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AT&T CEO talks customers paying their bills, new Apple iPhones, and life after Time Warner

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AT&T CEO John Stankey no longer has to deal with the Time Warner media business, but he still has a ton on his plate.

The executive’s agenda touches upon a wide range of issues, from investing billions in 5G infrastructure to watching early demand for Apple iPhone 14. Yet, it’s Stankey’s observations on whether consumers are paying their phone bills on time that have gripped the attention of investors in recent weeks.

“We haven’t seen any changes on the trend,” Stankey told Yahoo Finance Live at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia + Technology Conference on Monday (video above). “It hasn’t deteriorated any further, and frankly, we wouldn’t expect it to.”

On July 21, the telecom giant’s stock fell 7% after the company revealed in its second-quarter earnings that customers were paying their bills about two days later compared to trends seen in the previous year. That in turn caused AT&T to reduce its full-year free cash flow guidance by $2 billion.

Investors read the report as a signal that AT&T would be slower to reduce its elevated debt position and bring back a more bountiful dividend after cutting it in half in February, among other takeaways.

“I would say that a lot of this impact has been the segments of the economy and consumers that maybe are a little more strapped and living paycheck to paycheck,” Stankey said, stopping short of saying the economy is in a recession.

Stankey also noted that the challenging economic backdrop hasn’t dampened demand for Apple iPhones. So far, he said, preorders for the new iPhone 14 line have come in line with expectations.

“Certainly, there’s been a lot of activity,” he said. “It’s been consistent with what we would have expected. There’s always a lot of interest at the front end of an Apple launch.”

Stankey added that, overall, he is happy with the progress the business has been making. A year ago, the CEO voiced dissatisfaction at the same Goldman Sachs conference.

AT&T CEO John Stankey speaks at a panel on September 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York)

Much has changed over the past year for the telecom giant, including the completion of a merger between Warner Media and Discovery in April. Stankey explained that the spin-off improved AT&T’s balance sheet and helped the company directionally.

“I felt focus was really important, and I didn’t think I could do my best work or the broader management team could do their best work if we were trying to fight too many battles on too many fronts,” Stankey reflected on the deal. “I think we are more focused company today. I think we’re executing each week better than we were the week before.”

He emphasized that the company is “in a better place” this time.

“We’ve got the best fixed-broadband product in the market,” he said. “Customers tell us that in high net promoter scores. We’ve been showing great volumes and taking market share, and we feel really good about that. We’ve seen improved sentiment in the wireless business as well. So strong recovery in that regard, and we’re closing the gap to our competitors. And I feel frankly, we’re in a really good position. So I like the momentum and the progress. We still got some work to do, as always, but really good progress.”

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and anchor at Yahoo Finance. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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