IPhone sales hurt carriers' profits

Feb 16, 2012 By David Sarno

The iPhone has been a huge hit for Apple Inc., helping send the company's stock to all-time highs and producing record-breaking profits.

But for AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc., it's breaking the bank.

The three wireless carriers all found themselves answering to Wall Street in recent weeks for posting depressed quarterly earnings, and analysts pointed to the heavy cost of offering the iPhone as a culprit.

The iPhone has become the single most popular smartphone in the United States, and that has left the carriers trapped in a kind of Faustian deal: The more iPhones they sell, the more money they lose.

That's because they have to buy the phone from Apple before they can sell it to their customers for hundreds of dollars less. The carriers are betting that they'll make back the difference and more by signing up customers for two-year plans and collecting monthly fees.

But so far, the carriers are finding that the math isn't adding up.

AT&T was the first carrier to offer the iPhone and has been struggling to make it profitable for years. During the last quarter, the iPhone accounted for 82 percent of the smartphones AT&T sold to its customers, meaning the company had to pay the hefty subsidy on each of the 7.6 million iPhones.

All that money paid to Apple tugged down the company's profits. In AT&T's wireless division, operating margins - a common measure of how much a firm makes - dropped to 15.2 percent from 22.9 percent a year earlier.

"The AT&T wireless model is broken," said Kevin Smithen, a wireless analyst at Macquarie Securities. "AT&T is basically subsidizing Apple's revenues and growth."

Investors have taken notice: Since June 29, 2007, the day AT&T first offered the iPhone, Apple's has shot up more than 300 percent, to $493.69 from $122.04. Meanwhile, AT&T's stock has dropped 28 percent, to $29.82 from $41.40.

Sprint's stock is down more than 16 percent since it began selling the iPhone late last year. It sold 1.8 million iPhones last quarter, spending $630 million to buy them from Apple. That was a large contributor to the company's $1.3 billion quarterly loss - a 40 percent wider loss than the struggling company saw a year earlier, before it offered the iPhone.

Verizon sold 4.2 million iPhones last quarter, accounting for more than half of the smartphones it sold. But despite those strong sales numbers, Verizon's profit failed to meet Wall Street's expectations, and the firm's stock dropped 2 percent after its earnings release.

Wireless carriers began subsidizing the cost of cellphones years ago, in an era of simpler, less expensive "feature" phones. Carriers might have offered a $300 phone to consumers for $100.

But that doesn't work well with the much more expensive iPhone, which companies buy from Apple for about $600, analysts estimate, before reselling it to consumers for $200 - eating the $400 difference.

A particularly sticky issue for carriers is that many iPhone users don't want to wait for their two-year contract to expire to buy the latest model, which has come out once a year.

Generally the carriers have required consumers to pay the full price if they want a new iPhone before their contract runs out. But now, worried that subscribers will flee to competitors if they can't get a good price on the new phone, several carriers are offering "early upgrade" deals to discount the newest iPhone before two years elapse. That means helping the consumer buy a second iPhone in one year - and handing over additional hundreds of dollars to Apple.

"Can Apple continue to roll through industry after industry, soak up all the profits, and leave everything it touches as a smoking wreckage?" asked Craig Moffett, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "They've done it with music and handsets, and now they're doing it to the carriers."

Representatives from Sprint, AT&T and Verizon declined to comment on their plans for offsetting the iPhone's effect on their bottom line.

But analysts believe the carriers' best shot at wrestling back some power from Apple is getting consumers interested in alternatives. This year, that has meant souped-up campaigns to entice buyers to look at Google Inc.-powered Android phones manufactured by Samsung Electronics, LG, HTC, Motorola and others.

After heavy promotion, devices such as Motorola's Droid Razr and Samsung's Galaxy S 4G have begun to sell well. They also can take advantage of faster, next-generation 4G wireless technology, while Apple's iPhone still works with the slower 3G.

Best of all for carriers, the Android devices can cost half as much, allowing them to pay closer to $200 for each device instead of $400 for the iPhone.

"They're doing everything they can to make the Android phone something you want to choose," said Chris Larsen, an analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co. "It keeps Apple in balance to some degree."

At a Verizon Wireless store in Los Angeles' Koreatown neighborhood, half a dozen wall-mounted displays feature fancy, back-lit red-and-silver graphics pitching the company's new line of next-generation 4G Android smartphones. The display for the is smaller and plain, its white motif clashing with the store's color scheme.

"It depends what you like," a clerk says when asked for advice on which type of phone to buy.

"Do you like the Androids' faster download times, bigger screens, longer battery life and better cameras? Or do you like ?"

Explore further: LinkedIn to anchor new San Francisco high-rise

1 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

US Cellular: We turned down iPhone

Nov 04, 2011

(AP) -- U.S. Cellular, the country's sixth-largest cellphone company, says it had the opportunity to carry the iPhone but turned it down because the phone is too expensive.

Report says Sprint to get iPhone in October

Aug 23, 2011

(AP) -- Sprint Nextel Corp., the country's third-largest cellphone company, will start selling the iPhone in mid-October, The Wall Street Journal said Tuesday.

CDMA iPhone may be coming soon

Jan 06, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The largest wireless carrier in the US, Verizon Wireless, is thought to be in negotiations with Apple to release a CDMA network version of the iPhone later this year, if a price can be agreed ...

Sprint customers line up as it gets 1st iPhone

Oct 14, 2011

(AP) -- Apple stores got the longest lines as the new iPhone model launched Friday, but there were lines at Sprint stores too, as the carrier got a chance to sell the phone more than four years after the first ...

Recommended for you

SK Hynix posts Q1 surge in net profit

1 hour ago

South Korea's SK Hynix Inc said Thursday its first-quarter net profit surged nearly 350 percent from the previous year on a spike in sales of PC memory chips.

Zynga founder Pincus leaving operations role

13 hours ago

Online game maker Zynga says company founder Mark Pincus is stepping down as chief product officer, less than a year after he was replaced as the company's CEO.

Amazon Prime wins streaming deal with HBO

16 hours ago

Amazon scored a deal Wednesday to distribute old shows from premium cable TV channel HBO to its monthly Prime subscribers, landing a blow on rival Netflix in the streaming video battle.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tseihta
1 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2012
New title should read:

"Wireless carriers convoluted financial plan does not work."

More news stories

SK Hynix posts Q1 surge in net profit

South Korea's SK Hynix Inc said Thursday its first-quarter net profit surged nearly 350 percent from the previous year on a spike in sales of PC memory chips.

FCC to propose pay-for-priority Internet standards

The Federal Communications Commission is set to propose new open Internet rules that would allow content companies to pay for faster delivery over the so-called "last mile" connection to people's homes.

Brazil enacts Internet 'Bill of Rights'

Brazil's president signed into law on Wednesday a "Bill of Rights" for the digital age that aims to protect online privacy and promote the Internet as a public utility by barring telecommunications companies ...

Is nuclear power the only way to avoid geoengineering?

"I think one can argue that if we were to follow a strong nuclear energy pathway—as well as doing everything else that we can—then we can solve the climate problem without doing geoengineering." So says Tom Wigley, one ...

When things get glassy, molecules go fractal

Colorful church windows, beads on a necklace and many of our favorite plastics share something in common—they all belong to a state of matter known as glasses. School children learn the difference between ...

FDA proposes first regulations for e-cigarettes

The federal government wants to prohibit sales of electronic cigarettes to minors and require approval for new products and health warning labels under regulations being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration.