Sprint Nextel Corp
At the heart of Sprint's struggles is the loss of postpaid monthly-bill-paying subscribers, the most attractive ones in the mobile business, which has put it further behind rivals Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc
In the third quarter, Sprint, the No. 3 U.S. mobile service, lost 801,000 postpaid subscribers, a significant number but well below the 870,000 losses analysts had feared.
They still have an extremely long way to turn around the business and generate positive post-paid subscriber growth, said Soleil/Nelson Alpha Research analyst Michael Nelson. Clearly, a loss of 800,000 a quarter isn't going to cut it, but it does show some sign of improvement and says they are at least heading in the right direction.
Shares of Sprint were down 2 cents at $3.22 on the New York Stock Exchange.
Helped by the introduction of Palm Inc's
Sprint Chief Executive Dan Hesse called the sequential improvement the best in more than five years, and said he expected a smaller postpaid subscriber loss again in the fourth quarter. Hesse said he expected the company to continue its momentum in improving subscriber trends in 2010.
The results are a far cry from the numbers put out by AT&T and Verizon Wireless, a venture of Verizon Communications
Still, the improvement in the postpaid business offset depressed quarterly financial results, analysts said.
Although it generated lower financial results, certainly the highlight of the quarter was the improvement in postpaid customer losses, said Nelson.
Sprint's third-quarter loss widened to $478 million, or 17 cents a share, from $326 million, or 11 cents a share, a year earlier. Revenue fell about 9 percent to $8.04 billion.
Excluding items, Sprint posted a loss of 19 cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S, compared with analyst estimates of a loss of 15 cents per share. Revenue was forecast at $8.09 billion.
While losing monthly-bill-paying wireless customers, Sprint continued to fare well with prepaid customers, adding some 666,000 of them in the quarter thanks partly to its Boost Mobile, a service that allows for unlimited calls and texting at a set monthly fee.
Still, investors worry that Sprint could be overly dependent on growth from prepaid, a business that tends to be less profitable and less predictable than postpaid. Some also worry the market will pull back once the economy improves.
Part but not all of it has been driven by economic factors, Hesse said in an interview. But he added, It's clearly here to stay. I don't think we'll ever go back to where prepaid was a year ago.
(Reporting by Paul Thomasch; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Dave Zimmerman and Gunna Dickson)