Sprint Corp. (FON) said Thursday that fourth-quarter earnings almost quadrupled on a record quarterly increase in wireless customers.

The company posted fourth quarter net earnings of $437 million, or 29 cents a share, up from $110 million, or 7 cents a share, in the year-ago period.

Without special one-time items included, adjusted earnings per share were 31 cents, compared with 17 cents in the year-ago period. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call had predicted earnings of 32 cents a share.

Sprint's shares fell 21 cents to $24.27 on the New York Stock Exchange (search).

The quarterly results were the first since December's announcement that Overland Park-based Sprint is acquiring Nextel Communications Inc. (NXTL), based in Reston, Va., for $35 billion in stock and cash.

Sprint's revenue for the quarter increased 4 percent to $6.93 billion as the company said it added a record 1.58 million wireless customers, including 526,000 from its Sprint PCS unit, 923,000 from wholesale and 133,000 through affiliated partners. That brought its total wireless customers at the end of 2004 to 24.8 million, up 22 percent for the year.

"At the onset of 2004, we described our intent to transform our business to focus on the distinctive needs of business and consumers, as well as outlined growth and expense reduction goals," Gary Forsee, Sprint's chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. "We exit the year in full stride in delivering solid operational and financial performance. This execution has led to substantial value creation for our shareholders and set a foundation that is expected to benefit our customers and investors in the year ahead."

For the full year, Sprint posted a loss of $1.01 billion, attributed to a $3.5 billion write-down taken in the third quarter on the value of its long-distance assets. That compared to earnings of $1.29 billion in 2003.

Net operating revenues last year rose 4.7 percent to $27.4 billion, up from $26.2 billion, and there was an operating loss of $303 million, compared to an operating gain of just over $1 billion in the prior year.

Sprint repeated guidance given in December on its expectations for 2005, which included unspecified but "low" single-digit revenue growth. The company also reiterated it expects earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization to range between $8.5 and $8.7 billion, which compares to the 2004 total of $8.13 billion.

Also, the company repeated that it expects capital spending this year to total between $4 billion and $4.2 billion.

Sprint said in December that its guidance did not consider the impact of the Nextel merger, which is expected to close in the second half of 2005, and the proposed spin-off of its local telephone business. The company will provide more detailed information on its expectations for the year next Thursday.

Jeff Kagan, an independent analyst from Atlanta who follows the telecom industry, said the Sprint results were in line with his expectations.

"Sprint is on a good growth track in wireless," he said. "The long-distance dollars are down. It's still a sizable revenue stream, but it's shrinking.

"Wireless is growing by leaps and bounds," he said, adding that the combination with Nextel will provide a "faster growth curve and bigger footprint."