Despite its big “Framily” push, Sprint continues to bleed customers

In January, Sprint launched a major new campaign to lure in new mobile subscribers and keep old ones loyal, but the potential benefits of its “Framily” program didn’t show up in its first quarter results. The company shed nearly 400,000 subscribers as it struggles to get its LTE network rolled out nationwide and faces off against mega-carriers AT&T(s t) and Verizon(s vz) as well as a newly resurgent T-Mobile(s tmus).
Sprint lost a net total of 231,000 postpaid subscribers (which includes contract and non-contract subscribers who aren’t on a pay-as-you-go plans) and 364,000 prepaid subscribers. The bright spot was a gain in 212,000 wholesale subscribers, reflecting Sprint’s growing business in connecting mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) like Tracfone(s amx), FreedomPop, Ting and Republic Wireless. The revenue it brings in from an MVNO subscriber, however, is a fraction of what it sees from a customer who buys mobile service directly from Sprint.
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Sprint executives blamed the subscriber loss on the tumult created by its ongoing network overhaul. Sprint isn’t just trying to bring its LTE network coverage on par with its competitors, but it’s also rebuilding its 2G and 3G CDMA networks from scratch. Service disruptions caused by that upgrade work are causing disgruntled customers to leave, Sprint said.
Still, there are some glimmers of light at the end of this tunnel. Sprint’s LTE network now reaches 225 million people in 443 cities, so it’s within spitting distance of its mid-year goal of 250 million people covered. And while Framily didn’t stem customer losses this quarter, nearly 3 million subscribers signed up for the new friends and family plan last quarter. That’s significant but those customers are not only more likely to stick with Sprint in the future, but they’re likely to recruit new subscribers into the Sprint fold.
Framily’s incentive structure offers an increasing discount as more people join a particular plan. Since Sprint will bill each subscriber separately, Sprint can use Framily to target customers outside of a traditional family plan. These customers aren’t on contract, so they’re free to leave when they pay off their phone, but they’ll lose their accrued discounts. So if a “Framily” loses members it has a lot of incentive to replace them. At a separate event Tuesday, Sprint attempted to amplify the benefits of Framily by offering members discounts on Spotify’s subscription music streaming service.

Tom Frobinson, the hamster patriarch staring in Sprint's new Framily ad campaign (source: Sprint)

Tom Frobinson, the hamster patriarch staring in Sprint’s new Framily ad campaign (source: Sprint)

Sprint now has 54.9 million total subscribers, making it half the size of AT&T and Verizon. It reported a first quarter net loss of $151 million, compared to a $643 million loss in Q1 of 2013, off of revenue of $8.88 billion.