- Associated Press - Thursday, April 28, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Sprint Nextel Corp. on Thursday said it added more wireless subscribers in the first quarter than it has in five years, mainly on cheap service plans.

Verizon Wireless‘ launch of the iPhone appeared to have an impact on the number of new subscribers on contract-based plans, which are the most lucrative. Sprint lost a net 114,000 subscribers on those plans.

Sprint has been posting net losses of contract-based subscribers for years, but has been turning things around, and eked out a small increase in the holiday quarter.

The Verizon iPhone may be threatening that turnaround, but not yet in a serious way. Though people weighing between Sprint and Verizon may have been tipped toward Verizon by the new iPhone, people who were already Sprint subscribers showed no inclination to abandon their contracts and move to Verizon.

The effect of the Verizon iPhone on the results of AT&T Inc., a rival that reported first-quarter results last week, were similar.

In total, Sprint added a net 1.1 million subscribers in the January to March period, ending with 51 million. It’s the third-largest carrier, behind AT&T and Verizon Wireless. It says it’s threatened by AT&T’s deal to buy T-Mobile USA, the fourth-largest carrier, which would leave Sprint even further behind the top two.

Sprint reported a net loss of $439 million, or 15 cents per share, for the three months ended March 31. That’s down from a net loss of $865 million, or 29 cents per share, a year ago.

Revenue rose 3 percent to $8.3 billion from $8.1 billion a year ago.

Analysts had expected a larger loss of 22 cents a share on lower revenue of $8.2 billion.

Sprint shares rose 22 cents, or 4.6 percent, to $5.01 in pre-market trading.