Alltel's Circle Widens

Continuing its drive to turn the Big 4 U.S. mobile carriers into the Big 5, Alltel Corp. (NYSE: AT) reported mixed results this morning. In its first quarterly earnings statement since spinning off its wireline business, the Little Rock, Ark.-based regional wireless operator said that, while revenues (up 12 percent) and net profits (up 11 percent) rose over the same period last year, subscriber additions came in slightly below Wall Street expectations.

Alltel added 101,000 net new customers for the quarter, below the 119,000 or so seen in consensus estimates.

From humble origins as a rural wireless provider, Alltel has used canny acquisitions and aggressive marketing to rise to the No. 1 regional provider in America. While its subscriber and revenue numbers are still well below those of the Big 4 [Cingular Wireless , Verizon Wireless , Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), and T-Mobile US Inc. ], it has grown rapidly over the last few years, succeeding both in the wholesale business (providing coverage in rural areas for the larger carriers) and the retail market. (See Sprint Nextel Struggles Continue.)

Alltel spun off its local landline business last year into a separate company, called Windstream Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: WIN) Today's results include earnings by Windstream through the spin-off date. Earnings from the ongoing wireless business were 60 cents a share, just off analysts' predictions of 61 cents to 64 cents.

The company has heavily pushed its popular "My Circle" calling plan, which features unlimited calling to 10 phone numbers. T-Mobile USA introduced a similar plan earlier this month.

Alltel, which says it operates "America's largest wireless network," has 11.2 million subscribers, compared to 58.7 million for Atlanta, Ga.-based Cingular, the nation's leading wireless carrier. The company provides rural coverage for Cingular and for Sprint, and several analysts said that falling prices for wholesale deals weighed on Alltel's overall numbers for the quarter. The company expects to add wholesale volume in the coming quarters, however, as the major carriers try to fill in coverage gaps across the remoter parts of the country.

Saying that telecom-company valuations had risen too high, Alltel president and CEO said in the conference call announcing the results that the company would likely put a hold on further acquisitions for now.

"We're quite content to buy our own stock," remarked Ford.

Alltel's share price, which had climbed 13 percent so far this year, had dropped almost 6.7 percent on the New York Stock Exchange as of 1 p.m. Eastern time.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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