PhotoIt's a tough time to be a big cell phone carrier, even though it's not likely AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon will get much sympathy from anybody.

The United States is just about cell-phoned out -- meaning everybody who conceivably could have a phone already has one. So the only way to eke out any growth is to raise prices or poach each other's customers. Obviously, you can't do both, so the big carriers have been spinning out all kinds of discounts aimed at prying customers away from their competitors.

This costs money. Lots of money, and it's not just the discounts and sign-up bonuses, it's the loss in value caused by investors taking a hard look at the industry's prospects.

The way the Wall Street Journal does the math. the four biggest carriers have lost $45 billion in market capitalization in just the last month -- more than the total capitalization of Sprint and T-Mobile combined.

Basically, investors have come to realize that customers are burning up more and more data -- which increases costs for the carriers -- while resisting price increases. Also, those stingy consumers are refusing to reproduce as quickly as necessary to create new smartphone users.

It's similar to what has happened to the cable TV business, which is starting to resemble the daily newspaper industry, which has been slowly going out of business for decades.

Spectrum space

Complicating it is an upcoming auction of spectrum space. The companies will have to pony up big bucks to get the additional spectrum they need to meet customers' data demands, then they'll have to invest heavily in more equipment and towers, all while coming up with aggressive new discounts to grow their customer base while fighting off tiny companies like Ting, Consumer Cellular and Republic, which just won Consumer Reports annual customer service ratings derby.  

Interestingly, many of those responding to the Consumer Reports survey -- as well as those commenting in ConsumerAffairs reviews -- say they experience better reception and fewer dropped calls from the smaller competitors. This is particularly galling to the Big Four since the smaller competitors actually operate on the big guys' networks, making it likely that the perceived differences are illusory. 

So, does all this mean that customers are getting a bargain? Not necessarily. In fact, it means the companies are working harder than ever to find ways to lasso consumers while looking for ways to jack up prices as time goes by. Both sides are locked in a tug-of-war for a service that didn't even exist until a few decades ago but which is now seen as essential to modern existence. 

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