About a year ago, the mobile market was riding high. Carriers had all but eliminated pesky–and costly–phone subsidies, customer defection rates were at all-time lows, and AT&T and Verizon were among Wall Street’s top performing stocks.
The industry’s fat profit margins no doubt looked appealing to possible newcomers, with cable giants Comcast and Charter Communications, and likely a few other outfits as well are looking to enter into the mobile phone market (in July, T-Mobile CEO John Legere started talking about Google, Facebook or other big Internet companies providing wireless service).
So in some ways, it makes perfect sense, as was rumored this week, that Amazon is talking wireless with Dish Network, which owns piles of unused wireless spectrum licenses in addition to its satellite TV service. Dish has to finally start building a real network by 2020 or face the threat of losing some of its rights. And Amazon loves to attack new markets in need of competition, like it recently started preparing to add pharmacy services to its already long list of businesses.
Dish declined to comment to Fortune about the rumored talks, and Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about its wireless plans.
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This week also marked the public debut of Comcast’s wireless offering, Xfinity Mobile, to actual customers after being tested with employees for a few months, as telecom news site DSLReports noted on Wednesday.
But there’s actually a lot less than meets the eye to latest efforts from new entrants. Consumers shouldn’t get too excited, nor investors too worried, that a new wave of major competition is about to rain down on the wireless market.
And that’s because the juicy opportunity that existed for all to see a year ago has already been seized, but by the big four carriers themselves. Call it wireless self-disruption.
The move started last summer, when T-Mobile and Sprint (S) brought back low-cost, unlimited data plans. Though the plans aren’t truly unlimited, they effectively represented a huge price cut for heavy data users or an incentive for average users to use more. And the two smaller carriers then launched a series of prices cuts and promotions to make the plans even more enticing. Eventually, by February, AT&T (T) and Verizon had to follow suit with their own unlimited deals for all customers.
As a result, getting into the wireless market looks less enticing than ever. Wireless service revenue for the industry declined in the first quarter for the first time in 17 years, customer growth in key segments dried up, and the price wars rolled on.
And so Comcast has designed its new service to appeal narrowly to its best cable TV customers (and not make it available outside of markets where it offers cable TV). The cable giant also was far less active at the just-completed federal auction for wireless spectrum than analysts had expected, adding further doubt to the idea that it would become a major, national player anytime soon.
The Amazon-Dish rumor has been leaking air since Dish (DISH) failed to announce anything at its annual trade show this week. And it’s unclear what Amazon (AMZN) would add, since Dish CEO Charlie Ergen has been pretty clear that he plans to build a limited wireless network aimed at connected devices, like smart parking meters and traffic sensors, not a full-blown mobile network to compete with the likes of Verizon (VZ) and T-Mobile (TMUS). Perhaps Jeff Bezos wants a cheap way to connect some future, portable devices to the net running Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant?
Meanwhile, Google (GOOGL) has barely promoted its three-year-old mobile service Fi, which runs on leased airwaves, and Facebook (FB) has made no new moves to expand to wireless.