Positive Signs and Positive Cashflow from One Telco

Jeff Gardner, President and CEO of Windstream Communications, opened his keynote speech at U.S. Telecom’s Executive Business Forum with a note of appreciation to US Telecom for getting behind what he termed, “credit stabilization legislation.” These opening comments set the theme for his talk, which was primarily about the financial condition of his company. In doing so, he provided insight into Windstream’s thoughts on the basic business, but also on topics such as wireless and IPTV.

Gardner spoke of the transformation of Windstream Communications from a telephony-based to a broadband-centric company. As proof points, he cited metrics that showed growth in broadband customers from 81k to 934k from 2002 to present. Revenues have increased from $3.1 to $3.21 billion in that same period, which is remarkable given the ongoing voice line loss of approximately 5% per year.

Windstream was born out of a merger of Alltel’s wireline properties together with those of VALOR Communications and instantly became a top-ten telco. It is primarily a rural and suburban carrier with about 20 access lines per mile. Still, they are facing strong competition, particularly in their suburban areas, as evidenced by the fact that 50 to 55% of their markets have voice competitors and 80% of their markets have broadband competitors.

Despite this, OIBDA (Operating Income Before Depreciation and Amortization) is at 53% and Gardner indicated that the dividend was safe and, at the time of his speech, was yielding 9%. He indicated that only 15% of Windstream’s revenue results from regulation (e.g. High Cost Fund, Switched Access, etc.).

Gardner said that there are multiple secrets to Windstream’s success, including aggressive marketing at the local level. Windstream staffs at the local level and targets its marketing efforts to particular markets, as opposed to one-size-fits-all, national programs.

They are expanding distribution channels as well and are finding success in marketing to MDUs – some of Windstream’s college towns have 30 to 40% of their residences located in MDUs. Approximately 10% of their sales are coming from retail channels. Gardner suggested that they are making big investments in their save desk; they have saved some 50% of customers who were about to defect to a competitor.

He spoke of the importance of offering products that customers want. As an example, they created an offering called Greenstreak; which is targeted at those people who are wireless-only customers. Greenstreak is a broadband product which provides a metered voice line (primarily for emergencies). They have not seen cannibalization of revenue from higher priced tiers as they have carefully targeted this offering.

One of the offerings Windstream won’t be providing anytime soon is wireless, especially as an MVNO. Gardner, who has 20+ years of wireless experience, said that Windstream could not see a path to profitability for a wireless offering. He said it was very difficult, if not impossible, for a rural telco to be competitive in the wireless space.

He had similar thoughts about building out a traditional IPTV infrastructure and IPTV does not appear to be in their video plans in the near-term. With that in mind, he is very pleased with the performance of their digital video offering via their partnership with Echostar/DishTV and called it a long-term strategy. He said that they are paid in the millions of dollars per quarter in upfront commissions, plus ongoing fee for billing and collections for their 231k video subscribers.

When asked who owns the customer, he admitted that, at this point, the customer is pretty much DishTV’s. He hinted that this could change as the rollout of a hybrid satellite/on-demand via broadband offering (expected in Q1 2009) will allow much more customization of the product for Windstream.

This is consistent with their focus on enhancing the broadband experience of their customers. Approximately 85% of their customers can receive their 3 Mbs tier, 40% can receive 6 Mbs and 22 to 25% can receive 12 Mbs. To increase the value of this bandwidth, Windstream has is either offering or planning to offer services such as tech help, home network VOD and security services.

He suggested that one way to monetize its broadband infrastructure is through, “Consumer preference advertising.” This is the type of targeted advertising that has been at the center of controversy in Washington. Gardner pointed out that the industry has to figure out how to add this revenue stream to their portfolio. He believes that targeted advertising ultimately provides a better experience for the consumer, as they will receive advertisements they want to see and implied that the new advertising revenue streams will effectively subsidize consumers’ broadband subscriptions.

Finally, Gardner suggested that Windstream is well positioned for further merger and acquisitions with other telcos. He warned that the ability to enter into such transactions will be slowed somewhat by the credit markets and to not expect anything for 12 to 24 months.
 

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