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Hold The Phone, Investors

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Hold The Phone, Investors
Recent Stock Growth May Make It Appear That The Telecom Sector Has Regained Its Health, But Such A Diagnosis Relies On Many Unknowns

January 2, 2005

By Suzanne King

When Sprint Corp. announced its $35 billion merger with Nextel Communications last month, Dave Anderson's phone started ringing.

“I must have had 20 calls when they announced the merger,” said Anderson, chief investment officer at Gold Trust Co. in Overland Park and manager of the Gold Bank Equity Fund.

People wanted to know, “Should I buy or sell?”

But in the bedraggled telecom sector, there are no easy answers.

After a decade in which the sector crashed to earth from soaring heights — leaving a trail of bankruptcies, layoffs, corporate scandals and sagging stock prices — telecom is beginning to climb up off the ground. As 2004 wound down to the last few trading days, telecom stocks were up almost 20 percent — making the sector look like one of the healthiest places to invest. By comparison, the Dow Jones industrial average had gained only 3.1 percent by early last week.

Looks, however, can be deceiving.

Many analysts are encouraged by the start of a much anticipated industry consolidation. Before Sprint and Nextel announced their merger, Cingular Wireless had acquired AT&T Wireless in a deal that closed last fall.

But analysts said telecom still may not be a safe place for investors looking for a conservative stock.

“There are spots, and there are good companies here and there,” said Zach Wagner of Edward Jones in St. Louis. “But by and large, I think the industry is still going to struggle.”

One chief concern, Wagner said, is where future growth will come from — while many trends are sending telecom sales in the opposite direction.

Companies that offer traditional home telephone services, like SBC Communications and Sprint's local telephone unit, are experiencing slowing sales and an onslaught of competition. And while wireless companies' sales continue to climb, analysts expect their profits to be squeezed as carriers are forced to spend more money to win new customers.

Even from the broadest perspective, telecom doesn't appear to be bubbling upward. As more competitors enter the market, phone calls are just another commodity that customers can easily get from any provider.

Increasingly, customers don't care what company name appears on their phone bill — as long as their phone works.

“There is no difference between dial tones,” Wagner said.

Unlike a few years ago when only one local phone company could provide service, dial tones can now just as easily be provided by startup competitors, Internet companies offering a new type of service or cable companies.

In the face of this increasing competition, there are fewer potential customers out there. Increasingly, people are deciding not to have a home phone at all, preferring instead to rely solely on a cell phone.

Another casualty is the second home phone line. As people adopt high-speed Internet services, such as DSL and cable modems, they no longer need a line devoted to a dial-up connection.

New competition, wireless substitution and the decline in second phone lines have contributed to declining sales for many traditional phone companies.

Where's wireless?

Unfortunately, the apparent bright spot in the telecom sector — wireless — also faces stumbling blocks.

One of them is the challenge of continuing to grow at the fast clip that has marked recent quarters. As more customers subscribe to cell phone service, carriers have to spend money to “poach customers” from their competitors, said Peter Firstbrook, an industry analyst with Meta Group.

Ongoing mergers will help companies “bulk up” so they can lower prices to win customers from competitors, Firstbrook said. But the wireless companies also will have to figure out how to navigate the distractions that are inherent with mergers.

Last year did turn out to be a better year for many telecommunications companies' stocks.

Overland Park-based Sprint, for example, showed a return of almost 51 percent through Dec. 27. In 2003, the company's return was around 33 percent. The company ranks at the top of the American Stock Exchange's telecom index.

Alltel Corp., the company that ranked second in that index, had a return of more than 26 percent through Dec. 27, compared with a return in 2003 of more than 18 percent.

Telecom stocks that performed well in the latter part of 2004 may have been partially spurred on by the apparent beginnings of consolidation.

But the sector also could have been helped by bargain hunters who began trading in stocks that had been beaten down so badly, analysts said. Some of the traditional telephone companies that are facing the longest list of challenges pay shareholders a dividend, which attracts some investors.

What's ahead

In 2005, industry consolidation is expected to continue, which might be seen as an opportunity to investors. But Anderson tells his clients to avoid stocks of companies in the midst of mergers.

“Don't mess with what's in the headlines,” he said. “Mess with things nobody is writing about.”

MCI and AT&T, the long distance companies, for example, might be worth looking at because both are expected to be ripe for a takeover, Anderson said. But better still are cable companies, such as Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp., that are just getting into the phone game, Anderson said.

He and others also advised investors to look away from traditional phone companies to nontraditional companies that are offering new services, such as voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, service.

Companies that offer Voip service include Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T.

While there are few publicly traded companies that provide Voip service exclusively, some industry observers — including Voip pioneer Jeff Pulver — expect initial public offerings in 2005. Pulver said Vonage Holdings Corp., one of the best-known independent players, could be headed toward an IPO.

Packet8, another Voip provider, already has a publicly traded parent. That company is called 8x8 Inc. The company's stock price was down 2.25 percent for the year through Dec. 27.

In addition to the companies that provide service, the telecom sector also includes companies that make and distribute equipment used in telephone networks. The Amex Networking Index ranks Juniper Networks Inc., which provides Internet infrastructure, at the top.

The remaining top five companies in that index are Anixter International Inc., Comverse Technology Inc., Avaya Inc., and Lucent Technologies Inc.

But generally, potential telecom investors may want to look at the industry in less traditional terms. It's not the same old phone companies that will fuel the sector in the future.

“Telecommunications is as important as it ever was, but it's changing,” Jeff Kagan, an industry analyst, said. “It's in the beginning of a five- to 10-year transformation. When we come out of it, we're going to have wireless phones and we're going to have broadband. The network is going to be blended.”

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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See for details.

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