The launch of the iPhone 5 helped AT&T attract more new customers in the holiday quarter than it has in three years, but the company posted a big loss because of an annual adjustment to its pension obligations.
AT&T Inc. on Thursday said it added a net 780,000 new phones and other devices on contract-based plans from October to December, its best result in three years. It activated 8.6 million iPhones in the quarter — a record for any company. AT&T was the first company to introduce the iPhone in 2007, and has more iPhone users than any other U.S. carrier.
AT&T's push to expand its market by getting non-phone devices connected to its network also helped, as nearly half of the new contract devices, or 380,000, were tablets.
However, AT&T remained well behind Verizon Wireless, the country's largest cellphone company. It added 2.2 million devices on contract-based plans to its network in the quarter, extending its lead.
Dallas-based AT&T's quarterly loss was $3.86 billion, or 68 cents per share. That compares with a loss of $6.68 billion, or $1.12 per share, a year earlier, also caused by an adjustment to pension and retiree benefit obligations.
AT&T provides benefits to about 360,000 retirees. Two years ago, it started accounting for its retirement benefit obligations with an annual fourth-quarter adjustment. That produces wild swings in fourth-quarter net income that don't relate to the company's underlying business, but do illustrate its large obligations to retirees.
Excluding the pension adjustment and some of the cost of repairs from Superstorm Sandy, AT&T earned 44 cents per share, 2 cents short of the average analyst estimate as polled by FactSet.
Revenue was $32.6 billion, up a hair from $32.5 billion a year ago. It slightly exceeded analyst estimates of $32.2 billion.
For the full year, AT&T said it was looking at expanding revenue by more than 2 percent and earnings per share by a "high single-digit percentage." The revenue forecast was slightly higher than analysts expected.
AT&T shares fell 2 cents to $33.73 in extended trading, after the release of the results.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that AT&T was considering the possible purchase of a European cellphone company to take advantage of depressed prices and perhaps boost results by bringing U.S. business formulas to the continent. On a conference call with analysts, CEO Randall Stephenson neither supported nor ruled out the idea, but suggested that the company is looking at other types of international ventures, like partnerships and roaming agreements. He also noted that the company is licensing its Digital Life home security and automation technology to European carriers.
For all of 2012, AT&T earned $7.3 billion, up 84 percent from $3.9 billion in 2011. Revenue rose 0.6 percent to $127.4 billion.