Why Verizon is losing more cellphone customers

Company reported drop of 289,000 cellphone subscribers

A Verizon wireless store is shown in Del Mar, California June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A Verizon wireless store is shown in Del Mar, California June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

For the first time, the nation’s largest wireless provider is losing customers faster than it can replace them.

It’s a major milestone for Verizon, which on Thursday reported a net decline of 289,000 cellphone subscribers over the past four months.

Even though Verizon usually loses some cellular customers every quarter, it has historically lured enough back to be able to report growth in that part of its business. But recent months have seen hundreds of thousands of customers defect to competitors such as T-Mobile and Sprint, analysts say.

Things could have been even worse if Verizon hadn’t suddenly reintroduced unlimited data plans in February, according to Verizon’s earnings numbers. In the first six weeks of the year, Verizon lost nearly 400,000 wireless customers, according to its latest earnings report.

But once the new plans became available, they helped blunt those losses by bringing in about 110,000 new subscribers, Verizon said.

Verizon’s reluctance to bring back unlimited data and its sudden about-face this year reflect rising competition in the cellular industry that is forcing large incumbents to adapt. The telecom giant long has argued that consumers are willing to pay a premium for a quality wireless experience, in contrast to budget carriers such as Sprint.

But aggressive moves by smaller carriers to build out their networks are paying off, said Roger Entner, an industry analyst with Recon Analytics — meaning that such companies as T-Mobile are chipping away at Verizon’s network advantage. In a recent federal auction of wireless airwaves, T-Mobile emerged as a major beneficiary, spending $8 billion to acquire rights to radio spectrum it will use to expand its mobile internet capacity.

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