SoftBank plans to sell low-cost smartphones through Sprint

08/19/2014 9:13 AM

08/19/2014 9:27 AM

SoftBank Corp., offering another glimpse of its strategy to make Sprint Corp. more competitive, said it will begin selling a smartphone it developed with Sharp Corp. in the U.S. and Japan.

The Aquos Crystal device to be offered through Overland Park-based Sprint. SoftBank didn’t disclose pricing of the handset for the U.S. market.

SoftBank also introduced App Pass, a service that it plans to launch later this month, which will have a lineup of 100 applicaions as diverse as games, recipes and free access to news.

Tokyo-based SoftBank unveiled the news as Sprint announced plans on Monday to will double the amount of data available for shared plans, joining the U.S. wireless industry’s competition in prices a week after taking over the company.

Customers who switch to Sprint can have as many as 10 wireless lines share 20 gigabytes of data for $100 a month, Sprint said. T-Mobile US Inc., which has been a leader on promotions in the market, offers four lines with 10 gigabytes of data for the same price. Sprint’s new offerings are dubbed the “Sprint Family Share Pack,” as chief executive Marcelo Claure puts an end to the previous “Framily” plans.

After backing off this month on a plan to merge Sprint with T-Mobile, Sprint Chairman Masayoshi Son brought in Claure, who founded phone distributor Brightstar Corp., to reinvigorate the ailing wireless carrier. Sprint and T-Mobile are jockeying to emerge as a strong third competitor to loosen the grips of Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. on the U.S. mobile- phone market. T-Mobile’s four-line, 10-gigabyte plan was itself a response to AT&T’s $160-a-month service.

“We did a lot of research with customers. Data use is growing exponentially; customers are getting angry at a bill that is larger than they expected,” Claure said in a phone interview Monday. “We decided to make it easy and double whatever is in the market. This is the best offer ever in the marketplace.”

The promotional plans will be available for purchase starting Aug. 22 through Sept. 30. The limited-time offer for new customers waives an access fee of $15 a month per line through 2015 and offers an extra 2 gigabytes of data per line for free. Claure said the “Framily” will no longer be offered after the end of this week.

“This is just the beginning,” Mitsushige Akino, executive officer at Ichiyoshi Asset Management Co. in Tokyo, said by phone. “There will be more price cuts to come, and I expect T- Mobile will fight back, as well.”

Sprint’s new CEO is charged with helping attract subscribers after his predecessor, Dan Hesse, lost monthly customers every year since 2007. Claure’s appointment was announced this month as Sprint scrapped a plan to buy its smaller rival.

“We heard a pretty loud message from the government that they weren’t ready for consolidation, so we had to focus Sprint on growth,” Claure said. “It’s no secret we have been losing customers and that we have an uneven cost base. We are going to run this company to get back to growth.”

In his first day on the job last week, Claure told employees to expect cost cuts and a more vigorous competitive edge. Yesterday, Claure said Sprint needs to have the lowest cost of service in order to deliver the best value to customers.

“To do that, we started a comprehensive review looking at every dollar that is spent, and if there are things that don’t make sense, we will cut them fast,” Claure said. “I come from a low-cost industry, and I’m going to try to apply some of that methodology.”

He didn’t say whether he would cut jobs or the areas where he would reduce costs. He did say the objective was to make Sprint lean.

Sprint is offering a limited-time promotion to buy out a family’s contract on another service for as much as $350. Claure said there will be more news later this week about pricing plans for individuals.

Without the limited-time offer, a customer would pay $250 a month for 10 smartphone lines and 20 gigabytes a month. A family with four smartphones would pay $160 a month for 20 gigabytes – double the amount of data AT&T offers at the same price. Prices vary depending on the amount of data shared between a family and the amount of phones, tablets and other data devices in use.

SoftBank, which owns about 80 percent of Sprint, is counting on Claure to help return the U.S. wireless carrier to growth. Earlier this month, Son said he chose Claure, who joined Sprint’s board in January, because of his entrepreneurial spirit.

“Marcelo, a street fighter, has enlarged Brightstar from zero to a wholesale firm crossing more than 100 countries,” said Son, who acquired control of Brightstar last year. “When he came to the U.S., he had only $100 in his pocket and then he made a company with sales of 1 trillion yen. In that sense, he is the street fighter.”

Claure’s predecessor, Hesse, joined Sprint after its disastrous $36 billion merger with Nextel Communications Inc., which led to service disruptions that cost the combined company millions of subscribers and forced it to cut back on investments to add cash to the balance sheet.

“Dan did a phenomenal job of taking Sprint through some difficult times with not a lot of financial backing,” Claure said. “Sprint was on the verge of bankruptcy – that wasn’t shared with a lot of people.”

T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who was said to be in line to lead the combined Sprint and T-Mobile, criticized Sprint’s announcement in a series of Twitter Inc. postings yesterday, including “Hmm … it’s the end of #framily! I’ll be sure to send some #flrowers to the #fruneral.”

Claure said Legere has done a good job of getting T-Mobile, the No. 4 wireless carrier, back in the game, though Claure said his own management style is different because he likes to let his actions do the talking.

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