AT&T (NYSE:T) had a turbulent 2015 that is ending with its stock price in roughly the same place it began.
Technically, shares had dipped slightly from $33.59 when they opened on Jan. 2 to their close at $33.17 Dec. 11. That has to be frustrating for CEO Randall Stephenson, who had to expect more from a year when the company managed to complete the purchase of a major rival that brought it expanded access to the pay-television market.
Still, just because AT&T hasn't gained much ground, at least going by the stock price in 2015, doesn't mean it was a quiet year for the company. Stephenson's brand was in the news, and it made major headlines during the past 12 months.
Here's a look at some of the best ones for AT&T.
AT&T buys DirecTV
Nothing AT&T did in 2015 overshadows the fact that it both announced and completed its purchase of DirecTV. The $49 billion deal made the company the largest pay-TV provider in the United States and the world.
It gives the company more than 26 million customers in the United States and more than 19 million in Latin America, including Mexico and the Caribbean, according to a press release. More importantly, it makes AT&T the only national wireless provider that can bundle pay-television service to all its customers.
That's a selling advantage over Verizon (NYSE:VZ), its top rival for wireless customers and upstarts Sprint (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS). Stephenson touted those advantages in the deal-closing press release:
"Combining DirecTV with AT&T is all about giving customers more choices for great video entertainment integrated with mobile and high-speed Internet service. We'll now be able to meet consumers' future entertainment preferences, whether they want traditional TV service with premier programming, their favorite content on a mobile device, or video streamed over the Internet to any screen."
Buying DirecTV allows AT&T to offer bundles with Internet, wireless, phone, and cable in more markets and phone and pay-TV nationally. Bundles are important for the higher-priced wireless carrier because they offer combined discounts that deepen customers' ties to the company.
It makes leaving a tougher choice and might keep people from cutting the cord or stop them from jumping to a lower-priced wireless carrier such as Sprint or T-Mobile.
AT&T still has a strong wireless network
While Verizon still leads the way, AT&T was a strong second in the RootMetrics 1st Half of 2015 Mobile Network Performance Report. This is very important for the company, because part of its marketing push versus Sprint and T-Mobile is that it offers a better wireless product.
In reality, T-Mobile and Sprint have closed the gap enough that their services offer a viable alternative in many markets, but for AT&T to keep the appearance of being ahead is important for the company. RootMetrics also had very good things to say about the company's network in the report:
"AT&T was the only carrier other than Verizon to win a United States RootScore Award, doing so in the text category for the second consecutive report. AT&T also finished a close second to Verizon in five of six categories, including the more holistic areas of overall performance, network reliability, and network speed."
That's enough for the company to hang its hat on from an advertising point of view, which should be good enough to help it defend its wireless subscriber base in 2016.
More profits are coming
Stephenson isn't the most dynamic of leaders when it comes to being the public face of a company. He is, however, a solider operator who knows how to squeeze value out of his properties. That makes Project Agile, the company's quiet cost-cutting initiative, one of its most important headlines for the year, even if the moves didn't bring a lot of attention.
The CEO spoke about the ongoing initiative during the company's late-October call with analysts:
Project Agile savings are coming through. Automation and Digital First have reduced customer call volumes by an average of 2 million calls a month. Simplified offers help as well. So do the simple blocking and tackling efforts of expense controls, getting it right the first time, and working capital efficiencies.
It's not as flashy as buying DirecTV, but in a time of increased pressures from cord cutting in cable as well as lower-priced rivals T-Mobile and Sprint in wireless, careful management may be as important as anything for AT&T. That's not to say the stock won't move back to growth in 2016, but investors should feel better knowing that in addition to swinging for the fences, Stephenson can also play small ball.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He still thinks Mr. T would be a good AT&T spokesman. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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.