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EARNINGS PREVIEW: Wireless Carriers Face Rising Capital Costs, Slowing Revenue

By Melodie Warner Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: Wireless carriers are facing increased capital investment needs as they race to handle surging data traffic, just as maturing industry penetration and more competitors offering the Apple Inc. (AAPL) iPhone begin to dent revenue growth. AT&T Inc. (T) has been selling smartphones mostly to existing subscribers as the company added fewer new mobile customers than rival Verizon Wireless -- a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone PLC (VOD) -- in the fourth quarter. While the popular iPhone helped stanch customer losses at Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) in the fourth quarter, hefty subsidies for the device contributed to its wider fourth-quarter loss. Meanwhile, T-Mobile USA's lack of the iPhone has hampered its ability to draw and retain customers. The Deutsche Telekom AG (DTEGY, DTE.XE) unit -- reeling from an exodus of customers and the failure of its planned sale to AT&T last year -- plans to cut 5% of its workforce and close seven call centers to help fund its $4 billion network upgrade to the faster mobile broadband service known as 4G LTE. COMPANIES TO WATCH: Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) - reports April 19 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts estimate first-quarter profit of 57 cents a share on $28.2 billion in revenue, compared with income of 51 cents a share and revenue of $26.99 billion in the comparable period a year earlier. Key Issues: The largest U.S. phone carrier added 38% more wireless contract subscribers in the fourth quarter than a year earlier, which helped push revenue up 7.7% in that period. But the upfront cost to offer smartphones at a discounted price has pressured profit margins and Verizon's traditional wireline business continues to contract. Verizon is also defending its proposed $3.6 billion acquisition of airwaves from cable companies, arguing at a recent Senate hearing that the deal wouldn't hurt competition and would improve Verizon's wireless service. The airwaves are currently unused and Verizon wants them in order to expand of its 4G LTE wireless phone network. AT&T Inc. (T) - reports April 24 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters recently expected a profit of 57 cents a share on $31.86 billion in revenue, compared with income of 57 cents a share and revenue of $31.25 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: The carrier continues to shift attention away from its legacy businesses as wireless profits boom. AT&T recently agreed to sell a majority stake in its Yellow Pages business to private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP for $950 million in cash and debt. Additionally, AT&T has so far avoided a strike by about 40,000 Communications Workers of America-represented employees, although the members have authorized the union to call a walkout if an accord can't be reached. AT&T is seeking concessions, including cuts to workers' pensions and increased health-care premiums and co-pays, to help offset revenue declines in the wireline division. Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) - reports April 25 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a loss of 41 cents a share on $8.72 billion in revenue, compared with a loss of 15 cents a share on $8.31 billion in revenue a year earlier. Key Issues: Sprint saw its fourth-quarter loss widen, due in part to the high cost of selling the iPhone for the first time on its network. Sprint is on the hook for $15.5 billion worth of iPhones over the next several years and has said it won't turn a profit on the device until 2015. The company is also in talks with some of its vendors to help fund a buildout of its 4G network and has said it could announce agreements as soon as June. CenturyLink Inc. (CTL) - reports May 9 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of 58 cents a share on $4.61 billion in revenue, compared with income of 70 cents a share and revenue of $4.47 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: The third-largest landline provider in the U.S. saw a 3.2% decline in fourth-quarter revenue as the ongoing struggles of its legacy businesses more than offset growth in its Internet and TV services. The company expects employee benefit costs and network expenses to decline in first quarter and has said access line losses should continue to slow. Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. (MMI) - date to be announced Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of a penny a share on $2.96 billion in revenue, compared with a loss of 8 cents a share and revenue of $3.03 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: Tech heavyweight Google Inc. (GOOG) is in the midst of buying the smartphone maker and its extensive patent portfolio for roughly $12.5 billion. Motorola swung to the red in the fourth quarter as costs tied to its pending acquisition offset higher revenue from handsets. Last month, China's antitrust agency extended its scrutiny of Google's deal, which has already been cleared by the U.S. Justice Department and European Union. The company still expects to complete the transaction by the end of June. (The Thomson Reuters financial estimates and year-earlier figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) -By Melodie Warner, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2283;

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