The Rise and Fall of Sprint, the Forgotten Mobile Carrier Giant

Remember when Sprint was one of the big three mobile carriers? Just 10 to 15 years ago, Sprint had tens of millions of subscribers and pulled in tens of billions in revenue. But by the end of the decade, Sprint was bleeding customers and revenue while T-Mobile was rising from the ashes. This article explores the glory days, key strategies, and missteps that led to Sprint’s demise.

Sprint’s Glory Days

There was a time when Sprint was a dominant player. Along with AT&T and Verizon, they were one of the big three telecom giants with a huge subscriber base and substantial profits. But over the course of a decade, Sprint struggled while T-Mobile executed a successful turnaround. By growing rapidly and presenting themselves as the “Un-carrier,” T-Mobile went from bankruptcy to acquiring Sprint in one of the largest telecom deals ever. At first, there was hope Sprint might survive as a T-Mobile subsidiary, but the Sprint brand was discontinued just months after the $26 billion acquisition.

With Sprint’s help, T-Mobile became the market leader while Sprint was essentially erased. If you go to now, you just get redirected to T-Mobile. So how did Sprint go from industry giant to vanishing in just 10 years?

Sprint’s Humble Beginning

To understand Sprint’s fall, you have to understand their beginnings. Unlike rivals AT&T and Verizon which evolved from monopolies, Sprint grew out of humble roots. The company traces back to 1899 in Abilene, Kansas. A disabled local entrepreneur named Cleyson Brown founded a tiny telephone company to compete against the Bell monopoly. With close community ties but no special resources, Brown Telephone Company succeeded through customer loyalty and connection. This approach was key to Sprint’s early wins as well as T-Mobile’s recent un-carrier movement.

Sprint’s Key Strategies

Sprint carried on Brown’s two key strategies as they grew: first, maintaining strong customer connection and second, consistent mergers and acquisitions. Without access to monopoly infrastructure, Sprint heavily used M&A to expand nationally. Deals with the likes of SPC and Cental Communications gave Sprint the scale needed to play with the big boys. Sprint seemingly solidified their position through another giant merger in 2004.

Sprint + Nextel: The Botched Merger

In 2004, number three carrier Sprint announced a merger with number five Nextel Communications. On paper, combining forces should have created an unstoppable number three carrier. However, successful mergers require compatibility and synergy between entities. Not only did Sprint and Nextel lack compatibility, but their opposing technologies created major integration issues. Efforts to consolidate networks led to widespread service outages which repelled customers.

By 2008, Sprint wrote off nearly $30 billion related to the Nextel blunder which set them back tremendously. With a crippled network and disillusioned clientele, Sprint fell further behind Verizon and AT&T over the botched decade with Nextel.

The Fall of a Giant

Following the Nextel debacle, Sprint found themselves with an inferior network, fairweather customers only there for discounts and an empty wallet. Of course, T-Mobile came back from similarly dark days. But rebounding from Sprint’s position required humility which their ego would not allow. Still seeing themselves as an industry leader, Sprint relied on incentives trying to buy loyalty and market share. But without addressing underlying issues like their network, Sprint merely accumulated deal-hunting switchers with no allegiance.

Combined with doubling down on faults rather than being honest and improving, Sprint strode towards collapse. Before long, acquisition was the only option left, and T-Mobile finally put Sprint down in 2020. Check out how T-Mobile achieved what Sprint could not with the un-carrier strategy.