Sprint Nextel may yet prove to be the little network that could, ever so gradually chugging ahead.
The world's No. 3 carrier April 28 announced a first-quarter loss of $865 million on revenues of $8.1 billion. However, it still lags significantly behind its top competitors. On April 22, AT&T announced first-quarter results of $30.6 billion in revenue and a net income of $2.5 billion. A day later, Verizon announced revenue of $26.9 billion and net income of $400 million.
All three carriers' incomes were marked by the closure of a tax exemption, which required a considerable payment - nearly $1 billion, in the case of AT&T - and contributed to Sprint's quarterly loss.
Each bit of bad news, though, was balanced by some good. Though it continued to lose subscribers - 75,000 during the quarter - that was 670,000 fewer than it lost during the first quarter of 2009.
Likewise, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, while noting that Sprint was still being outperformed by AT&T and Verizon, announced with some delight that the quarter represented Sprint's best year-over-year improvement in post-paid subscribers results in five years.
It added 348,000 prepaid customers and 155,000 wholesale customers.
Sprint additionally showed its first sequential increase in total net operating revenues and wireless service revenues in nearly three years. And, perhaps finally shaking itself of a reputation flaw it earned back in its grayer, pre-Palm Pre days, Sprint also achieved its ninth consecutive quarter of improvements in customer care satisfaction and first-call resolution.
On a call with analysts and investors, Hesse cited an independent customer care study that called Sprint's improvement "a true rarity," adding, "Sprint alone accounted for half the improvement seen by the entire industry."
Other positive news for the quarter included the generation of more than $506 million in free cash flow, the launch of 4G WiMax service in Houston and the launch of several new handsets, including the Motorola i1, the first-ever push-to-talk Android-running smartphone.
"The January launch of the award-winning and critically acclaimed Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot, the upcoming launch of the world's first 3G/4G Android handset, the HTC EVO 4G, and the introduction of the industry first true money-back guarantee demonstrate Sprint's innovation," Hesse said in a prepared statement.
Additional device launches included the BlackBerry Bold 9650, with international roaming capabilities, the "eco-friendly" LG Remarq and Samsung Restore, and Boost mobile's first qwerty clamshell, the Sanyo Incognito.
Until recently, Sprint was the only carrier to offer the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi. In February, however, updated versions of the devices arrived on the Verizon Wireless network and have additionally been promised by AT&T. Palm's choice of launching the devices - and its new image - with Sprint has been named as one of the mistakes contributing to its presently poor circumstances, but it's unclear whether Verizon, or carriers abroad, are having far better luck finding takers for the devices in an iPhone- and Android-crazy market.
The Android-running EVO 4G will arrive this summer.
"Our ongoing focus on improving the customer experience, generating cash and strengthening the brand continues to pay off," Hesse said.