The battle for the top spot among US wireless service providers is rather bland; first and second place Verizon and AT&T lead comfortably with over 100 million subscribers apiece, a subscriber base so large neither is particularly worried about expanding their market share. However, the battle for third place is actually quite interesting, as T-Mobile has been aggressively vying for the third place spot held by Sprint since its first “Uncarrier” event in March, 2013. A recent publication by Evercore ISI adds fuel to the fiery rivalry between T-Mobile and Sprint.
Ahead of Sprint’s official quarterly earnings report research published by Evercore ISI, a Wall Street based investment bank advisory firm, suggests that Sprint likely lost 1.8 million postpaid subscribers in Q1 2015. Based on official numbers from Q4 2014, Sprint and T-Mobile were tied for 3rd place with 55 million subscribers each (according to T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere T-Mobile would be larger if Sprint didn’t include inactive MVNO subscribers in their numbers). Considering T-Mobile added 1.8 million subscribers in Q1 2015 they should have outpaced Sprint by a large enough margin to warrant an undoubtable claim to the third place spot amongst US carriers; if Evercore ISI’s numbers prove to be correct.
Last August, John Legere predicted T-Mobile would become the third largest carrier in the US by the end of the year. Although T-Mobile added a total of 8.3 million subscribers in 2014 it wasn’t quite enough to give them a lead over Sprint. While his prediction may not have been spot on, it seems Mr Legere has followed through on his commitment. T-Mobile was a distant fourth place with 33.3 million subscribers behind Sprint’s 55.3 million subscribers at the start of 2013. Up until that point, Sprint was actually slowly gaining customers while T-Mobile’s growth in subscribers was completely flat. This paradigm began to drastically shift following T-Mobile’s first Uncarrier event in early 2013, where they announced the end of contracts in favor of a new phone leasing model, which provided better terms for consumers and has since been copied by AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. By the third quarter of that year, T-Mobile had risen to 45 million subscribers while Sprint remained flat at 54.4 million subscribers. Since then Sprint has been stuck with approximately 55 million subscribers, whereas T-Mobile has continued to build on the momentum generated by Uncarrier 1.0 (there have been 9 Uncarrier events to this day). T-Mobile’s rise over the past two years has been nothing short of monumental.
The recent report by Evercore ISI has cited poor network quality and coverage as the source of Sprint’s failure to increase their number of subscribers. Although Sprint’s recent efforts have gained some traction among consumers the report plainly states: “While Sprint is attracting subs, we believe it will be the network quality that keeps them.” Sprint has made improvements in voice and texting quality, but they still lag behind Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile in data speeds and performance. Simply put, Sprint needs to add a significant number of cell towers to improve its long-term outlook; according to analysts “Sprint is not spending (from a tower perspective) to adequately increase network quality.” However, not is all doom and gloom for Sprint. The report also states that despite a loss of subscribers they could report stronger financial results due to an increase in device leasing, lower device activations and a slightly higher adoption of equipment installment plans. If Sprint is to report stronger finances, reinvesting in the quality and coverage of their network must be their primary priority.