Buried in Sprint (S) earnings, company still bleeding customers

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Sprint (S) announced earnings today. It tried to make them look good. At the top of the press release was a calculation of cash flow. "Free" cash flow was up $500 million in the quarter. There was also a push to prove that the firm's awful customer service is getting better. "Independent evaluations report our significant improvement in customer care and network performance. Customers are responding to our messages of value, simplicity and productivity," the release said.

Revenue for the quarter fell 14 percent to $8.4 billion. The net loss was $1.6 billion, down from $29.3 billion in the same period a year ago, but Sprint took a huge write-off in that quarter. A better measurement of profits, Adjusted OIBDA, fell from $2.5 billion last year to $1.7 billion in the most recent period.

But the real action was in the section on subscribers. Sprint continues to lose customers every quarter. That trend is not being arrested by what the company says are better products and better customer service. Sprint had 49.3 million customers at the end of 2008, compared to 53.8 million at the end of 2007. For the quarter, total wireless customers declined by a net 1.3 million.

The P&L may tell part of the story, but the real news is the subscriber count.

Douglas A. McIntyre is an editor at 24/7 Wall St.

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