Sprint's fourth quarter highlighted a company that has rebounded nicely with almost 1.1 million net subscriber additions includng prepaid and postpaid customers. However, Sprint could have to pony up some cash to support Clearwire, the partner that runs the carrier's WiMax network.
First, the highlights. Sprint added 58,000 postpaid subscribers, 519,000 net subscribers to its brand and prepaid subscribers of 646,000 to the Virgin Mobile, Assurance Wireless and Boost Mobile brands. Overall, Sprint added almost 1.1 million wireless subscribers---the most additions since the first and second quarters of 2006.
Postpaid churn also improved to 1.86 percent in the fourth quarter compared to 2.11 percent a year ago. Now that figure isn't anywhere near the churn figures Verizon Wireless and AT&T enjoy, but Sprint is doing something right with its value pricing.
The rub: Sprint is still losing money. The company reported a fourth quarter loss of $929 million, or 31 cents a share, on revenue of $8.3 billion, up 6 percent from a year ago. Non-GAAP earnings of 29 cents a share were a penny better than estimates. For 2010, Sprint reported a loss of $1.16 a share on revenue of $32.6 billion.
CEO Dan Hesse said he was pleased with the performance. Indeed, Sprint's subscriber totals are headed in the right direction. The company had 49.9 million customers at the end of the fourth quarter. As for the outlook, Sprint said it expects to continue to add customers throughout 2011.
The elephant on the earnings conference call may be Clearwire. The Wall Street Journal reported that Clearwire has abandoned its retail strategy to focus on being a wholesale network provider. The move reportedly clears the way for an investment in Clearwire by Sprint, which chafed at its partner's competing retail stores.
According to the Journal, Sprint may have to invest more cash into Clearwire, which is tight on cash. There are no immediate Sprint plans to invest in Clearwire, but the carrier really has little choice. Sprint's 4G network needs Clearwire to survive.