AT&T biggest subscriber 'donor' among U.S. carriers: Analyst

AT&T is losing more postpaid phone customers to its rivals than any other U.S. operator, according to fresh data from Cowen and Company Equity Research, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. But it appears to be a key part of the carrier’s strategy.

“When asking postpaid subscribers that have been with their carrier (less than) two years which carrier did they previously have, the top answer for current Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon respondents was ‘previously AT&T,’ the analyst firm said in a research note to investors, “whereas in previous surveys it’s been more mixed. The survey is in line with AT&T reported results where the carrier has lost postpaid phone subs for the past eight consecutive quarters as it has pivoted to a more surgical retention strategy of keeping high-value/high-margin subscribers.”

Indeed, the nation’s second-largest carrier has willingly sacrificed market share as it focused on retaining its most lucrative customers. It lost 268,000 postpaid phone subscribers during the third quarter—many of which were customers with lower-ARPU feature phones, the company said—but it notched its “best-ever” wireless service EBITDA margin of 50.1 percent.

AT&T is likely continued to bleed postpaid users in the fourth quarter of 2016, Wells Fargo recently predicted, even while making strong gains among prepaid users. The carrier lost an estimated 220,000 postpaid customers to close out the year but notched 300,000 prepaid net adds, and saw 350,000 overall postpaid net adds, Wells Fargo said.

Meanwhile, AT&T continues to expand into digital media and advertising as its share of the U.S. postpaid phone market continues to wane. It recently launched its OTT video offering DirecTV Now, and it hopes to gain regulatory approval of its $85.4 billion deal to buy Time Warner.

And AT&T’s strategy of sacrificing postpaid phone users while focusing on the bottom line appears to be paying dividends. The company posted third-quarter revenues of $40.0 billion, up 4.6 percent, alongside net income attributable to AT&T rising 11.2 percent. Cash from operations reached $11 billion during the quarter.

There’s little reason to think AT&T will regain share of the U.S. smartphone market in the foreseeable future as it looks to grow its media businesses, Cowen analysts said.

“Considering the format of the question (those that left a carrier over the previous two years), we believe this trend will continue, especially considering AT&T’s pivoted focus to DirecTV (and DirecTV Now) and its broader integrated solution strategy,” the analysts wrote.