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Sprint borrows nearly as much as its worth

Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) recently posted positive net revenue and new suscriber numbers, helping to offset the company's latest quarterly loss and send stock cautiously upward. But late in the day shares plunged back downwards after the company revealed how much debt it plans to take on.

I. Sprint Needs to Borrow Nearly as Much as It's Currently Worth

The company's financial sheet looks very troubled.  Its stock is currently is only worth $7.7B USD (market capitalization).  Yet Sprint says it must somehow obtain $7B USD in new financing over the next few years in order to pay off its expensive iPhone contract and complete network upgrades.  If it can't get that financing, it will likely go into bankruptcy and that could be the end of the network.

Sprint has commited a massive $15.5B USD over the next four years to Apple, Inc. (AAPL), in order to get the popular iPhone on its network.  It's easy to see why Sprint would want the iPhone so badly -- the iPhone remains the best-selling single handset in the U.S. and in the world.  However, in signing away a massive amount of money to Apple, Sprint may have signed its own death warrant.

Industry analysts say Sprint was crazy to give Apple so much cash, potentially a fatal error.  Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett offers, "To meet their target, they'd effectively have to turn their entire company into an Apple shop."

Sprint iPhone
Sprint would have to turn into an iPhone store to make its huge gamble pay off, say analysts [Source: TechBuffalo]

II. Network Upgrade Also Hits Sprint Hard

Adding to the company's financial woes, its shortfall comes at a time when the industry is looking to make the transition to 4G.  Sprint was first to the 4G game, but the technology it picked -- WiMAX -- has been cast aside almost unilaterally, globally, in favor of LTE.  As a result, Sprint has been forced to shift gears and prepare itself for a costly LTE deployment, essentially losing all its hard WiMAX work.  Between that LTE deployment and financing for improved 3G coverage, Sprint expects to pay $7B USD.

This double trouble for America's third largest carrier greatly raises the risk level, according to analysts.  Michael Nelson, an analyst with Mizuho, comments, "They're betting the house on two things at the same time.  If they pull it off, great. If they don't, their financial performance would get materially worse, and they could have significant liquidity risks."

Cell tower construction
Sprint is also being hit hard with network upgrade costs as it tries to transition to LTE 4G [Source: Sun Journal]

Sprint says in the best case it may generate a $100M USD free cash flow for 2011 (worst case it would have a negative cash flow of $200M USD), and that it would have a positive cash flow for 2012.  However, those numbers don't tell the full picture as they don't include the interest payments on the big loans Sprint hopes to draw from vendor financiers.  With interest factored in, Sprint will likely be continuing to post big losses.

The network added 1.3 million subscribers in Q3 2011, but lost just a bit more than that, yielding a net decline of 44,000 customers.  Sprint may face more defections as it cuts its unlimited data plans and begins slapping customers with fines.  Sprint's tethering plans are currently the most expensive in the industry, while its 4G coverage is worse than its rivals.

III. Sprint's 4G Service Provider is in Trouble as Well

Sprint is also in the process of negotiating its contract with ClearWire Corp. (CLWR), who provides its WiMAX service.  The move is broadly seen as a good thing for Clearwire, as investors had previously feared that Sprint might bail on its partner.  

The pair have an interesting relationship; Sprint is a majority owner of ClearWire.  ClearWire paid Sprint to build its 4G network.  Then Sprint and other carriers paid Clearwire to use that network.  

However, investors have grown concerned recently that bankruptcy risk from ClearWire could lead to Sprint bailing on the relationship.  ClearWire, like Sprint is looking to take on debt.  The company -- which has a market cap. of $1.85B USD -- needs $900M USD in financing.

Ultimately it's far from game over for Sprint and ClearWire.  But both companies seem to be digging deep into the money hole and look to be headed to big losses, when you factor in interest.  

Sprint, in particular, made a huge gamble with the iPhone -- at a time when the iPhone seemed to be waning in popularity versus Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android juggernaut.  Sprint CEO Dan Hesse promises the deal will pay off.  But Sprint admits it won't see profit from the deal until at least 2015 and that it doesn't know how many iPhones in it will sell.  Sprint better hope that number turns out to be "a lot."

Source: Reuters

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Ballzy move
By retrospooty on 10/27/2011 10:59:21 AM , Rating: 5
Risking so much money in a deal that wont payoff until 2015 takes alot of guts considering how fast the smartphone industry changes.

RE: Ballzy move
By therealnickdanger on 10/27/2011 11:17:36 AM , Rating: 5
... not to mention how fast they could lose customers if they keep changing their data policies.

I'm about ready to go 1996 on their a$$es and go back to calls-only plan.

RE: Ballzy move
By Hiawa23 on 10/27/2011 12:25:38 PM , Rating: 2
I have an android phone, on Metro, & currently own nothing by Apple, but someone explain to me if Apple makes the Iphone, why Sprint would have to borrow money for the platform? Is this how Apple makes it's money by these types of deals?

RE: Ballzy move
By theapparition on 10/27/2011 12:31:15 PM , Rating: 5
Because Sprint idiotically signed a purchase agreement with Apple to buy the iPhone, and buy a LOT of them.

If (and that's a big if), they get customers to buy all those phones, especially if they are new customers, then they might be OK. But if not, then they will lose a ton of cash.

And cash isn't something Sprint has. Now you know why they are charging for tethering, and will soon lose unlimited phone data and start charging for that.

RE: Ballzy move
By Hiawa23 on 10/27/2011 12:34:38 PM , Rating: 2
Thanks for the informative reply..

RE: Ballzy move
By MrBlastman on 10/27/2011 1:04:58 PM , Rating: 3
I was rooting for Sprint after this whole AT&T/T-Mobile merger fiasco but now, after all the blunders management keeps making--and they keep piling up, I'm now not so sure about them anymore... Magic eight ball says "future looks cloudy" for Sprint.

The only winner here is Apple. Well, as long as they can get Sprint to cough up the dough.

RE: Ballzy move
By TheRequiem on 10/27/11, Rating: 0
RE: Ballzy move
By bruce24 on 10/27/2011 2:46:29 PM , Rating: 2
This is another obscured article by daily tech that doesn't get the facts right.

You mean like the fact that the money Sprint said it would need to borrow has nothing to do with Apple, but has to do with their building out their network?

RE: Ballzy move
By TheRequiem on 10/27/2011 3:52:48 PM , Rating: 2
lol, exactly.

What I understand is all of a sudden Sprint is being brought forth to a negative light on this particular website. In order to have an effective article showing negative points, there needs to be more clarity by showing what can happen if thing's go wrong and what can happen if they go right, so in other words, the risks need to be weighed properly. This is a purely negative article, when really, it's not really going to have that much of a negative impact on Sprint.

They are making huge risks, but they are absolutely necessary. Inaction for Sprint is worse then action at this point. If they really do have 277 million people covered by the end of 2013 with LTE-Advanced, that will be extremely competitive with Verizon, who themselves should have about the same amount of coverage and Sprint will likely offer it for a cheaper price. This is also 2 years ahead of AT&T's planned nationwide coverage. At this point, Sprint will have a massive amount of coverage and will offer a very competitive product, positioning themselves as one of the beter carriers. That, coupled with their customer service improvements will be huge and could offer significant gains for the company. They also have very large partnerships being created with Lightsquared and Clearwire that will ensure multiple different products for good prices. WE NEED THIS. If it doesn't happen, we will have a massive duopoly and everyone will lose. Sprint can't fail or we are going to be screwed. Root for them, even if yo don't own one of their devices, because it's healthier to have good competition like this.

They are already 2 years ahead of schedule on their new network, see below.

RE: Ballzy move
By FITCamaro on 10/27/2011 1:57:58 PM , Rating: 2
What will likely happen is that if they can't, Sprint will declare bankruptcy absolving itself of its obligations to Apple. Then come out of bankruptcy without them.

RE: Ballzy move
By ciparis on 10/29/2011 12:27:48 AM , Rating: 2
You do realize that they're trying to keep from going out of business, which they were on a fast track to doing? And that the biggest cause of customer churn was not having the iPhone?

It's a business. They would like to keep doing it. It's a pretty simple move.

RE: Ballzy move
By karndog on 10/27/11, Rating: -1
RE: Ballzy move
By KnightBreed on 10/27/2011 12:14:09 PM , Rating: 2
Ballzy is right. Sprint has been bleeding marketshare for the better part of the last decade. Kudos to Sprint for making a gamble like this. How else are they going to compete with Verizon and AT&T? Most companies just continue with the status quo.

They have a pretty good Android lineup already. Adding the iPhone was the obvious next step. Though I question how much money they're actually investing in this.

RE: Ballzy move
By Natch on 10/27/2011 3:16:56 PM , Rating: 4
Wouldn't it be ironic if they were to suddenly face bankruptcy, only to be bought out by Apple....who might then decide they don't need AT&T and Verizon any more, they'll simply convince all the iLemmings to switch over to the new Apple Phone Co (formerly Sprint)??

RE: Ballzy move
By cjohnson2136 on 10/27/2011 3:35:14 PM , Rating: 5
Don't even suggest something so horrible

RE: Ballzy move
By ppardee on 10/27/2011 6:03:00 PM , Rating: 2
Someone said that Apple is a smart company. (They also said Sprint was a smart company, but I can attribute that to lack of knowledge of the industry/experience with Sprint) Sprint's network is so pathetic that it would not be a good buy. Apple wants to be ubiquitous (and at the same time slightly difficult to attain... you know, to keep up the brand prestige that faux exclusivity brings) and Sprint's network is very very small.

Sprint's network would only be valuable to an existing carrier to augment their current network, but going with WiMax instead of LTE would mean the new owner would have to eat the upgrade costs. Also, Sprint's network is an amalgam of their original CDMA towers and Nextel's iDEN's towers. This means Verizon could only use some of the network to augment theirs unless they wanted the Nextel white elephant. GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile wouldn't have any use at all for it, and most other CDMA carriers don't have the capital to cover their debt, buy the company and make it profitable.

TL;DR version - Sprint lost $3,000,000,000+ last year. Apple DOES NOT WANT!

RE: Ballzy move
By rudy on 10/27/2011 8:24:19 PM , Rating: 2
Sprints network is not small. Last I saw they had more towers than Verizon. The problem with sprint and a reason Apple would hate them is that their towers are divided amount many different protocols. Still running some iDEN I think and then CDMA, WiMAX and now adding LTE. Sprint needed to not buy the iPhone they need instead to gamble more on something else like killing all the iDEN towers right now and migrating them to LTE in a hop fashion. Personally I also think they should have bet big on windows phone rather than the iPhone I would not think it would be a wise idea for sprint to take on this load they were adding subscribers and turning their market around without the iPhone. It is not part of the overall plan just a distraction.

RE: Ballzy move
By pixelslave on 11/1/2011 4:07:23 PM , Rating: 2
Well, the iPhone deal is mostly b/w Apple and Sprint. If Sprint couldn't sell that many of iPhone, I don't think Apple would chase it down and demand they bought the required number of phones to fulfill the contract -- that would be Apple's admission of the iPhone doesn't sell well. They probably could find a legal settlement and Sprint can get out of the contractual agreement by paying a lesser amount.

By AlvinCool on 10/27/2011 11:00:19 AM , Rating: 4
When they could have had MS based phones and Android phones for small money, why would they make a company breaking deal with Apple when Gartner shows their shares falling over the next 4 years?

RE: Why?
By quiksilvr on 10/27/2011 11:22:39 AM , Rating: 5
Because most of the people on their network would rather have an iPhone. It sucks for them, but you either go big or go home.

RE: Why?
By dark matter on 10/30/2011 2:58:28 PM , Rating: 2
Most of the people?

Sure smartphones are growing, but by no means are the majority on any network.

Do you really think MOST people want an iPhone.

Keep drinking the Kool aid.

Only 1 in 10 is a smartphone, and then you get the RIM/Android/APple breakdown.

So explain, where you're getting this imaginative idea from.

Perhaps you're on Sprints board of directors, thinking "where's my iPhone".


RE: Why?
By abhaxus on 10/31/2011 12:45:13 AM , Rating: 2
I don't know where you get the "1 in 10" number. I've seen stats that put smartphones at 50% of cell phone sales, and I think that's low. I work in this business, and we sell more smartphones than feature phones by a dramatic margin.

RE: Why?
By michael2k on 10/27/11, Rating: 0
RE: Why?
By kleinma on 10/27/2011 12:31:20 PM , Rating: 5
They fail because their network sucks, not because of the phones they carry.

RE: Why?
By sprockkets on 10/27/2011 4:43:25 PM , Rating: 3
Yeah, that's it. Has nothing to do with wasting billions on a network technology that Intel dumped and the rest of the world was never going to adapt save for some obscure places, only to switch to LTE.

Unlimited Data
By titanmiller on 10/27/2011 11:19:24 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe they should bring back unlimited data. That will bring in customers. The marginal cost to deliver an additional bit is almost zero so it would benefit them to increase their subscriber base.

RE: Unlimited Data
By Dr of crap on 10/28/2011 9:16:10 AM , Rating: 2
They do have unlimited data.
I have it right now. Four family members on the family plan with unlimited data, voice, and text.
Not sure why everyone doesn't go with this plan?
NO OVERAGE costs here.

RE: Unlimited Data
By JBird7986 on 10/28/2011 3:04:32 PM , Rating: 2
Agreed. Not only that, the additional lines are no more expensive than any other network...only $19.99/mo. We have 5 lines.

RE: Unlimited Data
By cjohnson2136 on 10/28/2011 9:32:02 AM , Rating: 2
The only thing that was unlimited they got rid of was tethering.

pay up ucker
By undummy on 10/27/2011 12:26:46 PM , Rating: 2
All they have to do is promise to put a small wind turbine or a couple solar panels on each tower. Then, your government will toss them $7b with no strings attached.
SprinT needs to hire a couple competent lobbyists.

RE: pay up ucker
By cruisin3style on 10/27/2011 3:31:24 PM , Rating: 2
solyndra was a loan not a grant, and $500m is a lot less than $7b

not that it makes it right, but just sayin

RE: pay up ucker
By ppardee on 10/27/2011 5:46:43 PM , Rating: 2
Solyndra may have been called a loan, but if the people giving them that loan knew they were on the verge of bankruptcy (all indications are that they did)then it was, in essence, a grant (i.e. money that doesn't need to be paid back).

I know that's a little bit of a stretch in the conspiracy direction, but this administration's actions nurture such feelings quite often.

Apple LOLz
By abraxas1 on 10/27/2011 11:11:28 AM , Rating: 2
Apple must be laughing their ass off all the way to the bank.

RE: Apple LOLz
By retnuh on 10/27/2011 11:40:46 AM , Rating: 2
When Apple helps finance them and earns interest on top of the existing deal then they'll laugh all the way to the bank.

I smell something fishy...
By Satsuki on 10/27/2011 11:55:55 AM , Rating: 2
Sprint and Apple are SMART companies. Did either of them actually expect that type of cash-flow from Sprint? I don't think so. How long ago did they sign the contract? A month or two? And now they're already saying "Derp, actually, this is too much too handle."

Was Sprint going into this contract expecting to get bailed out?
Apple - "My mind on my money and my money on my mind."
Thanks for thinking about anything but money. Again.

This is going to end up hurting the customers.

RE: I smell something fishy...
By kraeper on 10/27/2011 12:21:07 PM , Rating: 2
Or perhaps Apple wanted to go into the service provider business, and Sprint wanted out.

By croc on 10/27/2011 5:30:12 PM , Rating: 3
...An Apple iDevice only network, controlled by Cupertino. You can roam with whoever you want, as long as it is an Apple approved network... You can browse any site that is approved by Apple... The possibilities for extending the iWalled Garden become positively magical!

Apple: Here I come
By rocketbuddha on 10/27/2011 11:40:08 AM , Rating: 2
Maybe Hesse can ask Apple to finance this with low interest from the cash in their bank account.
Time to sell your Sprint stock...

By Dorkyman on 10/27/2011 12:11:29 PM , Rating: 2
And the cult of Apple strikes again.

Say Bye Bye to Unlimited...
By Arsynic on 10/27/2011 1:13:15 PM , Rating: 2
Let's see how long their unlimited plan lasts...

Could you imagine.....
By dxf2891 on 10/27/2011 2:44:58 PM , Rating: 2
if Apple took over Sprint and ended their respective relationships with AT&T and Verizon? If successful, I see THEM making a play for T-Mobile to be more competitive.

Missing the point
By cantante on 10/27/2011 6:03:35 PM , Rating: 2
All the posts so far seem to be missing the revenue side of the equation. The iPhone gives Sprint revenue that just barely matches their costs. So it is a wash from that perspective. On the other hand, the iPhone gives Sprint higher margins and drives ARPU higher due to the need for more data services.

DailyTech should do a better job of presenting both sides of the story and pay better attention to facts. Did you guys miss the analyst call yesterday that laid all this out?

By rajopotamus on 10/27/2011 10:22:26 PM , Rating: 2
do any of you think that the reason they paid such a hefty fee is because they may launch their 4g lte network with an iphone 5 exclusive? That may correlate to why they may not see profits until 2015... by the time it launches it will be mid to late 2012...2 year contracts washed out by exclusive/network building/the rest of their handset subsidies...youre at end of 2014.

Didn't know...
By MrPerez on 10/27/2011 11:11:35 AM , Rating: 1
The letter S and Voice Command app was worth going bankrupt for.

I use Sprint, I love Sprint, But If it thinks about raising one dollar in my bill because it fucked up i will point and laugh while i am porting my number over to another provider.

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