Wireless carrier Sprint (NYSE:S) has long stood as an alternative to service from industry giants AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ), with the company's history dating back to when it was going head-to-head against AT&T and now-bankrupt MCI to provide long-distance telephone services. Yet even as competition in the wireless network space has heated up, Sprint has had a hard time gaining much traction in its efforts to claim its share of the lucrative market. With much of the company's losses coming in the wake of its latest quarterly results, Sprint investors are increasingly concerned about the company's immediate future. Let's take a closer look at the struggles that Sprint is going through and how the company is working to get through them.
Why Sprint slowed to a crawl last month
Sprint's fiscal second-quarter results in early November threw cold water on the bullish argument for the wireless carrier. For the quarter, Sprint saw 10% growth in revenue, but that didn't help the company make much of a dent in its recent losses. Sprint posted operating losses of $192 million, and although that was less than half the nearly $400 million operating loss from the same quarter in 2013, investors had believed that Sprint could post much smaller losses.
The shrinking subscriber numbers that Sprint posted were particularly troubling for investors seeking faster growth. Sprint said that the number of postpaid subscribers fell by 272,000, with a reduction of half a million phone customers more than offsetting the 261,000-subscriber gain in tablet subscribers. As a cost-cutting measure, Sprint also said it would cut 2,000 jobs, with the hope that doing so will cut Sprint's costs by $400 million annually. Even though the company said that its losses had slowed during the month of September, Sprint investors are far from certain whether it can keep up with AT&T and Verizon.
In addition, even peer T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS) has made a far larger marketing splash lately and is therefore poised to take over the No. 3 spot from Sprint in the near future. T-Mobile CEO John Legere predicted earlier this year that T-Mobile would beat out Sprint by year's end, and if T-Mobile continues its growth pace from previous quarters, then it could pass Sprint's total subscriber count as early as this quarter.
Can Sprint get back in the race?
Sprint certainly hasn't given up on its efforts to remain relevant in the wireless industry. CEO Marcelo Claure believes that a clearer marketing message could help boost its standing with potential customers, and with an emphasis on value, clarity, and simplicity, Sprint hopes that it can finally get more attention from smartphone- and tablet-users.
At the same time, Sprint hasn't hesitated to throw billions of dollars at improving its network .With the need to connect new spectrum to its existing network and with a dramatic move forward toward LTE technology, Sprint now finds itself with a lot more debt relative to its earning power than AT&T and Verizon. The gamble is likely worth it, given that without a top-quality network, Sprint will likely find it impossible to attract new customers and reverse its long exodus of subscribers. Yet even if service improves, that alone won't necessarily be enough to draw more business.
Still, Sprint stands to benefit from the product upgrade cycle, as the latest Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) models start to gain traction among customers. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus have already shown signs of spurring a rise in upgrade rates among existing customers, and Sprint CFO Joe Euteneuer said that "higher upgrade rates this quarter and the anticipation of our highest ever upgrade rate in the fourth quarter are good indications that our customers are recommitting to Sprint." If the company can get a new influx of recommitted subscribers in the wake of the new iPhone release, then Sprint could finally start building the momentum it needs to succeed in the long run.
Sprint's losses last month show how the wireless carrier is at an important crossroads in its long-term strategic vision. Even though it has sought to become a stronger competitor against AT&T and Verizon, Sprint now finds itself having to work hard just to hold onto its existing customer base. Without some attractive services or products that can boost its customer counts, Sprint doesn't have a clear path forward for investors to count on looking ahead.
Dan Caplinger owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.