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Goodbye FairPoint, New Owner Rebrands as Consolidated Communications

Just shy of 10 years after FairPoint Communications acquired Verizon’s landline properties in the northern New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, both the company and its name are disappearing forever.

Consolidated Communications, which announced it would acquire FairPoint in December 2016, intends to put FairPoint’s name and reputation behind it, and is rebranding the phone company as Consolidated Communications with plans for significant broadband upgrades for its customers.

FairPoint bought the assets of Verizon’s landline network in the three northern New England states in 2007 for $2.4 billion. The transition from Verizon to FairPoint did not go well, and the company stumbled for years trying to keep up with billing and service problems and the need to continually expand broadband service to stay competitive, all while also trying to pay off the debts it incurred in the acquisition. The company failed on all accounts and declared bankruptcy in 2009, eventually emerging with a new business plan in 2011.

FairPoint’s performance post-bankruptcy has relied on cautious spending, cost-cutting measures and benefits cutbacks for its employees, which triggered a 131-day strike in 2014 among FairPoint’s union workforce — the longest walkout of any company that year. Replacement workers sent in to handle service calls and network maintenance were criticized by customers and lacked experience to manage New England’s rough winters.

By early 2016, executives claimed their “turnaround” plan for FairPoint had made significant strides. By that summer, activist shareholders were demanding FairPoint be put up for sale, in part to allow them to quickly recoup their investments in company debt that could not be monetized unless another company acquired FairPoint and assumed those debts.

In late 2016, Consolidated Communications did exactly that, acquiring FairPoint’s assets in northern New England and many other states where it operates small phone companies for $1.5 billion — a significant drop in value for assets that sold for nearly $1 billion more nine years earlier.

Rob Koester, Consolidated Communications vice president for consumer products clearly wants to put FairPoint behind him.

“It is a new beginning,” he said. “It’s a new chapter for us. It’s a re-dedication to our customers.”

Some of the biggest planned changes appear to be more job cuts. Consolidated recently eliminated FairPoint’s state president positions in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont and will depend on regional management instead. The phone company will also once again face negotiations with unions that represent much of its workforce later this year. Most expect the unions will not be friendly to anticipated company efforts to further consolidate and reduce benefits.

Promised broadband upgrades from speed increases come with few details, except a broad commitment to raise speeds for 300,000 internet customers over the course of this year — which represents about 30% of FairPoint customers. Spokeswoman Angelynne Amores claims there will be no price hikes for faster internet speeds.

But Consolidated will also be under the watchful eye of Wall Street, which does not want the company to invest too much in broadband upgrades until shareholders are comfortable with the company’s financial future. There are few business successes in wireline acquisitions and mergers these days, as Frontier Communications can attest from its purchase of Verizon’s network in Florida, California, and Texas.

Any upgrades cannot come soon enough for FairPoint customers forced to endure its DSL service as their only internet access option.

Michael Charter, a FairPoint customer in Jericho, Vt., lives just outside the state’s largest city, Burlington, where there are several internet service providers. But in his part of Jericho, FairPoint is the only broadband provider available, and it does not come close to offering actual broadband speeds.

Charter told the Associated Press his current solution is to buy two DSL accounts from FairPoint and divide up the load from his family’s streaming, internet browsing, downloading and telecommuting across two different accounts. His television and computers share one FairPoint DSL account hooked up to one router while other internet usage is confined to a second router connected to a second account. FairPoint is unable to bond the two connections together to increase speed, so two slow DSL lines is the best option for him for now.

Consolidated isn’t likely to make a lot of money taking over FairPoint’s residential and business landlines or DSL accounts. But it could earn substantial revenue from FairPoint’s extensive fiber network laid across the three northern New England states it serves. Companies and public institutions rely on fiber connectivity, as do cell towers — including the future swarm of 5G small cells expected to eventually be placed across the phone company’s footprint.

The phone company’s biggest rival is Comcast, which has some cable coverage in the region, but large sections of all three states are bypassed by Comcast and Charter Communications, which has a substantial presence in eastern Maine.

Hedge Fund Successfully Pressures FairPoint Communications to Sell Itself

fairpoint greedAn activist group of shareholders led by a hedge fund has successfully pressured executives at FairPoint Communications to sell the company to maximize shareholder value.

The buyer, Illinois-based Consolidated Communications Holdings, Inc., said on Monday it would acquire FairPoint in an all-stock deal worth $1.5 billion, debt included.

The buyout will enrich certain shareholders and hedge funds, including Maglan Capital’s David Tawil and Steven Azarbad, who blasted FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu in a letter sent earlier this summer complaining “shareholders have been extremely patient with the company’s operational turnaround and have suffered because the board has not been vigilant in protecting shareholder value.”

Maglan will cash out its investment initially made after FairPoint went bankrupt, when the share price was below $4. As of 4pm this afternoon, FairPoint stock was trading at $18.85 a share, less than the $23 a share and 75% premium Tawil and Azarbad were hoping for back in August. But they will still walk away earners, selling at around $18 a share plus an additional 17.3% premium. Collectively, the two hedge fund managers control 7.6% of FairPoint’s shares.

consolidated-communications-logoConsolidated Communications will inherit residential FairPoint phone and broadband customers in 17 states, most notably those in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. But press releases from Consolidated showed little interest in the residential telecommunications business. Instead, Consolidated executives are looking at FairPoint’s business and enterprise customers, and the benefits of owning FairPoint’s 17,000 fiber route mile network.

Critics suggest the deal effectively enriches shareholders while putting FairPoint’s existing debt and buyout on the new owner’s credit card. Consolidated will inherit $887 million of FairPoint’s current debt plus the $1.5 billion cost of the acquisition.

The combined company will keep the Consolidated Communications name and FairPoint Communications as a brand will eventually disappear if regulators approve the transaction sometime in 2017.

Consolidated Communications currently serves residential phone customers in:

  • Suburban/Exurban Sacramento, Calif.
  • Fargo, N.D.
  • Mankato, Minn.
  • West Des Moines, Ia.
  • Suburban Kansas City, Kan.
  • Mattoon, Ill.
  • Lufkin, Conroe, and Katy, Tex.
  • Suburban Pittsburgh, Pa.
FairPoint workers on strike in the fall of 2014. (Image: Labor Notes)

FairPoint workers on strike in the fall of 2014. (Image: Labor Notes)

FairPoint customers and state regulators in New England expressed concern about the transaction. After FairPoint acquired landlines formerly owned by Verizon Communications a decade ago, the transition was described as “disastrous” by regulators, who received scores of complaints about service and billing problems before FairPoint ultimately declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, mired in debt.

After emerging from bankruptcy, FairPoint has endured union strikes and was assessed multiple fines for failing to meet service quality standards in Maine.

“The last time these assets were sold to FairPoint it was a disastrous outcome for Maine customers,” says Tim Schneider, Maine’s Public Advocate, who represents consumers on utility matters.

Schneider told Maine Public Radio he is planning to scrutinize the deal to prevent further problems, but customers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are already expressing concern regulators are just as likely to rubber stamp this sale just like the last one, further saddling them with problematic service.

The owners of Maglan Capital are pleased with themselves, tweeting out this is a “December to Remember.”

Hedge Fund to FairPoint: Sell the Company to Maximize Shareholder Value

fairpoint greedAfter years of financial problems, union problems, and service problems, customers of FairPoint Communications in northern New England report the company has stabilized operations and has been gradually improving service. A hedge fund holding 7.5% of FairPoint agrees, and is now pressuring FairPoint’s board of directors to sell the company, allowing shareholders that bought FairPoint stock when it was nearly worthless to cash out at up to $23 a share.

That almost guarantees shareholders a huge profit while likely saddling whoever buys FairPoint with the same kind of sale-related debt that bankrupted FairPoint in 2009.

Maglan Capital’s David Tawil and Steven Azarbad communicated their displeasure to FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu in a letter earlier this summer that complains “shareholders have been extremely patient with the company’s operational turnaround and have suffered because the board has not been vigilant in protecting shareholder value.”

maglan“Not as patient as FairPoint’s own customers that spent several years of hell dealing with Verizon’s sale of its landlines in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine,” said FairPoint customer Sally Jackman, who lives in Maine. “It looks like the hedge funds want their pound of profits from another sale, exactly what FairPoint customers don’t need right now.”

Jackman endured three weeks of outages after FairPoint took over Verizon’s deteriorating landline networks in northern New England. The nearest cable company – Time Warner Cable, is almost 50 miles away, leaving Jackman with FairPoint DSL or no broadband service at all.

“Wall Street doesn’t care, they just want the money,” Jackman added. “They probably assume Frontier will pay a premium for FairPoint and then we can go through the kind of problems customers in Texas and Florida dealt with for over a month.”

The hedge fund managers argue that FairPoint “has made enormous strides” and notes “revenue is stabilizing and growth is coming.”

Maglan is well positioned to cash out with an enormous gain, having been an investor in FairPoint since the phone company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy almost six years ago. The fund held shares when their price dipped below $4. Now, assuming FairPoint will put shareholders first “in ways that other wireline telecom companies do,” investors like Maglan hope to see a sale at a share price of $23, a 75% premium.

“With the company’s labor challenges behind it and with it $700 million of long-term debt removed from FairPoint’s balance-sheet, the time has come for the company to be sold or to be merged into a peer,” the hedge fund managers write.

Tawil (L) and Azarbad (R)

Tawil (L) and Azarbad (R)

Maglan recommends the company be sold to Communications Sales & Leasing, a tax-sheltered Real Estate Investment Trust spun off from Windstream with no current experience running a residential service provider. CS&L primarily provides commercial fiber services for corporations, institutions, and cell phone towers. Shareholders would benefit and CS&L would benefit from diversification, argues Maglan. But the hedge fund has nothing to say about the sale’s impact on FairPoint customers.

Maglan also demanded that while FairPoint explored a sale of the company, it must turn its investments away from its network and operations and start “generating value for shareholders immediately.” Maglan wants FairPoint to turn spending towards a $40 million share repurchase program (to benefit shareholders with a boost in the stock price) and initiate a recurring shareholder dividend payout. To accomplish this, FairPoint will have to designate much of its $23 million of cash on hand and a hefty part of the $52 million of free cash flow anticipated in 2016 directly to shareholders. The company may even need to tap into its revolving credit line if financial results are worse than expected.

Tawil and Azarbad characterize their plan as “well within the range of comfort.”

“It is high-time that the company and the board turn its attention directly to shareholders and, specifically, unlocking shareholder value,” the hedge fund managers add. “We have been a very patient group.”

But perhaps not as patient as they thought. This week, Maglan demanded that FairPoint remove four of its board members — Dennis Austin, Michael Mahoney, David Treadwell and Wayne Wilson, demanding they “immediately tender their resignations” and warned Maglan would push for a special meeting if no action was taken. The reason? Tawil and Azarbad said they did not think the four were “critical to the board in any way.”

“Wall Street has been about as useful as cancer for those of us trying to communicate with the outside world up here,” Jackman said. “I hope all three states get copies of these temper tantrums, because if FairPoint does sell, maybe this time they won’t approve the deal. After all, even the Titanic only sank once.”

FairPoint’s ‘Moosepoop’: Abdicating Its Responsibilities One Customer at a Time

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint's deregulation logic "moosepoop."

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint’s deregulation logic “moosepoop.”

In 2007, Verizon Communications announced it was selling its landline telephone network in Northern New England to FairPoint Communications, a North Carolina-based independent telephone company. Now, nearly a decade (and one bankruptcy) later, FairPoint wants to back out of its commitments.

In 2015, FairPoint stepped up its push for deregulation, writing its own draft legislative bills that would gradually end its obligation to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” which guarantees phone service to any customer that wants it.

The company’s lobbyists produced the self-written LD 1302, introduced last year in Maine with the ironic name: “An Act To Increase Competition and Ensure a Robust Information and Telecommunications Market.” The bill is a gift to FairPoint, allowing it to abdicate responsibilities telephone companies have adhered to for over 100 years:

  • The bill removes the requirement that FairPoint maintain uninterrupted voice service during a power failure, either through battery backup or electric current;
  • Guarantees FairPoint not be required to offer provider of last resort service without its express consent, eliminating Universal Service requirements;
  • Eliminates a requirement FairPoint offer service in any area where another provider also claims coverage of at least 94% of households;
  • Eventually forbids the Public Utilities Commission from requiring contributions to the state Universal Service Fund and forbids the PUC from spending that money to subsidize rural telephone rates.

opinionSuch legislation strips consumers of any assumption they can get affordable, high quality landline service and would allow FairPoint to mothball significant segments of its network (and the customers that depend on it), telling the disconnected to use a cell phone provider instead.

FairPoint claims this is necessary to establish a more level playing ground to compete with other telecom service providers that do not have legacy obligations to fulfill. But that attitude represents “race to the bottom” thinking from a company that fully understood the implications of buying Verizon’s landline networks in a region where some customers were already dropping basic service in favor of their cell phones.

FairPoint apparently still saw value spending $2.4 billion on a network it now seems ready to partly abandon or dismantle. We suspect the “value” FairPoint saw was a comfortable duopoly in urban areas, a monopoly in most rural ones. When it botched the conversion from Verizon to itself, customers fled to the competition, dimming its prospects. The company soon declared bankruptcy reorganization, emerged from it, and is now seeking a legislative/regulatory bailout too. Regulators should say no.

fairpointLast week, even FairPoint’s CEO Paul Sunu appeared to undercut his company’s own arguments for the need of such legislation, just as the company renewed its efforts in Portland to get a new 2016 version of the deregulation bill through the Maine legislature.

“We’ve operated in and we have experience operating basically in duopolies for a long time,” Sunu told investors in last week’s quarterly results conference call. “Cable is a formidable competitor. Look, they offer a nice package and a bundle and they – in certain areas, they certainly have a speed advantage. So we recognize that and so our marketing team does a really good job of making sure that our packages are competitive and we can counter punch on a both aggregate and deconstructive pricing.”

“Our aim is not to be a low cost, per se,” Sununu added. “What we want to do is to make sure that people stay with us because we can provide a better service and a better experience and that’s really what we aim to do. And as a result, we think that we will be able to change the perception that people have of Fairpoint and our brand and be able to keep our customers with us longer.”

Paul H. Sunu

Paul H. Sunu

Of course customers may not have the option to stay if FairPoint gets its deregulation agenda through and are later left unilaterally disconnected. In fact, while Sunu argues FairPoint’s biggest marketing plus is that it can provide better service, its agenda seems to represent the opposite. AARP representatives argued seniors want and need reliable and affordable landline service. FairPoint’s proposal would eliminate assurances that such phone lines will still be there and work even when the power goes out.

At least this year, customers know if they are being targeted. FairPoint is proposing to immediately remove from “provider of last resort service” coverage in Maine from Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Sanford, Brunswick, Scarborough, Saco, Augusta, Westbrook, Windham, Gorham, Waterville, Kennebunk, Standish, Kittery, Brewer, Cape Elizabeth, Old Orchard Beach, Yarmouth, Bath, Freeport and Belfast.

At least 10,000 customers could be affected almost immediately if the bill passes. Customers in those areas would not lose service under the plan, but prices would no longer be set by state regulators and the company could deny new connection requests.

FairPoint argues that customers disappointed by the effects of deregulation can simply switch providers.

fairpoint failure“The market determines the service quality criteria of importance to customers and the service quality levels they find acceptable,” Sarah Davis, the company’s senior director of government affairs, wrote. “To the extent service quality is deficient from the perspective of consumers, the competitive marketplace imposes its own serious penalties.”

Except FairPoint’s own CEO recognizes that marketplace is usually a duopoly, limiting customer options and the penalties to FairPoint.

Those customers still allowed to stay customers may or may not get good service from FairPoint. Another company proposal would make it hard to measure reliability by limiting the authority of state regulators to track and oversee service complaints.

Company critic and customer Mike Kiernan calls FairPoint’s legislative push “moosepoop.”

“FairPoint has been, from the outset, well aware of the issues here in New England, since they had to demonstrate that they were capable of coping with the conditions – market and otherwise – in their takeover bid from Verizon,” Kiernan writes. “Yet now we see where they are crying poverty (a poverty that they brought on themselves) by taking on the state concession that they are trying desperately to get out from under, and as soon as possible.”

Vermont Public Radio reports FairPoint wants to get rid of service quality obligations it has consistently failed to meet as part of a broad push for deregulation. (2:23)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Kiernan argues FairPoint should be replaced with a solution New Englanders have been familiar with for over 200 years – a public co-op. He points to Eastern Maine Electrical Co-Op as an example of a publicly owned utility that works for its customers, not as a “corporate cheerleader.”

Despite lobbying efforts that suggest FairPoint is unnecessarily burdened by the requirements it inherited when it bought Verizon’s operations, FairPoint reported a net profit of $90 million dollars in fiscal 2015.

FairPoint CEO Hints the Company is For Sale; Analysts Suspect Frontier Would Be the Logical Buyer

Phillip Dampier May 13, 2015 Audio, Competition, Consumer News, FairPoint, Frontier 2 Comments

fairpoint4Frontier Communications, just hours after passing its first hurdle  — from the Federal Trade Commission — to go ahead with its proposed $10.54 billion acquisition of Verizon’s wireline assets in California, Florida and Texas, is already being discussed as the most likely buyer of FairPoint Communications, which serves former Verizon customers in the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Wall Street is turning up the pressure on FairPoint to sell its money-losing operation to a larger company that could use economy of scale to rescue a business that has already declared bankruptcy once and lost over $136 million last year. FairPoint also recently settled an ongoing dispute with its unionized workforce which makes the company a more likely takeover target.

FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu put out the for-sale sign during last week’s first quarter earnings conference call, admitting to investors FairPoint is considering mergers and acquisitions as a seller or buyer as part of the company’s overall strategy.

Barry Sine, a telecom analyst with Drexel Hamilton, said the company’s 18,000 mile fiber optic network across the three states it serves is the crown jewel of FairPoint and would be a valuable addition to a larger phone company’s portfolio. FairPoint continues to rapidly lose residential customers as they switch to cellular phones, cable company phone service, or broadband-powered Voice over IP services like Ooma. But FairPoint is picking up customers in the commercial sector, including wireless carriers seeking cell tower backhaul connections, hospitals, and other institutions using FairPoint’s fiber network.

Frontier, headquartered in Stamford, Conn., already has substantial assets in the northeast, including AT&T’s former service area in Connecticut. Picking up northern New England would not be much of a challenge for a company already serving 28 states with more than 17,000 employees and could soon pick up millions of new customers in the south.

Vermont Public Radio reports troubled FairPoint Communications, which serves customers in northern New England originally serviced by Verizon, is likely up for sale and could be acquired by a company like Frontier Communications by 2017. (2:54)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

frontier frankWith Frontier’s attention currently occupied by its latest Verizon transaction, analysts do not expect to see a deal with FairPoint struck before 2017. That could allow Frontier’s rivals — CenturyLink and Windstream to approach FairPoint first. But neither of those two companies have recently been active acquiring new landline service areas.

Many of FairPoint’s largest shareholders purchased defaulted bonds when FairPoint went bankrupt, and hope to rack up a substantial return when FairPoint is sold to a larger company.

Frontier has a better record of working well with unionized workers than FairPoint, so it was no surprise the unions representing FairPoint workers are not upset with the news the company could be sold.

A spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Vermont told Vermont Public Radio the union is aware of speculation about a future sale of the company and would welcome the opportunity to be a partner with “a more successful business” than FairPoint.

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