Sprint hangs on to third-largest carrier position ahead of T-Mobile

Sprint held on -- barely -- as the nation's third-largest carrier in the first quarter of 2015, with T-Mobile continuing in fourth place.

Sprint held on -- barely -- as the nation's third-largest carrier in the first quarter of 2015, with T-Mobile continuing in fourth place.

Sprint said today it had 57.1 million total connections to its network, compared to 56.8 million for T-Mobile, as reported last week.

T-Mobile was expected to edge ahead of Sprint, given T-Mobile's aggressive growth in the past year.

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said in a conference call that T-Mobile CEO John Legere had spoken "prematurely" in statements he made last week about T-Mobile's improvement compared to Sprint.

Claure called out Sprint's addition of 1.2 million net customer in the quarter, up from 967,000 in the prior quarter, and net losses of 383,000 in the same quarter in 2014. He said those additions were the highest in nearly three years, while churn (losses) among postpaid customers dropped to 1.84% and network performance improved, "all of which will position the company for profitable growth."

Claure noted "incredible network improvements" with LTE additions in dozens of cities. The gap between Sprint and other carriers in network performance is closing and "customers are very satisfied when they use our network," he said.

The battle for the third and fourth-largest carrier positions indicates the competitive nature of the wireless business, although it matters little to individual wireless customers, said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics.

"It's symobolic. It's not important to customers. Nobody picks a carrier for being No. 3," Entner said. "But it is bragging rights for the carriers and shows the changing fortunes and dynamic nature of the wireless industry."

AT&T and Verizon are the nation's biggest carriers and both are much larger than either Sprint and T-Mobile in total customers and wireless connections from machine-to-machine devices. AT&T and Verizon report their total wireless connections and customer differently, but Entner said Verizon now has about 108 million retail customers compared to about 86 million for AT&T.

For the quarter, Sprint reported $8.2 billion in revenue, a decline from the same quarter in 2014 and the previous quarter. The company reported a net loss of $224 million for the quarter, or 6 cents per share, compared to a 4-cent loss per share one year ago.

Claure put a strong emphasis on reaching Hispanic customers, noting there are now 54 million Hispanics in the U.S., with 167% growth expected by 2050 -- faster than any other group. Sprint recently appointed Roger Sole to head a new Hispanic business unit. Sole is new to Sprint, coming from TIM Brasil where he was the chief marketing officer. TIM is Telecom Italia's mobile carrier in Brazil, with nearly 71 million customers.

Even though T-Mobile retained fourth place, it has offered a steady stream of "Un-Carrier" announcements over the past year to attack contracts and rates of its competitors.

Led by Legere, T-Mobile has garnered nearly all the new phone customers among the major carriers, Entner said. In 2014, there were 3.6 million net new phone customers for the four largest carriers. During that period, T-Mobile added 4 million new customers, while Sprint lost 2.1 million, while AT&T and Verizon were "an afterthought," Entner said.

"T-Mobile is dynamic, and they have monopolized the entire growth in customers in the industry," Entner said.

While Legere gets criticized for using explicit language in his tweets and public appearances, Entner said he is actually"very capable and charismatic...His foul language is his act, his schtick. He gets free advertising because everybody talks about him."

Eric Costa, an analyst at Technology Business Research, said T-Mobile trails Sprint in revenues, "but does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon with its Un-Carrier strategy and Simple Choice plans." Because T-Mobile is adding postpaid customers, including those with higher value accounts, he said T-Mobile has a "long-term advantage over Sprint, as those subscribers will increase service revenue growth." He said that T-Mobile "continues to outperform" Sprint in revenue and subscriber growth.

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