Why Sell Phones With Subscriptions?

by on December 14, 2012 · 6 comments

Why do mobile carriers sell phones with a subscription?  My roommate and I were debating this the other night.  Most other popular electronics devices aren’t sold this way.  Cable and satellite companies don’t sell televisions with their video service.  ISPs don’t sell laptops and desktops with their Internet service.  Bundling phones with mobile service subscriptions is pretty unique.  (The only mass-market analogs I can think of are satellite radio and GPS service.)

Why might this be?  Some might think that US carriers need control over the phones sold to their customers because roughly half of US subscribers use GSM phones (AT&T and T-Mobile) and half use CDMA phones (Verizon and Sprint), but that can’t be the reason because GSM is the standard in Europe yet bundling phones with subscriptions occurs.

Some say it occurs because it benefits carriers at the expense of consumers.  A law review article written a few years ago said bundling profitably exploits the misperceptions of consumers and the value they place on mobile services.  Tim Wu has said that selling phones is an anticompetitive response that allows carriers to control the platform and disable features (WiFi, Bluetooth, VoIP) that might eat into the carriers’ existing revenue streams.  But even if that’s true I don’t think that’s the whole answer.  If network services have that much control over the devices used for their services, why don’t cable, satellite, and Internet service providers sell TVs and computers that only work with their service?  At the very least, if we assume, as Wu does, that carrier control removes features consumers really want, consumers could simply purchase phones directly from phone makers–Apple, Motorola, Samsung, LG–with full functionality intact.

I don’t know the best answer, and maybe commenters can chime in, but I suspect phones and contracts are primarily sold together because of the engineering challenges presented by a device using radio spectrum.   (This would explain why GPS and satellite radio service providers also bundle devices with service.)  Different carriers purchase licenses to use different swaths of spectrum, and these different frequencies require different radio receivers.  Phones, then, need to have radios installed that are tailored for the particular carrier.

In any case, throughout most of the world, phones are sold with subscriptions.  Some on the left, like Wu, say that bundling shouldn’t be permitted because it enables large carriers to exclude competitors and remove functionality consumers want.  To that end, he proposes regulations that require all handsets to work with all carriers.  Despite these objections, I’ll push back on the claim that consumers are being duped or that competition is seriously harmed.  Bundling handsets with subscriptions has several pro-competitive and pro-consumer justifications.

1.  Acts as an installment plan

This may be the most powerful reason selling phones with subscriptions is near-universal:  consumers like it.  Modern smartphones are expensive consumer products costing hundreds of dollars.  Wherever you see expensive consumer products (home appliances, furniture, computers, clothes) you find retailers offering installment plans so that consumers don’t have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars up-front.  By locking consumers into a two-year contract, carriers can offer heavily subsidized advanced handsets–that they usually sell at an initial loss–and charge more for services over two years.

Consumers seem to prefer bundling since it acts as a de facto financing agreement.  Noncontract prepaid plans are offered by every US carrier, yet the vast majority of Americans still use post-paid plans with contracts in large part because the (subsidized) phones offered are so much cheaper and more attractive deals.  (See my prior post on the subject.)  Further evidence that consumers really value this installment plan option comes from Belgium, where bundling phones with subscriptions was illegal years ago.  That all changed in 2008 when the iPhone 3G came out.  Belgians complained about the fact that their iPhones started at €525 when their neighbors, like those in the Netherlands (who allowed bundling), could get a subsidized phone for as little as €1.  Within a year, with support from a competition minister, the law was changed to allow phones to be sold with subscriptions.  Predictably, the up-front costs of Belgian phones subsequently dropped as carriers subsidized the phones, and broadband penetration increased.

2.  Reduces transactions costs for consumers

Consumers also benefit from having a one-stop shop for their mobile needs.  Instead of needing to go to a phone retailer like Best Buy and then to a carrier’s retail store, consumers can get everything at the carrier’s retail store.  This may sound like a small benefit, but I imagine this especially benefits rural Americans who don’t have the retail options city-dwellers do.

3.  Aids carriers’ marketing and improves competition

It’s probable that bundling phones with subscriptions makes carriers more competitive.  There’s a textbook antitrust justification for why this is true.  Vertical contracts with suppliers aligns the interests of the retailer (carrier) with the supplier (phone maker).  DROID is a good example.  It’s a brand used by Verizon to market higher-end Android smartphones to tech-savvy early adopters.  This is a case of vertical restraints that prevent free-riding on Verizon’s brand promotion since no other carrier can offer DROID phones.  By most accounts, creating the DROID brand was a lucrative marketing move that helped Verizon’s Android phones compete with iPhones.  While DROID is probably the most successful example, all carriers have phones they market and sell exclusively.

4.  Improves carriers’ bargaining power with handset makers (and improves phones)

Selling phones with subscriptions allows carriers to strengthen their position in the value chain.  Carriers don’t want to be passive bit-pipes.  They know crushing price competition between carriers would result.  (Not to mention, being “dumb pipes” would make carriers more susceptible to net neutrality rules.)  Carriers are already being squeezed by handset suppliers, namely Apple, with high prices, so it’s to their benefit to make the handsets complementary to a specific network and not easily interoperable with other carriers.  And by selling differentiated handsets to their customers, the carriers demand innovative handsets from suppliers to differentiate their brand from other carriers and make their network ecosystem attractive to consumers.  If phones worked on all networks, a mandate Wu and others seek, each carrier’s demand for innovative phones from their suppliers would subside.  (Then competition would be driven by consumer demands, but it’s my impression that phone makers prefer to deal with carriers.  Responding directly to consumer demands would tend to fragment the hardware market even more than the existing market, which would add to their costs.)

5.  Smooths revenue streams for carriers (and improves networks)

Finally, locking consumers into a two-year contract, with a subsidized phone as a carrot, gives some predictability to carriers’ revenue streams.  Lumpy revenue streams and high churn is a killer for long-term network investment plans.  Without the ability to sell phones with subscriptions, churn rates would be much higher since few customers would want to be in a long contract.

This is what happened in Finland for years, when regulators banned bundling.  After having one of the best networks when cell phones first became popular in the late 1990s, there was intense price competition for voice and text.  And while Finnish prices were low, the investments in a 3G data network fell far behind other countries.  No bundling led to very high churn rates and made price competition–not advanced services like broadband–the focus of carriers.  Seeing that the lack of network investment was brought on by the ban on bundling, the Finnish equivalent of the FCC repealed the anti-bundling law in 2005.  With the new ability to lock customers into contracts, phone prices fell and network investment into mobile broadband improved.


I expect selling phones with subscriptions will continue for the foreseeable future, absent regulation.  And, for the reasons I’ve outlined, the ability to sell phones with subscriptions is likely a good thing for consumers and the industry.

Finally, though, I’ll note that inexpensive high-end smartphones could upset this entire bundling regime.  Cheap phones would mean carriers are less able to lock consumers into contracts.  We’re not there yet, but phones like the LG Nexus 4–an unlocked high-end Android starting at $300–indicates the day may come when consumers can’t be bribed into contracts by subsidized phones any longer.  Consumers, at that point, will prefer to pay full price up-front and have the ability to switch carriers at any time.  I don’t know how the radio engineering issues would be overcome, but this would be a major disruption of the wireless market and would have some ambiguous effects on competition, network investment, and consumers.  And, it’s important to note that we may enter Wu’s desired world of phone interoperability without regulatory mandates.

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