East Coast Network Coverage: Verizon vs. AT&T

 |  Includes: AAPL, BBRY, T, VZ
by: Andrew Corn

I am an iPhone wannabe-owner. I would keep my Blackberry for work. I love the keyboard, the enterprise security and the personal privacy of two phone numbers. I am also crazy enough to carry two phones. I already carry my iTouch and Berry. It would be pretty much a straight swap from a weight/bulk perspective.

The issue as I have written about before is network coverage on the east coast. AT&T (NYSE: T) just does not have the reach or reliability to service my needs compared to Verizon (NYSE: VZ) who, I might add, could stand to add more towers in Berkshire and Hampden counties.

I own both for myself and for our investors, all four companies in this discussion: T, VZ, AAPL and RIMM. I hold them for different reasons and they are not all in the same strategy. For T and VZ, it is the dividends and that they have lagged the market during the recovery. Telecommunications may come back into vogue and we would be rewarded. For now they are nice low beta stocks in the strategies. Apple and Research In Motion are innovators (OK Apple fans, let this pass, the post is about the carriers) and technology companies. They are not quite the direct competitors the media likes to suggest. Apple is triple the market cap and has multiple product lines. The two companies do share attributes. Both are leaders. Both are dominant within their market segments. For smart phones, both now have their eyes on the others markets. Holding both of them back however are the networks that make them work wirelessly, for calls and data.

Big companies invest in their infrastructure. A major reason to invest in a company is its willingness to invest in the business and for the right projects. Both VZ and T have invested heavily in wireless. It makes sense as that is the faster growing part of their businesses and should lift their multiples. They both are shedding while maintaining legacy businesses (think land lines).

Future growth and earnings is why one pays more for a company than its present earnings and book value. If we did not look forward, all P/Es (price to earnings ratios) would be essentially 1 and PEG (price to earnings to growth) would be nonexistent. The amount and speed of growth is why firms are awarded different multiples. Utilities and most telecommunications firms are slow growers. T and VZ have P/Es around 13-15. These multiples could grow depending upon growth expectations.

As both an investor and a consumer I read with great excitement the WSJ headline: "AT&T to Boost 3G Network in Six Cities." I just could feel that one of the cities had to be NY, Boston or Hartford (places that help me) and grant the northeast some additional network capacity. I was already deciding which iPhone to purchase. Alas, I was sadly disappointed.

AT&T Inc. on Wednesday laid out specific plans for its wireless network upgrade, including promises of faster coverage for six major cities by the end of the year.

The telecommunications company has borne the brunt of criticism over its network connection, highlighted by the heavy use by Apple Inc. iPhone customers.

The company, which has been more vocal recently with its upgrade plans, also said it expects to cover 25 of the nation's largest 30 markets by the end of 2010, and 90% of the existing third-generation, or 3G, footprint by the end of 2011.

In telecommunications lifecycles, this is actually a reasonably fast roll out. It will provide solid infrastructure jobs and benefit many people along the way. But it will not get me my iPhone.

"Although [the network data growth] has created some challenges and operational experience for us that we are having to weather and move our way through, I think these all portend well for the future," said John Stankey, president of AT&T's telecom operations business.

Mr. Stankey said he characterizes the congestion issue as a "two-coast problem," referring to congestion in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. He added that New York is through the worst of its problems, with more severe issues on the West Coast.

"We feel pretty good about where we are at this juncture and as we roll through the end of this year, we think we are going to have most of these issues behind us nationwide," Mr. Stankey said during an analyst presentation.

Seriously, $17 - $18 billion is a lot of cake. However, the demographics of cell use in money centers is well documented. My issues are shared with many other financial services professionals as well as other industries.

Is Apple giving up on the corporate market and ceding it to RIM? Or will the rumors of a deal with Verizon come to fruition? If it does, customer choice will be chosen by coverage and consumers and businesses may benefit by a price war. The capital investments are impressive and also telling of where each firm believes its future subscribers want coverage.

As a consumer I will be voting with my hardware and wireless contract. Which model, which plan are a fun game for the whole family.

As an investor I vote with a block trade. Market participants are curious as to the plans of these firms and where they view the value chain for them and their customers. As more information is released, we are ready to add to our holdings, trim them or sell them completely.

Disclosure: Mr. Corn is Chief Investment Officer – Equities of Beacon Trust Company. Through various equity strategies under his supervision he is currently long AAPL, RIMM, T and VZ.