call from Apple," and once it did, Hesse and the board had to weight the short term costs and the long term gains. There was some concern recently that the company had to spend too much in order to get Apple's smartphone on its network, but Hesse believes that "the long term value of an iPhone customer [...] is higher than other phones in the high-end smartphone segment." It's a $15.5 billion dollar gamble, but one that Hesse believes will pay off: "We saw no reason to bet against Apple."
"What you’re not going to see around here are any mission accomplished signs."
So while Sprint is spending more now in terms of subsidies, in the long-term Hesse believes that it will help push up that all-important Average Revenue Per User (the ARPU referenced earlier). It also, he emphasizes, fits in with the "good guys" philosophy at Sprint, doing right by the many customers who trusted the carrier to finally get the iPhone.
Right now, Sprint does seem to be doing better than most other carriers when it comes to being the nice guy (though you could say that's like being the nicest bully in school). It's offering unlimited data, ramping up customer-friendly pre-paid offerings via its Virgin Mobile brand, shelling out billions to Apple, and spending a significant amount of capital to build up a brand-new LTE network. Dan Hesse says that Sprint is "on a long term turnaround plan," but as the challenges before the carrier mount, the question will be whether "doing the right thing" is the right way to achieve profitability. People hate seeing the nice guy finish last, but nobody likes seeing him turn into a jerk.