By Sheila Dang and Akanksha Rana
(Reuters) – AT&T Inc (NYSE:T) reported slower wireless customer growth and larger declines in its pay-TV business than Wall Street expected, sending its shares down 4 percent on Wednesday.
The second-largest U.S. wireless carrier by subscribers has turned its focus to paying down debt after spending $85 billion to buy media company Time Warner. It has also pulled back on promotional pricing for phone and television plans, sacrificing new customer gains.
“I would say we’re ahead of schedule in each of our key priorities,” said AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson during a call with analysts.
The company’s debt was $171 billion at the end of 2018, after paying off some $9 billion since the Time Warner merger closed in June.
In communications, AT&T’s largest business, the carrier gained a net 134,000 phone subscribers who pay a monthly bill, falling far short of analysts’ estimates of 208,000, according to research firm FactSet. AT&T has 153 million total phone subscribers.
Churn, or the rate of customer defections, was 1 percent during the fourth quarter, up from 0.89 percent the previous year.
AT&T has had a relatively “burdened” wireless network, which can lead to slower data speeds, while smaller rival T-Mobile US Inc has been rapidly expanding its network capacity, contributing to the higher churn, said Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst with New Street Research.
AT&T’s entertainment segment, which includes satellite TV provider DirecTV, has been in continuous decline. It lost more subscribers during the quarter as viewers shifted to cheaper streaming services, just not those owned by AT&T.
DirecTV Now, AT&T’s streaming service, lost 267,000 subscribers, more than analysts expected, which the company blamed on customers leaving once discounted introductory offers ran out.
DirecTV lost 403,000 satellite TV subscribers, more than the estimate of 328,000 customer losses, according to research firm FactSet.
Analysts had been closely watching the entertainment segment’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) after AT&T had committed to stabilizing the decline.
But entertainment EBITDA fell by 15.6 percent during the quarter. That illustrated “just how steep the climb” will be to reach stability, said Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, in a note.
AT&T’s investors may be expecting the company to eventually cut its 7 percent dividend yield, shown by AT&T’s falling stock price over time, Moffett said.
The new WarnerMedia segment, which includes Turner and premium TV channel HBO, reported quarterly revenue of $9.23 billion, beating estimates of $9.05 billion, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.
AT&T’s total revenue rose 15.2 percent to $47.99 billion but missed analysts’ estimates of $48.5 billion.
Net income attributable to AT&T fell to $4.86 billion, or 66 cents per share, from $19.04 billion, or $3.08 per share, a year earlier, when the company had a big one-time benefit from the U.S. tax overhaul.
Excluding items, the company earned 86 cents per share, in line with estimates.
Shares of AT&T declined 3.7 percent to $29.56 in afternoon trading.