This has been a tumultuous year for many stocks -- among them, stalwarts AT&T (T 0.44%) and Verizon (VZ 0.49%). As telecom giants, both of these blue-chip dividend payers are usually fairly stable investments, the kind that can offer a measure of shelter when economic storms are raging. But not in 2022.

Both touched their 52-week lows in October. But while AT&T has rebounded strongly since then thanks to a well-received third-quarter earnings report, Verizon shares have not moved as dramatically.

The disparate directions of their share price moves reflect the different headwinds their businesses have faced in 2022. Both are experiencing this year's uncertain macroeconomic environment in different ways. Given this, it may not be immediately obvious to investors which telecom behemoth is the superior stock buy now.

How AT&T has fared in 2022

The third quarter marked AT&T's first as a post-Hollywood company. It spun off its WarnerMedia entertainment division in April as it largely abandoned its entertainment industry aspirations to focus on its core telecommunications business.

After adjusting for those divested businesses, AT&T's revenue rose 3.1% year over year in Q3 to $30 billion. That top-line improvement came primarily thanks to its effectiveness at attracting new customers. It added a net 708,000 postpaid phone customers in the quarter -- its ninth consecutive quarter of postpaid customer gains.

The contrast between AT&T and Verizon here is stark.

Quarter AT&T Postpaid Phone Net Adds Verizon Postpaid Phone Net Adds
Q3 2022 708,000 8,000
Q2 2022 813,000 12,000
Q1 2022 691,000 (36,000)

Data source: AT&T and Verizon.

Despite those successes, AT&T had to cut its free-cash-flow forecast for the year by $2 billion. Factors such as inflation and high capital expenditures related to the ongoing build-out of its 5G and fiber-optic networks necessitated the cut.

Verizon's 2022 ups and downs

Verizon also revised its 2022 guidance, cutting its forecast for service and other revenue from at least 1% growth to a potential 1% decline after its revenue in Q2 came in flat year over year. It followed that in Q3 with a net loss of 189,000 postpaid phone customers in its consumer division.

But 2022 hasn't been all bad news for the embattled telecom. Its revenue bounced back strongly in Q3, rising 4% year over year to $34.2 billion -- a gain powered by price hikes.

And while it has struggled to retain consumer customers, Verizon proved effective at attracting business customers. It also landed a contract with the U.S. State Department to modernize the networks at its embassies.

Through the first three quarters of 2022, Verizon added net  680,000 postpaid phone customers among businesses, more than double the 287,000 it added in the prior-year period.

Quarter Business Postpaid Phone Net Adds Consumer Postpaid Phone Net Adds Total Postpaid Phone Net Adds
Q3 2022 197,000 (189,000) 8,000
Q2 2022 227,000 (215,000) 12,000
Q1 2022 256,000 (292,000) (36,000)

Data source: Verizon.

Still, Verizon's consumer acquisition woes prompted action. The company is now trying to attract consumers by introducing new phone plans. It's also taking a surgical approach to the challenge. Rather than simply attempting to capture as many customers as possible, CEO Hans Vestberg stated, "we're focused on attracting and retaining high-quality consumers" -- those who are willing to pay for its higher-priced unlimited data plans. About 81% of Verizon's consumer customers were on unlimited plans as of the end of Q3.

The company also generated a total of $12.4 billion in free cash flow this year, compared with $8 billion for AT&T. Its strong free-cash-flow generation enabled Verizon to raise its dividend in September for the 16th consecutive year. Meanwhile, AT&T cut its dividend by nearly half this year due to its WarnerMedia spinoff.

Is AT&T or Verizon the better buy?

Verizon's dividend record is appealing, but the company's struggle with customer acquisition is concerning. Its 8,000 postpaid phone net additions in Q3 were far below the prior-year period's 429,000. In addition, it's too soon to tell if Verizon's new phone plans and focus on high-value consumers will work for it over the long term.

AT&T's revenue growth and customer acquisition results are excellent. And despite the payout cut, its dividend still yields an impressive 5.8% based on the share price at the time of this writing. AT&T is allocating $24 billion over 2022 and 2023 to expand its networks. As a result, Q4 still presents some free-cash-flow risk, but once it completes those capital expenditures, that situation should improve.

Since no business can survive for long if it's steadily bleeding customers, and Verizon's consumer segment delivered the lion's share of its Q3 revenue -- $25.8 billion compared to the business division's $7.8 billion -- the edge goes to AT&T as the better long-term investment right now.