When Apple (AAPL) introduced iPhone 6 models, it set off the traditional scramble by wireless carriers to poach one another’s customers. Exciting new phones are one of the best ways for carriers to lure people, and this year has been especially hectic. The new iPhones were seen as a particularly big upgrade, all four carriers were planning major launches for the first time, and it is now easier than ever for customers to switch carriers without facing a financial penalty.
T-Mobile’s (TMUS) latest quarterly report make it pretty clear who won. The company posted the best subscriber growth in its history, adding 1.4 million postpaid customers to the T-Mobile brand in the quarter. In October, the first full month of iPhone sales, 2.4 people left a competitor to join T-Mobile for every single T-Mobile defector. The biggest haul came from Sprint (S), the second member of the wireless industry’s junior varsity tier, which sent 2.5 customers to T-Mobile for each T-Mobile convert it won. T-Mobile also lured more than 2.2 customers from AT&T(T) and Verizon (VZ) for each one it lost.
“There’s a fallacy in the the industry that AT&T and Verizon are going to sit where they are, and Sprint and T-Mobile are going to beat one another over the head,” said John Legere, T-Mobile’s chief executive officer, during a call with investors on Tuesday. The only reason for modesty around the iPhone launch, he said, was the expectation that T-Mobile would continue to have trouble keeping the iPhone in stock through November. The larger iPhone 6 Plus will face supply constraints even longer.
Many people expected T-Mobile to come out ahead this fall. It has been outpacing its competitors ever since it launched its “Uncarrier” campaign, which seeks to overturn such fixtures of the wireless industry as two-year contracts. It stands to reason that a network with fewer iPhone subscribers has more to gain and less to lose than networks with more of them.
But the concern with T-Mobile hasn’t been about its ability to add customers. The upstart carrier has made sacrifices to win the legions of converts, and Legere is fighting against the assumption that T-Mobile and Sprint are basically doing the same thing: undercutting bigger competitors on price. That has been Sprint’s explicit strategy, and it’s probably necessary because the company openly admits that its network lags behind those of AT&T and Verizon. T-Mobile has also sacrificed revenue in aggressive pursuit of customers, but when he talks to investors Legere insists at length that T-Mobile is charging customers more than ever. That’s a slightly awkward position for a man who has tailored his public persona as the foul-mouthed voice of the common man fighting against faceless phone companies.
In fact, T-Mobile charged more than ever in the past quarter. The average monthly bill for its customers was $49.84, up slightly from a year before. Promotions related to the holiday season and the new iPhone will lower prices for the rest of the year, but T-Mobile says they will begin rising again in January.