Japanese conglomerate Softbank has built much of its business using new ideas to disrupt industries, and there are several ways it could shake up the U.S. mobile market, analysts said on Thursday.
Sprint Nextel says it is in negotiations with Softbank on a "substantial" investment that might change control of the company. The talks still could end without a deal, Sprint said. The deal could result in Softbank owning 70 percent or more of the underdog mobile operator, and probably also controlling partner company Clearwire, according to published reports. Nikkei has reported the company also hopes to buy Metro PCS through Sprint.
Softbank is the second-largest mobile operator in Japan, but it got there from the position of an upstart, acquiring other carriers and taking a chance by introducing Apple's iPhone to a country known for homegrown devices. That pattern is common for Softbank, which began in the 1980s as a publisher and software distributor but has diversified into Internet businesses and wired and wireless services. Along the way, it's introduced more choices and often pushed prices lower.
In a U.S. mobile market dominated by two large operators, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, Softbank might use its control of Sprint and Clearwire to introduce more flexibility in mobile data plans or different bundles of added services, analysts said.
U.S. carrier business models that are focused on monthly voice and data plans don't take advantage of advances in apps, devices, mobile payments and social networking, said Phil Marshall of Tolaga Research.
"It's not really anticipating or adequately addressing the innovation that's going on in the mobile broadband market," There's more that U.S. mobile operators can do to make use of their billing relationships with customers, their ability to distribute services, and their control of the customer experience, Marshall said. Personalized content services could be one example of this, he said.
Even though mobile data use has expanded from smartphones to nearly all handsets, data plans from U.S. operators are still largely limited to monthly buckets of bytes, said Senza Fili Consulting analyst Monica Paolini. "Either you have data or you don't," Paolini said. "There actually is quite a lot of uniformity across operators." She thinks there's room for more options.
In Japan and other countries, many carriers offer a greater variety of prepaid and postpaid data plans, including ones that are limited to certain mobile applications or to data use at a particular time of day, Paolini said. More targeted plans could draw in consumers who don't use mobile data yet because they can't pay $30 per month for a generic plan, she said.
"There is plenty of room for innovation and disruption, more so than in many other developed markets," Paolini said.
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