AT&T subscriber growth tops analyst expectations, stock jumps

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A pedestrian walks in front of an AT&T location in New York.

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

AT&T shares jumped on Wednesday after the carrier reported fourth-quarter subscriber growth that exceeded Wall Street’s estimates, shrugging off its rivals’ lower pricing strategies.

The U.S. phone service provider added 217 million total subscribers across all of its divisions for the fourth quarter, beating StreetAccount estimates of 215 million. New phone subscribers specifically, however, missed analyst expectations, coming in at 656,000 net adds, versus an estimate of 678,400, according to StreetAccount.

Shares of AT&T were up 5%, trading at $20 per share following the Wednesday earnings announcement.

The company has continued to discount the idea that the phone carrier industry is in a pricing war.

“I don’t submit to the view that there’s a race to the bottom going on. I actually think the industry is doing quite well,” CEO John Stankey said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

T-Mobile has touted its ongoing “Price Lock,” which promises that the company won’t hike monthly phone rates in response to inflation, though it raised millions of customers’ other fees in early 2022, according to a report from Bloomberg. The carrier has called out Verizon and AT&T for raising rates.

That marketing campaign triggered speculation about whether the competing service providers would adjust their pricing strategies in order to snag more subscribers. T-Mobile has also offered customers discounts for switching from rival carriers.

AT&T’s refusal to engage in the price war doesn’t seem to be taking a toll. The company reported a phone churn rate of 0.84%, a slight improvement from a churn rate of 0.85% during last year’s fourth quarter.

Here’s how AT&T performed in the fourth quarter compared with what Wall Street anticipated, based on an average of analysts’ estimates compiled by Refinitiv:

  • Adjusted earnings per share: 61 cents versus an expected 57 cents
  • Total revenue: $31.34 billion versus an expected $31.38 billion

The company expects wireless service revenue growth of 4% in 2023, below analyst expectations.

Stankey said during the company’s earnings call it is staying “very conservative” as it heads into its new fiscal year and watches for recession as well as geopolitical disruption.

Verizon also reported fourth-quarter earnings this week that matched analyst’s expectations. It added 217,000 phone subscribers, up from 8,000 in its third quarter but trailing behind AT&T’s subscriber growth.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg explained in a call with analysts that the company has been able to lean on its business customers to prop up subscriber numbers, but said it is still working to rebuild the consumer side of its business.

Verizon increased prices last year to offset rising costs, which hurt the consumer base at the lower end of its pricing tiers.

Vestberg said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Tuesday that he is looking to see “where inflation goes this year” in order to gauge Verizon’s pricing strategy for 2023.

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