The conventional wisdom in the phone business is that every year’s new iPhones spark a competitive frenzy, as carriers vie to top each other’s best deals while consumers switch carriers just to save a few bucks on Apple’s latest and greatest.
But lately, competition has been fading in the wireless market. AT&T (T) and the other bigger carriers not only ignored Sprint’s (S) super-cheap promotion of five lines for $90 a month, they’ve actually been scaling back some of the features of their unlimited data plans. Last month, Verizon reduced video streaming quality on its basic plan and introduced a premium plan, after T-Mobile in July increased the price of its premium unlimited plan that comes with high quality video. At the same time, consumers have been keeping their phones longer because the carriers largely stopped subsidizing the cost of upgrading.
All that may result in a less exciting, less bargain-filled fall for iPhone fans, after Apple brings out a rumored three new models including an entirely new design next week, analyst Walt Piecyk at BTIG Research says. He calls the story of massive switching by iPhone fans every year a “false narrative,” noting that the fourth quarter —when Apple’s new phones typically are on sale—accounted for just 26% of customer defections the past few years.
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“The competitive dynamics in the US wireless industry might not be as intense as many believe,” Piecyk wrote in a report on Thursday. “We believe it’s unlikely that promotions will top last year’s levels and they could even be less generous. The key swing factor could be T-Mobile, as AT&T and Verizon have largely been ignoring Sprint’s promotions.”
Instead of outright giveaways, carriers have been increasing their trade-in allowances for iPhone buyers in recent years. Three years ago, Verizon (VZ) offered a credit of up to $300 for a trade-in of the previous year’s iPhone, the 5S, for customers buying an iPhone 6. In 2015, customers could get $350. By last year, the carrier was crediting up to $650 for trade ins of a recent iPhone and even $400 for that old 5S, introduced in 2013, that it only paid $300 for in 2014. Customers had to sign up for a two-year financing agreement to get the $650 credit and would lose the discount and have to pay a proportionate share of the iPhone’s full price if they left Verizon early.
Apple is rumored to be unveiling two models similar to last year’s devices, which analysts are calling the iPhone 7S and 7S plus. A third model, expected to cost $1,000 or more, that will have a 5.8-inch OLED screen and other cutting edge features has been dubbed the iPhone 8, iPhone X or iPhone Pro. In its typical fashion, Apple has said nothing about what’s coming at the September 12 event on its new Apple Park campus. The new iPhones will face off against a slew of upgraded models from Samsung, LG and other Android phone makers.
Smaller promotions could make it harder for Apple (AAPL) to grow iPhone sales as much as Wall Street expects. With the first major physical overhaul of the iPhone’s design in three years expected to be announced next week, many analysts are predicting a “supercycle” of upgrades in 2017. But Piecyk says the number of iPhones sold will increase only 2% in the third quarter from last year and less than 5% in the fourth quarter.