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Charter Spectrum’s “False Ads” Cost Windstream $3-5 Million in Profits, Expert Witness Testifies

Windstream Communications lost between $3.2-5.1 million in lost profits because of a 2019 false advertising campaign run by Charter Communications in areas where the two companies compete for internet customers, claimed an expert witness in a court hearing to determine the damages Charter must pay.

In December, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain issued a summary judgment finding Charter responsible for sending out misleading advertising fliers that violated the federal Lanham Act and false advertising laws in place in some states.

“Shortly after Windstream filed for Chapter 11 protection, Charter commenced a false and misleading advertising campaign designed to cause irreparable injury and damage to Windstream’s reputation and business,” the original lawsuit filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York stated. “Charter targeted Windstream customers in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Nebraska, and North Carolina, which are several of Windstream’s top performing states.”

“On the envelopes for the advertisement, Charter intentionally utilized Windstream’s trademark and signature color pattern to mislead Windstream customers into believing that the advertisement came directly from Windstream. Indeed, Charter’s advertisement stated that it was ‘Important Information Enclosed for Windstream Customers.’”

The offending Charter flier seems to suggest Windstream is going out of business.

A later investigation found Charter sent at least 800,000 mailers to customers in service areas where Windstream competes with Spectrum.

Jeffrey Auman, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Windstream Communications, told the court last week the false ads directly harmed Windstream’s reputation with its customers, with some left believing the phone company was ceasing operations because of its bankruptcy filing. Auman argued it was fair for Charter to pay damages covering Windstream’s legal expenses to file the lawsuit and cover its advertising and promotional expenses incurred to rebut the ads and retain customers.

A company-provided expert witness testified Windstream lost customers and between $3.2 and $5.1 million in lost profits. Spectrum’s ad campaign also created long term negative “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” about Windstream’s health and ability to service customers. The witness claimed Spectrum’s fliers ended a “growth streak” for the phone company and has caused new customer projections to fall behind.

“It was a big deal with us,” Aubrey testified. “Word of mouth in these small communities means a lot.”

Windstream told Judge Drain the company has spent more than $4.3 million on service credits, promotional retention discounts, and cost-free upgrades to keep customers happy.

Charter has countered Windstream’s customer losses come from its inferior technology, which makes Windstream’s speeds slower and less competitive. Spectrum has upgraded internet customers in the midwest and parts of the southern U.S. to up to 200 Mbps for its Standard internet plan, which is much faster than what Windstream offers many of its DSL internet customers.

Wall Street Hates CenturyLink’s Dividend Cut; Company Punished for Upgrade Spending

CenturyLink’s stock is being pummeled after the company announced a cut in divided payouts to shareholders earlier this year, preferring to keep the money in-house to reduce debt and increase spending on necessary broadband upgrades.

Last fall, CenturyLink stock was trading for over $23 a share. By January, rumors that CenturyLink was going to cut its dividend put the stock on a downward trajectory, falling to an all-time-low below $11 this month. Company officials argued that with tightening credit opportunities and increasing interest rates, the company needed to devote money normally paid back to shareholders towards paying down its $35.5 billion long-term debt and provide better service to its customers.

A half billion dollars of that money will also be spent on upgrading CenturyLink’s broadband service, particularly in rural areas where the company is receiving Connect America Fund (CAF) dollars from the federal government.

“Our plan for 2019 includes investing to improve the trajectory of the business increasing CapEx by roughly $500 million,” Jeff Storey, president and CEO of CenturyLink said on a January analyst conference call. “As I mentioned earlier those investments include expanding the fiber network, adding new buildings throughout our footprint, enhancing our enterprise product portfolio, continuing our investments in CAF-II, and transforming our customer and employee experience.”

Investors were not impressed with those plans, and CenturyLink’s share price cratered.

Independent phone companies have traditionally attracted investors with handsome dividend payouts, but the realities of their aging infrastructure and the inability to compete effectively with cable companies on lucrative broadband services have left companies like CenturyLink, Windstream, and Frontier Communications in a quandary. Shareholders do not perceive value investing in fiber optic network upgrades and punish companies that announce dramatic increases in network investments. Customers left on slow-speed ADSL networks are increasingly dissatisfied with their internet experience and seek alternative providers — usually the local cable company. As Frontier Communications has discovered, attempting to win back ex-customers has been exceedingly difficult, often only possible with lucrative promotional offers that undercut the cable company. But such offers attract customers with above-average price sensitivity, making it difficult to extract increased revenue from them going forward.

CenturyLink’s stock price has dropped to an all-time low over the last six months.

Investors are also increasingly concerned about the financial viability of investor-owned phone companies that are stuck between leveraging their old networks and facing down shareholders when upgrades become essential. AT&T and Verizon have wireless units responsible for much of the revenue earned by those two Baby Bells. Traditional phone companies have had less luck trying to sell ancillary support services like Frontier’s “Peace of Mind” technical support service, or bundling satellite TV service into packages.

CenturyLink’s Local Service Territory (Source: CenturyLink)

CenturyLink is increasingly depending on its enterprise and wholesale businesses to earn revenue. That fact has prompted some shareholders to ask why the company hasn’t spun off or sold off its traditional landline network and consumer businesses, which currently account for only 25% of its revenue. In May, CenturyLink seemed determined to placate those investors with an announcement it was exploring “strategic options” for its consumer business. Investors theorize that CenturyLink could “unlock value” from its legacy landline networks in such a sale or spinoff that would benefit shareholder value. It would also be much cheaper than investing in that network to upgrade it.

The chorus for a sale increased after Frontier Communications announced it was spinning off its landline territories in the Pacific Northwest to a company specializing in upgrading legacy networks to support better broadband. Frontier, mired in debt and facing a concerning due date for some of its bonds, made the sale to give a boost to its balance sheet. Frontier had also been facing increasing scrutiny about a potential Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Windstream declared bankruptcy earlier this year, reminding investors that a trip to bankruptcy court could quickly wipe out all shareholder value.

MoffettNathanson, a Wall Street analyst firm that specializes in telecommunications, finds little to like about CenturyLink shedding its own landline operations. Frontier’s sale benefited from the fact a significant part of its Pacific Northwest territory was built from an acquisition from Verizon, which had already installed its FiOS fiber to the home network in parts of Washington and Oregon. About 30% of the territory Frontier is selling is fiber-enabled. In comparison, CenturyLink has installed fiber to the home service in only about 10% of its territory, dramatically reducing any potential sale price. Much of CenturyLink’s core fiber network powers its enterprise and wholesale operations — businesses CenturyLink would likely keep for itself.

MoffettNathanson also sees little value from the proposition a buyer could leverage CenturyLink’s network to provide backhaul fiber capacity for future 5G services, because CenturyLink provides service mostly in smaller communities likely to be bypassed by 5G, at least for the near term.

Wall Street’s idea of a win-win strategy for CenturyLink is to keep its consumer business and expand its broadband service footprint and capability, if the federal government offers to cover much of the cost through more rounds of CAF subsidies. Taxpayers would subsidize broadband expansion while CenturyLink and shareholders share all the profits.

Charter Guilty of Sending “Untrue and Improper” Letters Inferring Windstream’s Days Were Numbered

The federal judge handling Windstream’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization has found Charter Communications culpable for mailing “untrue and improper” advertisements to Windstream customers implying the company was going out of business and abandoning its customers.

Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Drain ruled in favor of a preliminary injunction forbidding Charter from sending any further letters of this type and requiring Charter to pay Windstream to mail clarification letters to all Windstream customers who received the false advertisements from Spectrum.

Judge Drain also ruled:

  • Charter must pay all costs to restore Windstream service for former customers who switched to Spectrum based on their understanding that Windstream was discontinuing service.
  • Charter may not imply Windstream is going out of business in any future solicitations, or suggest that its current financial difficulties will have any negative impact on service.
  • Charter is forbidden from using advertising messages including “Goodbye, Windstream, Hello Spectrum,” or “Windstream Customer, Don’t Risk Losing your TV and Internet Service” in either direct mail or door-to-door marketing campaigns.

Windstream complained to the bankruptcy court about Charter’s mailings, which it claimed were designed to mislead customers into thinking Windstream’s days were numbered.

Bankrupt Windstream Wins Approval to Pay Top Execs $24 Million in Special Bonuses

Phillip Dampier June 11, 2019 Public Policy & Gov't, Windstream 1 Comment

A New York bankruptcy judge cleared the way for Windstream Holdings to pay its top executives up to $24 million in special retention bonuses to convince them to stay at Windstream while the company continues restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, who also oversaw the bankruptcy of Sears, agreed with Windstream the company executives were entitled to the special bonuses, which will pay out up to $5 million to key employees willing to remain with the company and an additional amount up to $20 million for meeting certain performance metrics.

U.S. Trustee William Harrington strongly objected to the bonuses, claiming some of the money could end up in the pockets of executives that made key business decisions that would later come back and force the company into bankruptcy. Harrington also objected to the low bar Windstream proposed to pay out performance bonuses. Under the proposal, key executives will receive bonuses if the company’s revenues reaches an amount 10% less than the company’s forecast revenues for 2019.

Windstream’s attorneys argued the company’s performance has been historically so poor, it failed to meet its own projected revenue targets multiple times. The attorneys also argued Windstream was likely to face “increasingly aggressive competition,” making it harder to convince customers to sign up for possibly less compelling service plans than those offered by its cable competitors. That would make the company’s ability to meet its financial targets less than certain, attorneys argued.

Windstream was forced into bankruptcy in February after a federal court ruled its spinoff of certain assets in 2015 violated the terms of its senior loans. A hedge fund successfully sued the company and won a judgment of more than $310 million, causing Windstream to seek bankruptcy protection.

Details of Windstream's Key Employee Incentive Plan (KEIP)

Details of Windstream’s Key Employee Incentive Plan (KEIP)

Windstream Sues Charter Over Lookalike Mailers Questioning Phone Company’s Future

Windstream Holdings filed a suit against Charter Communications (d/b/a Spectrum) on Friday, claiming the cable company is trying to poach its customers with a “despicable” false advertising campaigned designed to make people believe the phone company’s days are numbered.

“Shortly after Windstream filed for Chapter 11 protection, Charter commenced a false and misleading advertising campaign designed to cause irreparable injury and damage to Windstream’s reputation and business,” the lawsuit filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York states. “Charter targeted Windstream customers in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Nebraska, and North Carolina, which are several of Windstream’s top performing states.”

“On the envelopes for the advertisement, Charter intentionally utilized Windstream’s trademark and signature color pattern to mislead Windstream customers into believing that the advertisement came directly from Windstream. Indeed, Charter’s advertisement stated that it was ‘Important Information Enclosed for Windstream Customers.’”

Inside the envelope was an ad for Charter Spectrum:

Windstream Customers,

Don’t Risk Losing Your Internet and TV Services.

Windstream has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which means uncertainty. Will they be able to provide the Internet and TV services you rely on in the future? To ensure you are not left without vital Internet and TV services, switch to Spectrum.

With a network built for the future, Spectrum is here for the long haul.

Goodbye, Windstream.
Hello, Spectrum.

Windstream’s future is unknown, but Spectrum is here to stay—delivering internet and TV services you can count on. . . .

Windstream told the Bankruptcy Court the ads were evidently effective, based on call transcripts and messages sent from customers to Windstream’s customer service department. Windstream’s attorneys attached multiple examples:

“I got a letter in the mail saying that ya’ll were going bankrupt and for me to go with Spectrum so I have gone to Spectrum and I have just called to have the services of Windstream disconnected.”

“I’ve got Spectrum over here so they go everything hooked up and so they told me not to call you until they got everything going like it’s supposed to be but I got that letter in the mail from Windstream and told me to get with you guys – to get with Spectrum so that’s what I did.”

“Oh, well I was just going there because it says hello I mean goodbye Windstream and uh..to got to Spectrum.”

“Oh lord, well I’ve been [Inaudible] on ‘em honey. I thought the letter was from you cause it said Windstream Corporation.”

The lawsuit complains Windstream had to take 160 calls regarding the Charter mailers over a 10-day period.

The phone company is demanding compensation for a number of reasons, but in part because it was forced to offer inquiring customers a better deal in order to convince them to stay with Windstream.

“As a direct result of Charter’s advertising campaign, Windstream has been forced to expend substantial time, money, and resources to combat these false claims. When distressed customers have called in, Windstream has offered upgrades, which many customers have taken,” the lawsuit states. “Windstream has also incurred costs and resources to educate its customer care associates on how to provide a comprehensive response to Charter’s false claims, which includes an explanation of the true effects of the Chapter 11 proceedings. In addition, as a direct result of Charter’s advertising campaign, Windstream has undertaken an extensive mailing and advertising campaign, at significant cost and expense, to counter Charter’s false and misleading advertising campaign. Windstream’s Legal department has also expended extensive time and effort in researching and responding to this matter.”

Windstream also complained Charter somehow disconnected service to approximately 350 Windstream customers on March 14, 2019, without notice to the phone company. The phone company also alleges Charter has told customers that Spectrum is buying out Windstream.

“When Windstream customers contacted Charter to have their services reinstated, they were told by Charter that service was not being reinstated because of Windstream’s failure to pay certain amounts due to Charter,” the lawsuit claimed. “Windstream, however, is not currently authorized to make any payments to Charter on account of prepetition debt as a result of the Chapter 11 filing.”

Keith

Windstream sent two angry letters to Charter complaining about the mailers.

“This misconduct is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Windstream’s deputy general counsel Carol Keith wrote. “This goes beyond a mere marketing decision made in bad taste and is clearly an illegal targeting of Windstream’s services and/or business in the marketplace using ‘false and misleading’ representations. Furthermore, when given the opportunity, Spectrum employees have been directed to double down and outright lie to Windstream customers that Spectrum has a contract to buy Windstream out.”

When Windstream took their complaints straight to Charter, their claims were rebuffed.

“On March 26, 2019, Charter responded to Windstream’s letters, contending that its advertisements were not false or misleading, and that it was proper to describe Windstream’s bankruptcy as creating an ‘uncertainty.’ According to Charter, a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing ‘creates ‘uncertainty’ regarding Windstream’s future until the bankruptcy is resolved.’”

Charter also told Windstream it believed the confusion over a “buyout” has to do with the cable company’s long-standing offer to pay up to $500 in contract termination fees for new customers switching to Spectrum.

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