Sprint Nextel Corp.'s subscriber losses slowed in the fourth quarter, an encouraging sign for a wireless carrier that has lost millions of customers over the past few years.
Sprint lost a net 148,000 subscribers in the last three months of 2009, far fewer than the 545,000 who fled in the third quarter, the carrier said Wednesday.
Sprint reported a quarterly loss of $980 million, or 34 cents per share, for the last three months of 2009. That compares with a loss of $1.62 billion, or 57 cents per share, a year earlier.
Analysts were expecting a loss of 19 cents per share, but that figure did not include the effects of a noncash $306 million tax charge. Sprint did not provide a per-share figure comparable to the analyst estimate.
Revenue slipped 7 percent to $7.87 billion, slightly below the $8 billion expected by analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters.
Most of the improvement in customer figures comes from Sprint's Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile USA prepaid services, which added 435,000 customers during the quarter. The Sprint-branded service also stemmed losses, adding a net 3,000 customers.
However, customers are still rapidly fleeing from Nextel-branded service. Sprint has struggled to keep Nextel subscribers since it bought that network in 2005.
Sprint, which is based in Overland Park, Kan., ended the year with 48.1 million customers, down from 49.3 million the year before. It's the third-largest carrier in the country.
While prepaid service is helping turn around customer flight, it's not necessarily a huge help for Sprint's results. Prepaying customers pay an average of $31 per month, compared with $55 for customers who agree to long-term service contracts. Sprint is also heavily subsidizing new handsets for contract-signing customers to compete with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless.
Sprint said it expects subscriber numbers to keep improving this year.
Sprint shares were unchanged at $3.65 in pre-market trading Wednesday.
For the full year, Sprint lost $2.4 billion, or 84 cents per share, on $32.3 billion in revenue. That compares with a 2008 loss of $2.8 billion, or 98 cents per share, on $35.6 billion in revenue.
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