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All That Unlimited Mobile Data Is Eating Into Wireless Profits

Competition among the major wireless carriers remains intense, which is great for customers but might be less great for stock investors.

Wireless customers have gotten numerous opportunities to lower their bills over the past few months. During the first quarter, T-Mobile eliminated added fees and taxes from its unlimited data plans, and Sprint slashed the price of its unlimited plan to just $90 for up to five lines. Meanwhile, Verizon finally caved from the pressure and debuted its own unlimited plan, while AT&T cut the price of its unlimited plan and opened it to all customers—not just its paid TV subscribers.

All of those opportunities will promote “customer rightsizing,” which is Wall Street-speak for signing up for plans that cost less per month. That’s along with a big decline in overage revenue, the dreaded fees that the carriers collect when a customer goes over their monthly data allowance, notes Mike McCormack, an analyst at Jefferies.

“It should come as no surprise that wireless remains fiercely competitive,” McCormack wrote in a report this week cutting his 2017 profit estimates for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile simultaneously.

All of the carriers have turned to unlimited data plans to try to attract more customers as overall growth in the U.S. market slows to a crawl. AT&T and Verizon also have been making acquisitions to diversify more into video and advertising markets, while Sprint and T-Mobile have led the charge on cutting prices to keep sales growing. But all of the various tactics are starting to hit bottom line profitability, it now appears.

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And that’s bad news for investors. Shares of Verizon, which report first quarter results on April 20, have lost 8% so far this year compared to the 5% gain in the S&P 500 Index. A big part of that loss followed the carrier’s January 24 report on fourth quarter results, when Verizon conceded that competitive pressure would prevent any revenue growth this year.

In his new report, McCormack said competition would also hurt profits and Verizon (VZ) would earn $3.85 per share, a penny less than it made last year and down from the analyst’s earlier estimate of $3.92.

AT&T, which will report its first quarter results on April 25, has seen its shares fall 2%. While it works to secure its acquisition of entertainment giant Time Warner (TWX), which has yet to be approved by regulators, AT&T (T) will also feel the competitive pressure in wireless, McCormack wrote. He cut his adjusted profit estimate for 2017 to $2.90 per share, down from his prior estimate of $2.95 though still representing a modest 2% gain from last year.

Shares of Sprint, the smallest of the big four, have gained 3% in 2017. While concerns about deep price cutting have worried some investors, the stock price has been buoyed by merger speculation under the new Trump administration. Sprint (S) will lose an adjusted 17 cents a share this year, worse than McCormack’s prior estimate of an 11 cent loss but still an improvement in 2016’s 27 cents per share of red ink.

T-Mobile (TMUS) had done the best in the wireless market over the last few years, and its stock price is the only one of the four to beat the S&P 500, with an 11% rise so far this year.

But even T-Mobile will take a hit, according to McCormack. He cut his estimate to $1.20 per share from $1.44. Both are less than the $1.72 the carrier earned last year.