Telecom & Wireless

Can T-Mobile Afford Free Video Streaming?

Douglas A. McIntyre

T-Mobile US Inc. (NYSE: TMUS) has launched a new program that allows customer to stream video free without effect on the cost of their data planes. The number three carrier in the United States has introduced program after program to challenge Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ). But can it afford to support the efforts long term?

The new T-Mobile package covers video streaming from popular channels that include HBO, ESPN, Hulu, and Netflix. That line-up is attractive enough that the plan will be successful. The cost to T-Mobile for marketing its Binge On service have to be very expensive, given the amount of bandwidth required to stream video programming. Also, other large carriers will match it, or something similar, to keep their customers from leaving.

John Legere, T-Mobile’s CEO and frenetic spokesman, must have the support of the U.S. carrier’s controlling shareholder Deutsche Telekom, which owns 66% of the company. That patience could falter if T-Mobile starts to lose money on its attractive customer promotions. As a matter of fact, it is one of the major risk factors listed in T-Mobile’s 10-K SEC filing:

Deutsche Telekom effectively has control over all matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election or removal of directors, changes to our certificate of incorporation, a sale or merger of our company and other transactions requiring stockholder approval under Delaware law. Deutsche Telekom may have strategic, financial, or other interests different from our other stockholders, including as the holder of a substantial amount of our indebtedness, and may make decisions adverse to the interests of our other stakeholders.

T-Mobile added an impressive 2.3 million new subscribers in its most recently reported quarter, an impressive advance that the company claims has gone on for 10 quarters. Its revenue rose a modest 7% in the most recently reported period to $7.8 billion, and net income was merely $138 million. Net debt, excluding tower operations, was $33.4 billion at the end of the period. It is a heavy load for a company with $2.6 billion in cash on its balance sheet

Free video streaming is a dangerous business, because it is so expensive. Presumably, if the plan does not add a large number of new subscribers to T-Mobile’s total, it faces financial problems, and perhaps objections from Deutsche Telekom.

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