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How Wireless Competition Is Finally Catching Up to Verizon

January 24, 2017, 5:04 PM UTC

Things aren’t working out for Verizon as expected—or at least not as expected by its management team for all of last year when they predicted a return to revenue growth in 2017.

Now it suddenly appears that intensifying competition in the wireless market will reduce revenue more than previously anticipated, while growth from sexy, new areas like digital advertising and connected devices is yet to make a significant positive impact.

The market, it turns out, is ending up a little more like John Legere, CEO of competitor T-Mobile, expected.

“There’s no doubt that Verizon midlife crisis is peaking! It’s epic. And it ain’t pretty,” Legere, known for his outspokenness, wrote in a blog post on Monday, a day before Verizon’s disappointing earnings announcement. Legere and Sprint (S) CEO Marcello Claure have turned up the pressure on Verizon with cheap phone deals and lower cost unlimited data plans that the larger carrier has so far not matched.

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Even with the competition, Verizon’s results for the fourth quarter were fairly close to what Wall Street expected. Adjusted earnings per share of 86 cents lagged the average analyst estimate of 89 cents while total revenue of $32.3 billion was ahead of the average estimate of $32.15 billion.

But the real action was the change in what Verizon (VZ) said about 2017. For all of last year, even as revenue was falling 4%, or 2% adjusted merger and acquisition activity, the carrier had predicted a return to normal revenue growth in 2017 that would be in line with growth in the overall U.S. economy.

On Tuesday, however, new CFO Matt Ellis had some new, and less rosy, language to describe 2017. Excluding any M&A, 2017 revenue will be “fairly consistent with that of 2016,” Ellis said. That’s Wall Street code for zero growth.

Investors weren’t pleased. Shares of Verizon, which returned 20% last year including dividends, fell almost 5% on Tuesday after the company rescinded the earlier forecast and left analysts wondering what had gone wrong.

“Maybe we could start with the last point on the guidance,” Morgan Stanley analyst Simon Flannery asked, kicking off the Q&A portion of Tuesday’s earnings call. “Just a follow up first on Simon’s question,” next questioner, JPMorgan’s Phil Cusick, began. “Maybe another follow up on the guidance,” asked UBS analyst John Hodulik next. And so it went.

It can’t have been much fun as a debut for new CFO Ellis. Ellis’s first job after replacing the retired Fran Shammo was to clean up the mess. Ellis emphasized that at least 2017 revenue would not be shrinking, as it did in 2016. Growth is now expected in 2018, he said.

With T-Mobile (TMUS) and Sprint offering cheaper plans, and even AT&T (T) hawking unlimited data to some of its customers, Verizon subscribers were smarter about transitioning to Verizon plans introduced last summer that don’t charge overages when the monthly data allowance is exceeded.

“We saw a higher level of migrations than past pricing changes,” Ellis explained, at one point describing the moves as “greater than expected optimization” by customers switching plans.

Asked later if Verizon might introduce unlimited data plans of its own–the carrier has not only resisted but recently began running commercials criticizing such plans as unnecessary–Ellis was unenthusiastic. “That’s not something we feel we need to do,” he said, echoing his predecessor Shammo’s line.

Investors didn’t much like that answer. But for now, it remains the Verizon line.