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Mobile

Sprint's Quarter Was Better Than Expected, but It Still Doesn't Matter

Sprint reported customer metrics in its most recent quarter that were better than many Wall Street analysts had expected. But the company's long-gestating merger with T-Mobile continued to hang over every aspect of Sprint's results.

Importantly, Sprint also reported that it now covers fully 20 million Americans with its 2.5GHz 5G network spanning nine major US cities -- noteworthy considering the network continues to outperform Verizon's 5G coverage area and T-Mobile's 5G speeds. Moreover, Sprint's stated 5G coverage area is now almost twice the 11 million people that Sprint covered when it first launched 5G last year, and the 16 million it counted in October. Further, new reports continue to show significant improvements in the performance of Sprint's 4G LTE network, though the operator continues to trail in nationwide wireless network rankings.

However, Sprint doesn't have any stated plans to expand its 5G network beyond those nine cities due to its still-pending merger with T-Mobile. The two companies had hoped to consummate the transaction months ago, but it has been dragged down by a lawsuit currently backed by 14 Democratic state attorneys general. The state AGs argue the merger will reduce competition in the US wireless industry and therefore should be blocked, while the two companies argue their merger will rescue a flagging Sprint and allow them to build a world-leading 5G network. Lawyers for both sides presented their final arguments in the case earlier this month, and now both sides -- along with the rest of the wireless industry -- are anxiously awaiting the judge's ruling in the case. That's expected sometime next month.

Most analysts expect the judge to move to block the merger, and the Wall Street analysts at MoffettNathanson don't believe T-Mobile will appeal the ruling. That, according to a number of Wall Street analysts, will force Sprint into bankruptcy.

"A bankruptcy would very likely be a Chapter 11 restructuring, not a Chapter 7 liquidation," the MoffettNathanson analysts wrote this week in a note to investors.

A quietly noteworthy quarter
Despite all the noise surrounding Sprint, the company reported generally better quarterly results than many had expected. "I continue to be impressed by the commitment of Sprint employees to deliver results during this period of uncertainty," said Sprint CEO Michel Combes in a release. "As we await a decision in the state attorneys general lawsuit, I continue to believe the merger with T-Mobile is the best way to deliver the benefits of competition to American consumers."

The Wall Street analysts at research firm Raymod James pointed out that Sprint lost 115,000 postpaid phone customers during its most recent quarter, but said the figure wasn't as bad as the 157,000 losses that most Wall Street analysts had expected. The figures show Sprint continues to leak customers, as it has been doing for years, albeit at a rate that's slightly lower than most had expected.

Sprint ended its most recent quarter with 54.2 million total connections, including 33.8 million postpaid, 8.3 million prepaid and 12.1 million wholesale and affiliate connections. Those customer numbers put it behind T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon as the nation's fourth-largest wireless network operator.

Further, the Raymond James analysts said Sprint's wireless service revenues clocked in at $5.195 billion, only slightly below the $5.228 billion that most Wall Street analysts had expected.

But, with the looming shadow of the T-Mobile merger, the general response to Sprint's quarterly results was: So what?

"What is left to say about results?" wrote the analysts at MoffettNathanson in their note to investors. "This quarter, like every other quarter, results were, well, bad. Churn remains high, EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization] growth is negative, and free cash flow is nowhere to be found. All of which were already anticipated by consensus... so the quarter was broadly 'in line.' Honestly. What is left to say?"

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

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