AT&T Inc T
Q4 2011 Earnings Call Transcript

Transcript Call Date 01/26/2012

Now, hope I’m wrong, but it appears the FCC is intent on picking winners and losers rather than letting these markets work. A lot of recent comments and speeches by certain members of this FCC suggests that they and not Congress should decide how spectrum auctions are conducted including who can participate and what the conditions should be for participating.

Meanwhile, we pile more and more regulatory uncertainty on top of an industry that is the foundation for a lot of today's innovation, making it difficult for all of us to allocate and commit capital. In this industry, we all know capital investment equals jobs. So the end result of this is we have an industry that is just really stuck in terms of creating real capacity.

We will certainly do our part as we move forward to provide leadership on these issues, but it’s also clearly time for Congress and the FCC to step up, and in the interim, this environment has a lot of clear implications for our business and these are in three different areas. First, while our current overall spectrum position is competitive, we've led the way in mobile data. Therefore, our utilization rates are running very high and demand continues to accelerate. So, we'll continue to do a number of things.

In a capacity constrained environment, usage-based data plans, increased pricing, managing the speeds of the highest volume users, these are all logical and necessary steps to manage utilization.

LTE deployment is also going to play a role. We ended 2011 with 74 million LTE POPs covered and we will accelerate that pace considerably in 2012 setting us up to complete our deployment to 80% of the U.S. population in 2013, and LTE does give us a 30% to 40% lift in network efficiency, but at current growth rates that equates to only about a year’s increase in traffic. So, while LTE is important, it's not the silver bullet in terms of capacity planning. What that means is to meet customer demand we have to continue our push to add spectrum in the open market. You'll see us being active there. And we will continue to advocate for more open auctions, as soon as possible.

Then second in this environment, we will accelerate our efforts to improve our overall growth profile, and we'll do that by looking at opportunities to either divest or restructure low performing and nonstrategic assets. You've seen us do this for the last year or two with our Sterling Commerce sale and the restructure of our Telmex Holdings, and you'll see more of these actions over the next 24 months.

Third, given the economic and regulatory situation, it makes sense for us to begin to resume our share repurchase plan. We currently have a $300 million share authorization. That's about 5% of our shares outstanding, and we'll begin to execute on that immediately. As we go through the year, our Board will likely evaluate further actions.

So, our cash flow is strong, the balance sheet is rock solid, we've reduced total debt by $6.5 billion in the fourth quarter alone, and this gives us a lot of flexibility and a lot of capacity to return value to our owners.

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