Scott Olson—Getty Images
By Kevin Fitchard
August 4, 2015

For more than a decade, Sprint (S) has had to be content with the third place in the race for the most mobile subscribers. That trend ended today, but not in the way CEO Marcelo Claure would have liked.

Sprint is now the smallest of the four nationwide mobile operators, giving up its 3rd place slot to T-Mobile (TMUS). The revitalized T-Mobile has been nipping at Sprint’s heels for the last year. In the 2nd quarter (Sprint’s fiscal 1st quarter), T-Mobile finally managed to lap its rival posting 2.1 million subscriber net additions compared to Sprint’s 675,000.

Sprint now has 57.7 million connections on its networks, while T-Mobile has 58.9 million. If both companies keep up their current growth trajectories (T-Mobile has grown by more than 2 million customers in three of the last four quarters), T-Mobile will surely put a lot more distance between itself and Sprint.

 

Sprint didn’t directly address its fall in rankings during its earnings call this morning, but the symbolism wasn’t lost on the mobile carrier. On Monday evening, Sprint announced a big shakeup of its executive ranks. CFO Joseph Euteneuer is stepping down and will be replaced by Tarek Robbiati, the former CEO of Australian consumer finance company Flexigroup. Former Telekom Austria CTO Günther Ottendorfer will become COO for Technology, and Sprint’s Chief Network Officer John Saw is being promoted to CTO, replacing Stephen Bye who left the company last month.

After former CEO Dan Hesse’s ouster last summer, Claure has swapped out nearly all of the executive leadership team, created new C-level positions and brought in advisers from Sprint’s corporate parent, Japan’s Softbank, to help right the floundering company. In the year since he’s taken over, Claure has returned Sprint to subscriber growth, but the company still struggles financially.

Sprint’s fiscal Q1 revenues declined 9% year-over-year to $7 billion as its average revenue per subscriber continues to fall. It reported a quarterly loss of $20 million, effectively reversing its $23 million profit from last year’s fiscal first quarter.

Landing the No. 3 spot is really more about bragging rights for mobile providers—though you can expect T-Mobile’s outspoken CEO John Legere to do plenty of bragging—as both T-Mobile and Sprint are distant finishers to AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZA), which have well over 100 million connections each.

What’s more, the type of subscribers an operator has matter more than the sheer volume. A postpaid or contract phone customer is more valuable than a prepaid phone or tablet customer. Although, a prepaid customer brings in more revenue than a wholesale connection. All of the top four mobile operators reported subscriber growth in the 2nd quarter, but they all grew in different ways. For instance, AT&T saw a huge uptick in Internet of things connections as GM and Audi started linking its new 4G cars to its network. Verizon’ Q2 growth was fueled mainly by new tablet data plans.

The problem for Sprint is that all of its growth is coming from one of the lowest revenue generating segments of the mobile market: wholesale. Sprint has become a big friend to upstart mobile operators like FreedomPop, Republic Wireless and Google’s Project Fi, which buy capacity from Sprint’s voice and data networks rather than build infrastructure of their own. Sprint added 731,000 of those subscribers to its roles last quarter, but each of those wholesale connections only brings in a fraction of the revenue of a postpaid phone customer.

It’s postpaid customers who sign up for high-value smartphone voice and data plans like Sprint’s new All In $80 unlimited offer. Those postpaid phone subscriptions are also the most difficult to acquire since they require stealing customers away from competitors, and is an area Sprint continues to struggle in. Last quarter it lost 12,000 postpaid phone customers. That was a huge improvement over Sprint’s losses in previous quarters, but poor news compared to T-Mobile, which saw its postpaid phone customers grow by 760,000. Sprint also saw a decline in its prepaid customer base of 388,000 connections, though it was able to offset some of those losses by signing up more 4G tablet subscriptions.

 

So, in effect, Sprint is actually losing the war with T-Mobile on two fronts. Not only is T-Mobile growing overall at a much faster pace than Sprint, but T-Mobile also is signing up much more valuable customers—often luring them away from Sprint.

Many of Sprint’s problems stem from its networks, which have failed to keep pace with its competitors’ LTE systems. Oddly Sprint Chairman and Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son made a rare appearance on Sprint’s earnings call to criticize U.S. mobile networks, calling them “very bad” compared to the speeds and coverage offered to networks in his native Japan.

Those are bold words considering Sprint’s networks have long been the worst of the bunch in the U.S. But alongside the criticism, both Son and Claure said they were executing a plan to greatly improve Sprint’s 4G coverage and capacity across the country. Son added that he was in negotiations with partners to finance a massive network buildout without issuing new equity or bonds. “You have to use brains instead of money,” Son said of his plan.

Son has boasted about turning Sprint into a 4G powerhouse since Softbank bought a majority stake of the U.S. carrier two years ago, and ever since Sprint launched its 4G network in 2008, it’s talked a big game about its network. So far in seven years, though, Sprint has failed to deliver.

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