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AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile exceed expectations amid pandemic

The financial and cultural upheaval sparked by COVID-19 did not have much of an impact on the sales of services by the nation's top mobile network operators. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile each reported stronger-than-expected wireless subscriber metrics during the third quarter.

As noted by Walter Piecyk of the financial analysis firm LightShed Partners, virtually every major mobile services provider reported growth in their postpaid phone net customer additions during the period. T-Mobile led with 689,000, followed by AT&T's 452,000 and Verizon's 283,000. Similarly, the nation's cable companies also reported increases in their own mobile customer net additions.

"Everyone did better than expected," noted the financial analysts at MoffettNathanson in a report to investors this week. "Industry phone subscriber growth not only rebounded from the Q2 trough that came with COVID lockdowns and closed retail stores, it soared."

"We find a way to post the growth," explained T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert, without providing specific details about how exactly T-Mobile generated its customer gains.

However, Sievert did cast aspersions on the results posted by T-Mobile's competitors: "There are some gymnastics," Sievert said of AT&T and Verizon's Q3 subscriber gains. "A lot of the big numbers have to do with things like reversing accruals from previous quarters that were too conservative, or strange things in the prepaid space having to do with connected cars and accrual reversals."

It's also worth noting that all three operators are in the midst of massive cost-cutting programs. Verizon is scheduled to finish its $10 billion cost-cutting effort by next year, while AT&T is in the midst of its own $6 billion cost-cutting program that stretches through 2023 (AT&T reduced its workforce by fully 9,000 positions during the third quarter). And T-Mobile said it's on track to score "synergies" of $1.2 billion this year – the figure stems from its ongoing merger with Sprint, and the WSJ reported roughly $500 million of that involves Sprint store closures.

Regardless, the operators generally crowed about their overall performance in the third quarter and hinted they expect continued subscriber gains in the months ahead. For example, T-Mobile's Sievert told Yahoo Finance that a "supercycle" driven by the new 5G-capable iPhone is "already here."

Analysts have debated whether the smartphone industry will enjoy a 5G-powered supercycle – a marked rise in the sale of phones – during 2020.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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