Unlike the Rest of Wireless, Nextel Had a Fine Quarter

Updated from Feb. 5

Nextel ( NXTL) wants you to know it's not like all the other carriers.

The Craig McCaw brainchild stands alone among its wireless peers because of its focus on midrange business customers. It also has a spectacularly leveraged balance sheet, even by the standards of an industry constantly raising funds to build out wireless networks.

During trading Tuesday, Nextel worked to reinforce another distinction between itself and the wireless pack: In a midday preannouncement, it said it had a fine fourth quarter, and that it doesn't foresee a drop-off in new customer sign ups in 2002.

Amid the turmoil of several negative quarterly reports -- AT&T Wireless ( AWE) excluded -- Nextel, which reports Feb. 21, emphasized that it had enlisted more than the third quarter's 480,000 subscribers, adding 501,000 to its ranks.

Nextel previously projected that it would finish the year with 1.9 million to 2 million new customers, reiterating that guidance in October, and it met the high end of its range. Additionally, Nextel hoped to amass $1.9 billion in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for the full year 2001, and with $540 million in the fourth quarter, the company hit that mark.

Nextel shares have been hammered since the beginning of the year, when preannouncements began rolling in from Sprint PCS ( PCS), Verizon ( VZ), Radio Shack ( RSH) and Cingular indicating that in the fourth quarter of 2001 the rapid expansion of U.S. carrier ranks finally tapered off.

The blue-collar carrier's stock was off 40% for the year by the end of Monday trading, when fast-growing Sprint PCS stunned the market not only with the admission that it had fallen 300,000 subscribers short in its fourth quarter, but also that it was suddenly anticipating a steep 25% drop in additions from 2001 to 2002. Sprint PCS signed up 4 million callers in 2001 and expects 3 million more in 2002.

Much-doubted Nextel believes it can do a little better, and in its Tuesday preannouncement, the carrier said it would add another 2 million subscribers in 2002, holding steady with 2001's gains. Nextel wants to grow EBITDA -- a number the wireless industry prefers to pure earnings because they spend so much on building their networks -- $2.5 billion in 2002, or 32%.

The midday report didn't help Nextel's stock right away, as shares in the network operator closed down 26% to $5.05, outpacing even Sprint PCS' 20% Tuesday slide.

"This is a very good sign for them, when the rest of industry predicting declines," says W.R. Hambrecht's Peter Friedland, of Nextel's plans to keep adding customers at a continuous rate. Friedland thinks of Nextel as a more slow-and-steady carrier when compared with the rocketing growth of Sprint PCS and others. He believes the company's projection of 2 million new subscribers in 2002 is "an achievable number" and he applauds Nextel for hitting its fourth- quarter goals. His firm has no banking relationship with Nextel. "These guys have done what they've said. No one gave them much credit for it in 2001, but they always hit their guidance." Friedland clarified his statement after publication, stressing that, in his opinion, Nextel "consistently" hits its guidance, rather than always does so.

During the quarter, Nextel announced a partnership with Research in Motion ( RIMM) that will have the pager-maker deliver its BlackBerry devices built to work on Nextel's iDEN network. The BlackBerry deal will add a real-time email component to Nextel's catchy walky-talky-style voice service among small and medium-sized business customers.

Additionally, Motorola ( MOT) will provide Nextel's iDEN network with a technology upgrade anticipated in 2003 that will significantly raise the number of calls it can handle.

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