Sprint: Back in the Game?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Sprint ( S) is on the verge of breaking an amazing streak.

Next week, the No. 3 wireless shop, which has lost 5.6 million subscribers in the past three years, could end the awful slide and report that it added contract customers for the first time since 2007.

Not only would a reversal of customer losses be transformative for Sprint, it would also add a real comer to a heated two-player market.

Analysts' consensus estimates for net new so-called post-paid or contract customers call for AT&T ( T) to add 750,000 users, Verizon ( VZ) to add 600,000 and for Sprint to lose 150,000 subscribers.

But the buzz around Wall Street is that Sprint has a winning quarter on its hands thanks to smartphones.

Sprint's potential resurgence comes at a time when consumers are being dazzled by a broad new selection of super phones. And the push by Sprint into a WiMax version of 4G network communications arrives as the rest of the industry enters a whole separate LTE version of fourth-generation wireless technology.

If the turnaround happens, it will mark the end of what had been a stunning achievement by Sprint -- sliding for so long despite all the huge developments in the sector. Sprint hasn't exactly been operating in a busted industry like autos or banking. The past three years have been historic in wireless.

Who hasn't seen the sweep of this so-called mobile Internet tsunami, when seemingly everyone is lining up to turn in their old dumb phones for the chance to fork over $200 in cash and commit to 2-year contracts just to own the hottest new smartphones?

The nation's no. 1 and no. 2 wireless shops, Verizon and AT&T, get all the attention. It's the big dual, Verizon and its Google ( GOOG) Android war against the AT&T/ Apple ( AAPL) iPhone supremacy. Sprint is an afterthought.

If Verizon and AT&T are Coke ( COKE) and Pepsi ( PEP), Sprint is RC.

Sprint earned its status the hard way.

Customers have been leaving Sprint at an alarming rate since 2007. In that time, Sprint has lost 10% of its subscribers, going from 53.8 million customers at the end of 2007 to 48.2 million as of June. A big part of the defection came from the botched merger with Nextel. Customers grew weary of the neglected walkie-talkie network and took their business elsewhere.

But Sprint has made a few moves to try and rebuild from the damage. Sprint has seen a bump from its prepaid service, Boost. The pay-as-you-go phone service helped push Sprint's total user number up last quarter for the first time in years. Sprint launched a $100 unlimited text, data and voice plan that has made it one of the lowest-priced players.

Sprint has also pushed a 4G wireless network using WiMax in several cities with plans for broader expansion. This tech mover advantage has been augmented by a hot-selling HTC EVO phone that runs on Google Android.

Whatever gains Sprint has made is expected to have come from no. 4 U.S. wireless shop T-Mobile, a division of Deutsche Telekom ( DT). With the new iPhone juicing sales at AT&T and the Droid success at Verizon, the subscriber growth rates at the top two shops is expected to be healthy.

Many analysts don't have a big subscriber turnaround in their estimates. In the June quarter, for example, Sprint lost 228,000 post-paid. But there's a growing hunch among some investors and analysts that a boom in 4G Android phone sales may have turned a corner for Sprint.

The real proof that Sprint has ended its astounding slide will come October 27, when the company reports third quarter results.

--Written by Scott Moritz in New York.

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