How Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and more stacked up in Q3 2015: The top 8 carriers

The third-quarter earnings season is coming to a close, so now it's time to see how the nation's top wireless carriers stacked up against each other in terms of key metrics.

In this report you will find a ranking of the of the top eight U.S. wireless carriers in the third quarter of 2015 by subscriber base, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. You'll also find charts of other major metrics -- such as churn, ARPU and revenue -- of each carrier.

Below that, Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson provides several slides that offer an in-depth look at how Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T), T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and Sprint (NYSE: S) each performed in the third quarter of 2015. Dawson's research dives into prepaid vs. postpaid performance, subscriber acquisitions vs. losses, and more.

So what are you waiting for? Dig in!

Top US Wireless Carrier Metrics Q3 2015 (ranking by subscribers, retail + wholesale)
sdf

  Carrier Subscribers (millions) Net Adds (millions) Postpaid Smart
phone Net Adds (mil)
Churn                  (Avg Monthly) ARPU
1
Verizon Wireless*
137.553 2.109 0.694 1.21%  $50.74
2
AT&T
126.406 2.513 0.100 1.33%  $40.19
3
T-Mobile US
61.220 2.312 0.725 2.41%  $43.45
4
Sprint**
58.129 0.903 0.426 2.76%  $45.04
5
US Cellular
4.807 0.028 0.131 1.77%  $55.42
6
C Spire***
n/a        
7
Shentel
0.449 0.007 0.006 2.48%  $48.21
8
Ntelos
0.344 -0.035 -0.014 5.61%  $46.33
Subscribers include retail and wholesale connections of both traditional and new connected device categories (e.g. M2M)
*Verizon Wireless subscribers include Strategy Analytics' estimates for wholesale and connected device volumes
**Sprint subscribers and net adds excluding affiliate subscribers, but including wholesale; service revenues excluding wholesale and affiliate
***C-Spire is a private company and does not reveal its metrics, estimated to have c. 1.0 million subscribers
Source: Strategy Analytics, based on carrier reports

This list does not include resellers or MVNOs such as TracFone Wireless. (To see how TracFone did in the third quarter, click here.) And don't forget to see how these figures stack up against the third quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2015. You also might want to check out our wrap-up of the wireless industry in the third quarter of 2015.

Strategy Analytics also provides a look at historic trends in the wireless industry in several key metrics:

And beyond these standard metrics, Dawson provides a deeper look. Thanks to a partnership between Dawson and FierceWireless, we're publishing these slides exclusively for a short time. These slides are part of a larger report Dawson has assembled on the third quarter. Dawson's quarterly slide deck, with about 40 charts, is available as part of a subscription service. In addition, he provides the underlying data behind the charts along with his analysis in custom presentations to certain clients, including carriers and device vendors. Dawson can be reached at jan@jackdawresearch.com or (408) 744-6244.

Check out Dawson's third quarter slides and commentary below, and let us know what you think in the comments!

Postpaid phone net adds are slowing

Postpaid phones have always been the mainstay of the U.S. mobile market, but growth in this category is really starting to slow. Of course, that doesn't mean that all carriers are seeing the same trend, as you can see below:

Sprint actually had its first quarter of positive phone net adds in several years, something it's been building up to ever since it managed to turn the trend around just over a year ago. It's a testament to Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure's leadership that Sprint has finally managed to get phone growth going again after so many quarters of losses. However, Sprint is the only carrier which saw higher phone net adds in Q3 2015 than in Q3 2014. Every other carrier saw a decline in phone net adds, and the trend is particularly striking at AT&T, which has now lost phone subscribers for four quarters straight. In fact, AT&T has lost phone subs for six of the last eight quarters. Even T-Mobile, which has had the strongest postpaid phone net adds in the industry for five quarters now, saw slower growth this quarter than the same quarter last year, the first time that's happened in quite a while for this carrier.

Smartphone sales are slowing too

Within postpaid phones, there's been a dramatic shift over the last several years from feature phones to smartphones. Some 86% of postpaid phones on the four major networks are now smartphones. But the number of smartphones sold in Q3 2015 was very similar to the number sold a year ago during the same period, after many quarters of fairly strong year-on-year growth:

Next quarter will be the one-year anniversary of the biggest quarter for smartphone sales the U.S. mobile market has ever seen, and as such I think it's very likely we'll actually see the first year-on-year decline in smartphone sales in Q4 2015. Here, too, the trend isn't consistent across carriers -- Sprint and T-Mobile have grown their postpaid smartphone sales year-on-year, while Verizon's sales have stagnated, and AT&T's have actually fallen year-on-year. AT&T in particular seems to be easing off on the pressure for customers to upgrade their phones, and has seen lower upgrade rates this year than last along with lower smartphone sales. 

Postpaid smartphones hit 50% of devices on the big networks

Even as smartphone sales slow, postpaid smartphones hit an interesting milestone this quarter -- at the end of September, they made up 50% of the reported connections on the big four mobile networks in the U.S.:

Interestingly, this has been happening even as total postpaid phones have been falling steadily as a percentage of total devices on these networks, from around 65% two years ago to just 58% at the end of September 2015. The main reason is that two other categories -- tablets and especially connected devices (including connected cars and M2M connections) -- have been growing substantially faster than phone subscribers have been. Taken together, postpaid and prepaid smartphones make up around two-thirds of the reported devices on these networks.

Revenue growth in the industry is slowing

So far we've focused on the big four network operators, but this last chart also wraps in the fourth largest operator, MVNO TracFone. When you look at year-on-year growth for the wireless revenues of these five companies, it's clear that this growth is slowing significantly:

These companies added just $1.2 billion in revenue year-on-year in Q3, down from almost twice that in the previous two quarters and a run rate much closer to $3 billion for several quarters before that. Why is this? Well, it's a combination of factors, including the slowing growth in phones growth we saw earlier, aggressive price competition squeezing ARPUs for some carriers, and so on. But the biggest single reason is that the core, traditional part of the mobile market in the U.S. is getting pretty close to saturation. Yes, there are still growth drivers -- connected devices being one of the strongest -- but these aren't driving anything like the growth we've seen historically.

Click here for Dawson's slides from the second quarter of 2015.

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