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AT&T Beats Earnings Amid Busy Industry

Mark Vickery

AT&T (T) reported 3rd quarter earnings after the bell Wednesday. That's right -- after the bell, apparently just to shake things up a bit. The seminal telecom firm posted EPS of 66 cents, topping the Zacks Consensus Estimate by a penny. Revenues were in-line with estimates at roughly $32.2 billion in the quarter.

AT&T's U-verse (digital TV, Internet, mobile) revenues, including business, was up 28% year over year. U-verse now constitutes the company's fastest-growing segment. It also reported the addition of 1.2 million new smartphone subscribers over the past year, which now makes up 89% of AT&T's postpaid phone sales -- a new record.

It's been a tough few quarters for AT&T. This is the first positive earnings surprise since Q3 2012. And analysts had been downwardly revising estimates for Q3, Q4, fiscal 2013 and 2014, sending the stock down to a Zacks Rank #4 (Sell). So though it may just be a beat by a penny, Ma Bell investors are likely pretty OK. Shares were up slightly during regular trading (on a relatively weak day for the market overall), and they are inching up in after-hours as well.

But all this earnings talk is really just the tip of the iceberg with regard to AT&T and the telecom industry in general, which has had no shortage of interesting narratives of late. AT&T alone has announced this week it will be the exclusive provider of Nokia's (NOK) new Lumia 1520 smartphone, and will also support Nokia's new tablet offering coming out this holiday season. This follows last weekend's announcement that AT&T is selling $4.85 billion in cell tower assets to Crown Castle (CCI). It remains to be seen what the company plans to do with the new cash on hand, but the total dollar amount might be just enough to cover AT&T's buyout of Leap Wireless (LEAP), first announced this past July.

To say nothing of Verizon (VZ) finally having absorbed full control over its wireless division by buying out European telecom Vodafone (VOD) for a cool $130 billion (!), Sprint (S) being bought by Japan's SoftBank, and AT&T's own failed bid to take over T-Mobile (TMUS) just a couple short years ago. I mean, wow -- pass the popcorn!

AT&T's 5.2% dividend yield is the best on the Dow. It's stock price, while down a bit from its peak last spring, is nonetheless still in range of its multi-year highs. It's nice to see a psotive earnings surprise for a change, but it seems like the real surprises for this company -- and this industry -- are still to come.

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