AT&T reported strong wireless subscriber growth today. The company recorded $19.0 billion in mobility revenue, up 9.4% from a year earlier. While service revenue grew just 0.6%, with subscriber gains largely offset by continued pressure on international roaming amid the pandemic, AT&T’s equipment revenue rose 45.2% as AT&T benefited from a greater mix of higher priced smartphones. The latest results also benefitted from comparisons to those from a year-ago period that saw temporary store closures due to the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.
The telecom/media recorded to 595,000 postpaid phone net additions for the quarter and a postpaid phone churn rate of 0.76%, which was down from 0.86% a year prior. Of the major wireless companies in the U.S., AT&T has been the most focused since the latest iPhone launch on offering promotions meant to drive upgrades from existing customers, rather than mostly targeting customers who would be switching from another carrier.
Impressively, AT&T added 235,000 AT&T Fiber customers in the 1st quarter of 2021, up from 209,000 in the year-ago period. Fiber penetration rose to 35% from 30% in Q1 2020.
During an earnings call, AT&T CEO John Stankey said the company added a total of more than 1 million fiber subscribers over the last four quarters, and was on track to build out fiber to 3 million consumer and business customer locations in 2021. He previously said AT&T was aiming to roll out fiber to 2 million new residential customers this year.
Reflecting on its progress thus far, Stankey said, “I like what I see in terms of our market position. If you look at things like lives, churn, customer satisfaction and net promoter scores and the actual performance of the product, they’re all great…I’ve not seen share movement on typical products like this as rapidly as we’re able to get share movement once we deploy an area.”
“We continued to excel in growing customer relationships in our market focus areas of mobility, fiber, and HBO Max,” said CEO John Stankey. “We had another strong quarter of postpaid phone net adds, higher gross adds, lower churn, and good growth in Mobility EBITDA.” AT&T posted 2.7 million total domestic HBO Max and HBO subscriber net adds, bringing total domestic subscribers to 44.2 million.
AT&T said it expects to spend $6 to $8 billion between 2022 and 2024 to deliver 5G services over its own midband C-band spectrum licenses. The company expects to cover up to 100 million people in “early” 2023, but that target generally trails the buildout plans of Verizon and T-Mobile.
“Global supply chains are stressed right now across the board. You ask the question, can you do the work? And people will give you comfortable answers,” Stankey said in response to questions about plans for C-band, timing and increased capex on AT&T’s first quarter earnings call.
“But I’m a little skittish,” Stankey acknowledged. “We’re seeing dynamics that are occurring in the global supply chain where unexpected things are popping up. And is it possible we could see certain element shortages that start to crop up as everybody’s racing to put stuff up on towers? It may.”
Stankey said that’s part of why he’s cautious about increasing guidance or making changes to C-band plans until there is a little momentum happening.
Likely as a result, Stankey expressed interest in purchasing additional midband spectrum licenses later this year during the FCC’s 3.45-3.55GHz spectrum auction. “I believe there could be an opportunity there,” he said.
Business Wireline, which accounts for 14% of AT&T’s consolidated revenues, saw weak results. This has historically been a highly cyclical business. Total Business Wireline revenue was $6.0B, down 3.5% YoY, a bit better than last quarter’s 4.1% decline. That result was considerably weaker than the expectation of a 3.5% decline.
As with peers, AT&T’s Business Wireline business has held up better than we would have expected during the COVID recession. Verizon noted last quarter that their own Business Wireline segment has been boosted by explosive growth in Public Sector revenues, driven in large measure by schools adjusting to the demands of remote learning, and they indicated that they expected some mean reversion. Perhaps, the CARES Act, which provides a huge amount of subsidy for schools and local governments, will soften (or even reverse) that blow.
AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh said that AT&T is “supportive” of President Joe Biden proposed infrastructure plan, which sets out to bring high-speed broadband to rural America, and that the company is “encouraging the government to do this in a smart way.” He argued that efforts to expand broadband access are “generally more impressive when you have scale backing the implementation” and that private-public partnerships, as well as collaboration within the telecommunications industry, can help drive success.
“AT&T appears to be ceding the field in wireless with a network plan that doesn’t even attempt to close the gap with T-Mobile and Verizon,” wrote the financial analysts at New Street Research in a note to clients released shortly after AT&T disclosed its first quarter financial results. “As with results today, for a little longer AT&T may be able to stem the tide of losses through continued aggressive promotions and retention offers, but this can only go so long given other costly priorities (a massive investment in HBO, a doubling of the fiber footprint) amidst generally constrained resources. Moreover, if they allow the network gap to widen too far, they may not be able to keep subs at any price (as was the case with Sprint in later years).”
“AT&T is investing in mobile and HBO Max, as it promised, and at great cost,” wrote the financial analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in a note to investors. “The problem is, there are not enough investment dollars to go around. We believe the share price fairly reflects the highly uncertain outlook, and we are watching … as the competitive environment evolves.”
Craig Moffett of MoffetNatanson wrote: “The broadband business requires big capital investments up front for gradual and steady returns later… but the payback period even for good investments is as much as ten years…. The C-Band auction was just the beginning. Verizon has already committed to an additional $10B of capex over the next three years, and Verizon was, by all accounts, far ahead of AT&T already in small cell densification. And what of their costly handset giveaways? Can they be sustained?”
“The problem, as ever, is s AT&T’s debt load. To maintain any pretense that they will be able to pay down debt and service their $15B per year dividend, they need to sustain free cash flow at current levels, or grow it even. But service revenue is still declining, and, despite solid cost controls in Q1, EBITDA is still declining as well (down 4.7% YoY).”