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VOL. 36 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 20, 2012




AT&T smartphone sales fall in 2Q, boosting net

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NEW YORK (AP) — AT&T Inc. on Tuesday said it saw declining smartphone sales in the second quarter, leading to the best profitability ever in its wireless arm as it saved on phone subsidies.

The largest telecommunications company in the U.S. says it activated 5.1 million smartphones in its latest quarter, down from 5.5 million in the same period a year ago.

Much of the decline came because AT&T subscribers are holding on to their phones longer: the company said the rate of upgrades to new phones was at a record low.

That's good news for the company because it needs to subsidize each smartphone by hundreds of dollars to be able to sell it to customers for $99 or $199. IPhones, in particular, are expensive to sell, because Apple charges AT&T an average of around $650 for each one.

In March last year, AT&T started telling subscribers that they had to stay on contract for 20 months before they would be eligible for a new phone at the fully subsidized price. Before that, some high-paying customers had been eligible for upgrades after just 12 months.

"It appears our policy is working," John Stephens, AT&T's chief financial officer, told analysts on a conference call. He said another big contributor to the low upgrade rate was that many people upgraded late last year, when the latest iPhone debuted.

Wireless operating income in the quarter was $4.9 billion, up 18 percent from a year ago.

Analysts still expect AT&T's profits to take a dive this fall, when the new iPhone comes out. In what's become an annual ritual, buyers flood AT&T and Apple stores, and AT&T pays dearly for the privilege of having the nation's most popular network for iPhones.

The tighter upgrade policies don't seem to be scaring off AT&T subscribers. They were more loyal than ever in the quarter, helping AT&T outdo analyst expectations by adding a net 320,000 subscribers on contract-based plans in the quarter.

However, more than half of the new subscribers were tablet users, who pay less than smartphone users. Also, AT&T continues to lag Verizon Wireless, which already has more subscribers. Last week, Verizon reported adding 888,000 subscribers to its rolls in the quarter.

The strong wireless results helped boost Dallas-based AT&T's net income to $3.9 billion, or 66 cents per share, for the April to June period. That's up 8.7 percent from $3.6 billion, or 60 cents per share, a year earlier.

For the latest quarter, analysts expected earnings of 63 cents per share.

Revenue edged up 0.3 percent to $31.6 billion. Analysts were expecting $31.7 billion. If it weren't for the sale of its phone-books business in May, revenue would have risen 2 percent.

AT&T sold a controlling stake in the Yellow Pages division to private-equity firm Cerberus Capital for $950 million. The unit was profitable but shrinking, and AT&T wants to be a growing company.

AT&T's stock slipped 74 cents to $35.28 in morning trading Tuesday, retreating from levels close to its three-year high of $36.21, hit three weeks ago.

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