AT&T released their latest quarterly numbers, revealing the progress of U-Verse and their other business lines. Depending on your point of view, U-Verse is either progressing nicely or is woefully inadequate. AT&T’s PR spin indicates the former, but the real view is only available to AT&T insiders, analysts, and the “flies on the boardroom wall.” If you place U-Verse’s video subscriber additions (170K net adds for 2Q08) in the context of its cable competitors progress in taking voice lines (Comcast has averaged 646K net phone adds the past three quarters), you walk away very underwhelmed. Even if AT&T hits its target of 1 million video subs by the end of the year, it still pales in comparison to the momentum of cable taking voice subscribers. But if you subscribe to the opinion that voice lines are becoming less and less important in today’s world of wireless and broadband, than any video progress for AT&T could conceivably be considered “gravy.” That opinion suggests that massive numbers of wireline customers are going to give up traditional voice service anyway, so if I can continue to replace that fleeting revenue with a triple play of broadband, video, and wireless, maybe I’m all the better for the future.
Time will tell whether the billions of dollars of U-Verse investment will ultimately be worth it. The reality for AT&T is they didn’t really have a choice. Their traditional cash cow, local access lines, is dying on the vine because of wireless substitution and IP voice competition. They are executing quite well on their wireless strategy (at least from a quarterly financials point of view), which is the ultimate equalizer for declining access line counts. Consider that in 2Q08, AT&T added 1.3 million net new wireless subscribers and lost 1.5 million switched access lines, and you can begin to accept the “writing is on the wall” cliché. U-Verse will play an ever increasing role in AT&T’s evolving future, ensuring those local access loops still have a reason to exist and still generate a healthy revenue stream. But before they get too ahead of themselves with glorious quarterly reports that toot more horns than a steam locomotive, they would do well to prepare for a more level future competitive playing field. A more intense competitive picture will emerge when and if their cable competitors gain a wireless opportunity of their own. Who ultimately wins in that scenario?