NEW YORK — Sprint Nextel Corp., the country’s third largest wireless carrier, on Thursday said it lost $1.3 billion in its fourth quarter, about the same as a year ago, as it revamped its network for a comeback versus bigger competitors.
The company’s focus, and that of its investors, is on its long-term turnaround efforts rather than on short-term results. Sprint is selling 70 percent of itself to Japanese carrier Softbank Corp. for $20 billion. That deal is expected to close this summer, and provide long-ailing Sprint with a much-needed infusion of capital.
With Softbank’s backing, Sprint has struck a deal to buy out the other shareholders of Clearwire Corp., which operates a wireless data network. That should give Sprint more space on the airwaves and allow it to offer high broadband speeds.
The Overland Park, Kan., company lost 44 cents per share in the October to December period versus 43 cents per share in the previous year.
The loss was slightly smaller than analysts had predicted. The average Wall Street forecast as polled by FactSet was 46 cents per share.
Revenue was $9 billion, up 3.2 percent from $8.7 billion a year ago as customers converted from regular phones to higher-paying smartphones. It was slightly above analyst expectations at $8.9 billion.
Sprint activated 2.2 million iPhones in the quarter, a record for the company, reached with the help of the new iPhone 5. The figure is far below those posted by bigger competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless, but helps Sprint keep subscribers. It still lost a net 243,000 customers on contract-based plans in the quarter, as subscribers kept streaming off the Nextel network, which Sprint is shutting down.
Network chief Steve Elfman said the upgrade of the company’s cell towers is on schedule despite the ravages of Superstorm Sandy. The company has lit up “LTE” antennas, which provide higher data speeds, in 58 cities and plans to light up another 170 in coming months. Verizon Wireless and AT&T got started on LTE earlier and have bigger networks up and running.
Sprint shares slipped 7 cents to $5.70 in afternoon trading. The previously volatile shares have been trading in a relatively narrow band between $5.40 and $6 since the Softbank deal was announced in October. The price reflects what Softbank is set to pay.