John Paczkowski

Recent Posts by John Paczkowski

AT&T Earnings Expected to Be Better Than Expected

imagesAT&T reports third-quarter earnings Thursday and by most accounts, they should be strong enough, thanks to the sheer size of the company’s footprint and, of course, its exclusive carrier rights to the iPhone. Apple said Monday that it sold more than 7.4 million iPhones in the quarter, half a million more than in same quarter a year ago.

Now, that figure includes sales made abroad, so we don’t yet know how many were sold by AT&T (T), but it’s clear that the number was substantial. In its third quarter last year, AT&T activated 2.4 million iPhones and 40 percent of those were for subscribers who switched from other carriers. So the fact that Apple (AAPL) sold as many iPhones as it did in the company’s most recent quarter, bodes well for the carrier.

As Craig Moffett over at Bernstein Research notes, “It is entirely conceivable that AT&T’s iPhone alone will account for more than 100 percent of the entire industry’s post-paid subscriber growth in the third quarter.”

But therein lies the rub. For while sales of Apple’s handset remain strong, the heavy subsidies it requires have pushed AT&T’s wireless margins down. And the heavy data traffic associated with the handset have led to widespread complaints about AT&T’s network, forcing infrastructure upgrades. Worse, AT&T’s dependence on iPhone exclusivity at a time when Apple is clearly transitioning away from such a model leaves it quite vulnerable.

“While the strong sales of the iPhone are positive for AT&T in the near term, they increase the company’s reliance on a product for which we do not believe it will be able to maintain exclusivity,” Pali Research analyst Walter Piecyk wrote in a note to clients Tuesday. “We believe more than one third of AT&T’s post paid customer base is tied to an iPhone user and that mix is likely to rise significantly over the next few quarters.”

But not this quarter. This quarter, AT&T is expected to add 1.5 million to 1.7 million net wireless customers, driven by demand for the iPhone 3GS, which was released early on in the quarter. And while another drop in wireline customers is likely to weigh on results, it will be tempered once again by the iPhone. AT&T is expected to earn 50 cents a share, compared to 55 cents in the year-earlier third quarter, according to analysts polled by Thomson Reuters, who see revenue falling to $30.9 billion from $31.3 billion.

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