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EARNINGS PREVIEW: US Wireless Carriers Look for Revenue Gains and Market Share

By Melodie Warner TAKING THE PULSE: The U.S. wireless market continues to grow, but the ranks of the most lucrative subscribers--those who sign contracts--has stalled. Investors will be looking to see how well the industry manages to expand revenue and improve profits and margins amid tough competition for subscribers. Both AT&T Inc. (T) and Verizon Wireless--a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone PLC (VOD, VOD.LN)--have raised wireless prices and started charging higher fees when customers upgrade to new phones. The increased prices and fees should help improve wireless-service margins. But an increase in data-traffic is forcing substantial capital investments. Wireless carriers are also taking their first steps to change the terms of smartphone deals that have mostly benefited phone makers like Apple Inc. (AAPL), a push that could leave consumers paying more for devices like the iPhone. Analysts have estimated wireless carriers shell out $400 for every iPhone sold. COMPANIES TO WATCH: Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ)--reports July 19 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of 64 cents a share on $28.54 billion in revenue, compared with 57 cents a share and $27.54 billion, respectively, a year earlier. Key Issues: The largest U.S. phone carrier has seen its revenue growth improve in recent quarters as the addition of Apple's iPhone helped Verizon Wireless to lure new subscribers from competitors. Verizon also saw increased gains for its FiOS Internet and television offerings during the first quarter. Last month, Verizon raised prices and increased the speeds for its FiOS Internet service, making data a bigger part of consumers' monthly bill by pegging the rate to the speed chosen by customers. The FiOS price increases came a week after Verizon Wireless unveiled new pricing for mobile plans that focused on subscribers' data usage and will raise prices for many users. AT&T Inc. (T) - reports July 24 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters recently expected a profit of 63 cents a share on $31.85 billion in revenue, compared with 60 cents a share and $31.5 billion, respectively, a year earlier. Key Issues: AT&T added fewer contract wireless customers in the first quarter than it did in the three preceding periods as smartphone purchases slowed after customers rushed to buy new iPhone 4S in October. But the rate at which customers leave, known as churn, slowed. AT&T continues to shift its attention away from its traditional businesses--which are contracting as more consumers switch off their home phones in favor of mobile devices and wireless Internet--and is working to squeeze more revenue out of existing customers through new services and fees, such as device-upgrade levies. Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) - reports July 26 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a loss of 40 cents a share on $8.73 billion in revenue, compared with a per-share loss of 28 cents on revenue of $8.31 billion a year earlier. Key Issues: Sprint saw a rare gain in contract subscribers after adding the new iPhone 4S at the end of last year. But the company reverted to declining two-year contracts during the first quarter as sales of the popular smartphone slowed following the holiday season. Sprint also couldn't slow the rate at which customers left, due in part to its shutdown of the Nextel network. And the company continues to defend its deal with Apple to buy at least $15.5 billion worth of iPhones over the next several years. Sprint has said it was necessary in order to compete with larger rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless. MetroPCS Communications Inc. (PCS) - reports July 26 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a profit of 21 cents a share on $1.26 billion in revenue, compared with 23 cents a share and $1.21 billion, respectively, a year earlier. Key Issues: The prepaid wireless-service provider's first-quarter earnings dropped a bigger-than-expected 63% as fewer subscriber additions exacerbated its increased spending to attract more customers. MetroPCS's costs per gross addition jumped 50% from a year earlier as more people upgraded from a feature phone to a smartphone at a higher promotional handset cost. But its customer-turnover rate was flat with the year ago and slowed from the fourth quarter. (The Thomson Reuters financial estimates and year-earlier figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) Write to Melodie Warner at [email protected]

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