The direction of technology shares in the market may be hard to plot, but the future of the wireless telecom business is not. Industry participants, ranging from manufacturers to service providers, are poised for long-term growth regardless of what their stock prices may indicate in the interim, telecom analysts say.
For evidence, look at blue-chip telecom company
and its wireless tracking stock
. The stock price was dragged down about 20 points to 45 11/16 by the market's recent mayhem. Then on April 18, it reported that in the first quarter it added 876,000 new customers, an 18% increase over the same period last year.
It also posted average monthly revenue per user, or ARPU, of slightly more than $54, about 30% higher than the industry average. Following the earnings news Tuesday, Sprint PCS shares closed up around 12% at 53 3/8.
Among other wireless operators in the first quarter,
is expected to show strong roaming revenue,
should post higher-than-expected subscriber numbers, and
will begin to show the results of the integration of last year's acquisitions. And as service operators bloom, wireless equipment manufacturers benefit, say telecom analysts for San Jose, Calif.-based
Van Wagoner Capital Management
, of San Francisco. Western Wireless will report its numbers before the market closes on Tuesday; Powertel will report Wednesday morning; and VoiceStream will report May 6.
The Future Is Wireless
"Wireless telecommunications has become increasingly accepted as a necessary part of people's lives in the 21st century," says Mitchell A. Harwood, portfolio manager with
P. Schoenfeld Asset Management
in New York. This means that wireless telecom concerns will benefit from a future that depends on the ability to transmit data and voice traffic to stationary and mobile devices worldwide. "Overall, these companies have strong underlying fundamentals and strong growth rates," Harwood says of manufacturers and service operators.
Western Wireless is expected to see roaming revenue this quarter of $40.9 million, up 27% over the same period last year, according to Art Poole, wireless telecom analyst at
. Poole says he expects Western Wireless' roaming revenue to continue to grow in the near future, with increasing traffic offsetting decreasing rates. Service providers earn roaming revenue when they complete calls for a competitor's customer who travels outside the reach of the competitor's network. Poole sees Western Wireless, without a takeout premium, rising to a fourth-quarter per-share price of 62. The stock last hit that high in early February, but sank to the low 40s early this week during the
plunge. It closed Thursday at 46 15/16.
Powertel, one of the last independent wireless operators to use the global system for mobile communication, or GSM, standard is expected to post a net addition of 75,000 customers in the first quarter, Poole says. That increase in customers will mean higher upfront costs associated with new subscribers and is likely to increase the company's loss on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). If Powertel posts a loss of anything less than $5.9 million, "I'd be pleased," Poole says, adding that he believes the company will do so. Powertel is widely considered an acquisition target by VoiceStream, which also uses the GSM standard and is eager to own a complete nationwide network. Analysts say the stock trades with a premium built in on the expectation of a future deal, and price targets on the stock are generally north of 100. Powertel closed Thursday at 58 7/8.
VoiceStream is the country's No. 3 national mobile-phone operator after Sprint PCS and
is spinning off its wireless unit later this month and Verizon Wireless --
the Bell Atlantic
/Vodafone AirTouch venture -- is expected to do an IPO by year end. The new
wireless venture is also likely to go public).
Voicestream is in the process of integrating last year's
acquisitions, as well as transferring certain mobile operating licenses it received from the deals that it's not qualified to keep. VoiceStream is transferring the licenses to the privately owned corporation,
, in which it owns a significant stake.
"This will be a tough quarter for investors to figure out. There won't be a full picture in
VoiceStream's first-quarter numbers," says Poole of Raymond James. But "
VoiceStream will show itself to be a stellar operator" in the next year-and-a-half, he says. Raymond James hasn't performed underwriting for any of these companies.
Of the wireless companies that have reported so far, says
Van Wagoner Capital Management
analyst William Putnam, most have had "stellar earnings." In particular, Putnam points to
, which beat Wall Street's forecasts. Powerwave posted revenue of $103 million -- 21% ahead of expectations -- and earnings per share of 45 cents, which were 45% above analyst forecasts.
These companies play an integral role in the transition telecom operators are making from voice to high-speed data networks. "Everyone wants to get there," Putnam notes. Van Wagoner is long in both Anaren Microwave and Powerwave Technologies shares.
Firsthand Funds senior portfolio analyst Rex Dwyer includes wireless equipment manufacturer
among his favorites, saying he's confident the company will beat Wall Street estimates in its fiscal-year 2000 fourth-quarter and year-end results, to be reported Wednesday after the market closes. "Long-term, I love this company," says Dwyer. He expects sales and revenue to increase as competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), such as fixed wireless operator
, continue to roll out their services. Dwyer's fund is long Digital Microwave.
It is hard to find a naysayer about the future success of wireless telecommunications. Not every company, obviously, will be an industry winner, but even the severe turmoil in the stock market wasn't able to frighten wireless telecom investors this month. "Over the long term, these are very good companies," says P. Schoenfeld's Harwood. "They've got real products, real demand and a real future."