Sprint Still Losing Lots of Money but Improving Slowly

Sprint lost $2 billion in 2015, but that's down from the $3.3 billion loss it suffered in 2014, according to its latest financial report.  

Sprint, mobile carriers, postpaid additions, prepaid additions, revenue, losses, Q4 2015, fiscal year, earnings

Sprint, which has consistently been losing large amounts of money for a decade, may have just seen some daylight in its fourth-quarter and full-year 2015 earnings report.

The company again lost money—$554 million or 14 cents per share—in the fiscal fourth quarter of 2015 ended March 31, but for the full year of 2015, the company narrowed its loss by more than 30 percent to $2 billion from the $3.3 billion loss that it posted in 2014.

Sprint, which announced its latest results on May 3, brought in fourth-quarter revenue of $8.1 billion, down slightly from $8.3 billion in the same period one year ago, and full fiscal year 2015 revenue of $32.2 billion, a decline from $34.5 billion in fiscal 2014.

In the fourth quarter, the company reported a gain of 56,000 postpaid mobile customers, which are the most lucrative customers, giving Sprint a total of 1.2 million net postpaid additions in fiscal 2015. Overall, it also lost about 264,000 prepaid customers in the fourth quarter, for a total of 1.3 million prepaid customer losses in all of 2015, while gaining about 655,000 wholesale and affiliate customers in the fourth quarter. For all of 2015, it gained about 2.7 million wholesale and affiliate customers. Boiled down, Sprint had 58.8 million total customers at the end of the fourth quarter, down from the 56 million in the same period one year ago.

Sprint also posted fiscal 2015 operating income of $310 million, which the company said is its first positive operating income in almost a decade, and has cut its expenses by about $1.3 billion in the period.

"Fiscal 2015 was a transformational year in the turnaround of Sprint," Marcelo Claure, the company's CEO, said in a statement. "We significantly reduced our operating expenses and stabilized operating revenues, leading to positive operating income for the first time in nine years."

Sprint also "generated positive postpaid phone net additions for the first time in three years, capped off by surpassing both Verizon and AT&T for the first time on record this quarter," said Claure. "These accomplishments provide positive momentum heading into fiscal 2016 and put the business on a path to sustainable free cash flow."

The company's fourth-quarter loss of $554 million, compared with the $224 million loss it posted in the same quarter one year ago, was largely due to write-downs for severance, lease exit and other costs, including the shutdown of legacy WiMAX services, said Sprint. Had it not been for those write-downs, the "net loss per share would have been relatively flat year-over-year," according to Sprint.

Several IT analysts told eWEEK that although Sprint is still losing large amounts of money, things might be improving for the carrier.

"Given Sprint's long operating income dry spell, the positive annual results were a pleasant surprise," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. "That's especially true given that its revenues were slightly lower year-over-year. Sprint's mix of reining in expenses and growing its customer base is paying dividends."

Jeff Kagan, an independent wireless analyst, told eWEEK that Sprint's latest financial report "shows a company which is investing in their network and starting to show real and positive results with customers."

At the same time, "this is a long and expensive journey, but Sprint is heading in the right direction according to their quarterly numbers," Kagan said.

Another analyst, Bill Menezes of Gartner, isn't yet convinced. "You can't read too much into one quarter, but a year-over-year decline in net adds for postpaid subscribers, the company's most profitable customers, raises some eyebrows," he said. "Not only were postpaid net adds about one-quarter of what they were in the same quarter a year ago, but total wireless net adds dropped by 64 percent."

If Sprint continues to have a tough time signing up new postpaid phone customers in a saturated market, the company "will be hard-pressed to come up with a compelling enough customer proposition to be anything more than a distant fourth-place competitor in the U.S. market," said Menezes. "Prepaid was even worse. Sprint lost more than a quarter of a million prepaid customers in the latest quarter—a more than 800,000 customer swing from the same period a year earlier. Combined with the dramatic slowdown in postpaid adds, it signals a lack of new customers that the company can't afford."

In April, Sprint secured about $5.3 billion in cash by selling cellular network assets in two separate lease-back deals as it continues to try to reverse its longtime losses, build up cash reserves and return to profitability.

Those deals were also criticized by Menezes as not getting to the core of the company's financial problems. "Sprint can't keep financing its operations by asset sales and leasing deals forever; at a certain point, it needs sustained revenue and profit growth," he said. "It's clearly not here yet."