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AT&T reports Q4 gains in fiber and wireless

Wireless carrier AT&T recently shared its 2020 fourth quarter results, which showed continued subscriber growth in wireless and fiber. The carrier added 1.2 million postpaid network subscribers and 273,000 fiber customers during the final quarter of the year.

“We ended the year with strong momentum in our market focus areas of broadband connectivity and software-based entertainment,” AT&T CEO John Stankey said. “By investing in our high-quality wireless customer base, we had our best full-year of postpaid phone net adds in a decade and our second lowest postpaid phone churn ever. Our fiber broadband net adds passed the 1 million mark for the year.”

AT&T’s year-end results were also strong. The carrier added 1.5 million postpaid phone network subscribers and more than 1 million broadband customers in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the second straight year AT&T has added more than 1 million fiber customers.

“We had our best AT&T Fiber fourth-quarter net adds even with more challenges associated with the pandemic, and penetration continues to grow,” AT&T Chief Financial Officer John Stephens said during the carrier’s fourth quarter earnings call. “It’s now at 34%. In our video unit, premium video losses were improved year-over-year, thanks to lower churn and our focus on high-value customers. We continue to drive ARPU growth in both video and IP broadband.”

There will always be a place for fiber

AT&T plans to expand its fiber presence in 2021. Stankey said during the carrier’s earnings call that the plan is to build approximately two million fiber residential locations.

“That’s kind of what we got the team tasked to do to give you a sense of what that increase will be,” Stankey said. “I think still having a very dense and rich fiber infrastructure is going to be necessary to be an effective network provider over time. It doesn’t mean there won’t be some segments of the population that would work on an all-wireless portion in a single-dwelling unit household or a robust, wireless LAN inside a managed dwelling unit, but I still think reach and penetration of fiber is going to be important as we move forward.”

When asked how long AT&T could possibly continue to add 2 million fiber buildouts a year, Stankey explained that it was a process and likened it to a baseball game. He feels good about where the carrier is in the “early innings.” As AT&T’s business processes and economics improve, Stankey said he believes the carrier’s broadband numbers will too as it moves into the “middle innings” of the ball game.

“It’s the next 30% to 60% of the customer base that we can work our way through, and you look at the economics around it, it makes sense,” he said. “Then you get into the last third and it’s always the hardest part. And I mean in many instances you’re still sitting with the last third that in parts of the rural America that still really don’t have effective broadband options.”

Despite AT&T’s recent broadband growth, Stankey would not predict when it might reach those final three innings. He did note however that if some sort of major subsidy construct came into place, a better use of taxpayer money might be to do something more hybrid-oriented with the technologies rather than a solution that exclusively leans on fiber in that space.

“But we’re several innings out from that actually coming to pass, and we’ll have time to work through it and right now working in the middle innings of the game and the next 30% of the customer base is where our focus is at,” Stankey said. “And as I shared with you on the previous call, it’s two million this year. The team executes well. We can do more than two million and start to ramp that up.”

Joe Dyton can be reached at joed@fifthgenmedia.com.

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