Updated from 12:54 p.m. with additional information.
Verizon (VZ) will give the first earnings report from a tough, competitive first quarter in telecom before the market opens on Thursday.
During the quarter, Verizon reluctantly launched an unlimited wireless service, announced the ill-received rebranding of its digital businesses under the Oath brand and opted not to acquire spectrum licenses in a government auction.
Wall Street expects the telecom to report 99 cents in non-GAAP earnings per share on $30.68 billion in total revenue, according to FactSet. On Wednesday, shares of Verizon closed down nearly 0.6% to $48.94. Year to date, shares are down 8.3%, compared to an increase of nearly 5% for the S&P 500.
CEO Lowell McAdam's recent comments that Verizon is amenable to a deal with Comcast (CMCSA) , Disney (CBS) or CBS (CBS) could overshadow some investor questions about first-quarter performance. Wall Street was already curious about Verizon's M&A ambitions as the FCC quiet period limiting talks between some companies lifts.
A merger of Verizon and a major video producer such as NBC parent Comcast, alongside AT&T's (T) pending purchase of Time Warner (TWX) , could push the telecom and Internet industries to new levels of competition, Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar suggested in a Wednesday note.
Three to four telecoms now vie against companies such as Facebook (FB) , Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google and Amazon (AMZN) , which have powerful internet platforms but do not own infrastructure, Venkateshwar noted.
The two types of companies "are likely to use video as a way to attract subscribers into their respective ecosystems and then cross sell other products in order to monetize their platforms," the analyst wrote. The telecoms would have bundles of "wireless and wireline broadband, video, home security" while a competitor like Amazon would package "free shipping, music, echo, video, etc."
It's worth noting that competition in the first quarter was already tough enough to push Verizon into offering unlimited wireless plans, at which the carrier had previously balked. "Verizon's move back to unlimited appears to have been largely defensive, but it was backed with an aggressive marketing blitz ('Unlimited gets the network it deserves'), and intra-quarter data suggests that it drove a sharp, if temporary, rebound in Verizon's volumes," Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson LLC wrote in a first-quarter earnings preview.
As Verizon moves to close the purchase of Yahoo! (YHOO) , the telecom announced that it will rebrand its digital media properties under the name Oath -- perhaps to instill confidence in investors and subscribers rattled by the epic hacks of Yahoo! in recent years. Oath will be an umbrella brand for the digital portfolio, and Yahoo!, AOL and other specific brands will keep their existing names.
Verizon did not acquire any spectrum licenses in a government auction that ended in the first quarter. For more than a year, the government has restricted talks among auction participants such as Verizon, AT&T (T) , Comcast, Dish Network (DISH) and T-Mobile USA (TMUS) , to prevent collusion on bids. The restrictions lift on April 27, opening the door for M&A talks to begin.
Separately, speculation has mounted that Verizon might challenge AT&T's $1.6 billion bid for wireless spectrum holding company Straight Path (STRP) . An unnamed suitor reached out to Straight Path and its bankers about a rival bid, Straight Path disclosed in an SEC filing. Reuters reported that Verizon is the mystery suitor.
AT&T said that Straight Path's spectrum is well suited for 5G networks, the next generation of wireless services. The buyer touted the spectrum's ability to handle transmitted video and connecting cars, city infrastructure and other devices that are part of the Internet of Things.
Verizon has been eager to launch 5G services, and announced a series of tests earlier this year. Straight Path's spectrum could be more appealing to Verizon than the licenses the government sold.
Even if Verizon does not challenge AT&T's bid for Straight Path, expect talk about 5G wireless services in the telecom's call Thursday morning.