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Windstream Declares Bankruptcy; Another Legacy Telco Falters

Phillip Dampier February 25, 2019 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Windstream 3 Comments

Windstream Holdings, Inc. filed bankruptcy this afternoon, citing its inability to cover $5.8 billion in outstanding debt.

The independent phone company, which provides legacy landline and broadband service to around 1.4 million customers in 18 states, filed voluntary to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, citing a judge’s decision almost two weeks ago that the company defaulted on its obligations.

“Following a comprehensive review of our options, including an appeal, the Board of Directors and management team determined that filing for voluntary Chapter 11 protection is a necessary step to address the financial impact of Judge Furman’s decision and the impact it would have on consumers and businesses across the states in which we operate,” said Tony Thomas, president and chief executive officer of Windstream. “Taking this proactive step will ensure that Windstream has access to the capital and resources we need to continue building on Windstream’s strong operational momentum while we engage in constructive discussions with our creditors regarding the terms of a consensual plan of reorganization.”

Windstream received a commitment from Citigroup Global Markets Inc. for $1 billion in debtor-in-possession (“DIP”) financing. Assuming a bankruptcy judge approves of the arrangement, Windstream claims this stop-gap financing will allow it to run its current business as usual.

Windstream provides residential service in 18 states including: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas.

The company claims it was forced into bankruptcy after a judge found Windstream’s attempt in 2015 to shift its valuable fiber optic network assets off its own books into a sheltered real estate investment trust (REIT) named Uniti Group violated the rights of bondholders which hold some of Windstream’s debt. Those debts are backed, in part, by the valuable fiber optic assets Windstream had  spun them off to a new entity. In fact, Uniti’s fiber optic assets are essential to Windstream’s viability. The phone company has the exclusive right to use Uniti’s fiber assets and two-thirds of Uniti’s revenue comes from Windstream, making the two companies inseparable.

Windstream’s bankruptcy is a concern to investors of both companies because it will allow Windstream to renegotiate the terms of its contract with its fiber partner. Windstream customers are equally concerned because the phone company needs Uniti’s network to manage its broadband service.

The judge’s decision on Feb. 15 to declare the arrangement inappropriate was reportedly a shock to the investor community, which has made money buying repackaged corporate debt in the form of bonds for years. Corporations have issued bonds to retire older debt, while giving investors a piece of the action. Since investors are making money, they typically do not complain too loudly about the persistence of corporate debt, frequently repackaged in new bonds. As a result, companies can hold onto more cash used to pay shareholder dividends and executive compensation instead of permanently retiring debt.

Aurelius, a hedge fund, is making some of its money scrutinizing these arrangements looking for contract violations such as the Uniti spinoff. When it finds one, it takes a stake in the company and then threatens to sue as a harmed investor. Based on the judge’s decision, Aurelius won a judgment that will effectively empty the pockets of many of the bondholders and investors that could lose a lot of their investments because of the bankruptcy. If the hedge fund is going to actively seek other questionable arrangements or violations of bondholders’ rights at other companies, it could cause an earthquake in an investment community that has quietly conspired with companies to generate transactions that enrich investors while allowing companies to carry more debt.

Customers could end up covering some of the costs of today’s bankruptcy filing if Windstream files a plan with the Bankruptcy Court promising to raise prices to help it demonstrate ongoing viability.

Windstream’s Thomas complained the phone company is little more than a victim of a predatory hedge fund out to enrich itself at the expense of others.

“The company believes that Aurelius engaged in predatory market manipulation to advance its own financial position through credit default swaps at the expense of many thousands of shareholders, lenders, employees, customers, vendors and business partners,” Thomas said. “Windstream stands by its decision to defend itself and try to block Aurelius’ tactics in court. The time is well-past for regulators to carefully examine the ramifications of an unregulated credit default swap marketplace.”

Windstream Relying on Government Funding to Double 100 Mbps Availability in 2019

Windstream is relying on the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund to double the areas where it will offer 100 Mbps broadband service, expected to reach 30% of the company’s 18-state local service area by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

“Windstream understands that premium internet speeds are critical to families and businesses in rural America, and we are systematically enhancing our network to meet that urgent demand,” said Jeff Small, president of consumer and small and medium-sized business services. “Network upgrades are expensive, especially in rural areas where there are relatively few customers, so Windstream is using a combination of its own capital and crucial support from the FCC’s Connect America Fund to make faster speeds more widely available. Without support from the Connect America Fund, many of these projects simply would not be economically feasible.”

Thomas told attendees at the Citi 2019 TMT West Conference Windstream’s legacy copper wire telephone network is not up to the job of handling the kinds of internet speeds more modern technologies can manage.

In urban and larger service areas, Windstream is most likely to deploy fiber to the home service in new housing developments and select gentrified neighborhoods where a business case exists to invest in fiber upgrades. The company also typically replaces its copper wireline infrastructure with fiber where road construction projects or damage forces the company to replace or relocate its lines. Suburban and more densely populated rural areas are likely to receive an upgraded version of Windstream’s DSL service that can manage up to 50 or 100 Mbps. In Windstream’s significant rural service area, the phone company is increasingly turning to fixed wireless technology, especially in flat midwestern states like Nebraska and Iowa where it plans to offer a combination of 3.5 GHz “CBRS” and 5G millimeter wave fixed wireless broadband capable of delivering up to 1,000 Mbps.

Windstream’s service area

“[We are deploying wireless internet] probably at a larger scale than a lot of the larger wireless companies,” Thomas said, especially in flatter areas where wireless signals go a long way.

Because most current broadband expansion fund programs require companies to commit to at least 25/3 Mbps service, simply expanding basic ADSL technology has proven inadequate to meet the government’s speed requirements. But wiring fiber to the home service to get faster speeds in rural areas does not meet the Return On Investment requirements Windstream’s shareholders demand. Windstream claims fixed wireless can solve both problems.

“You can get 100 Mbps out there very cost-effectively,” Thomas claimed. “You are really blowing away copper infrastructure and making it irrelevant because you’re embracing this 100 Mbps technology.”

As of early 2019, Windstream claims that 60% of its customers can get at least 25 Mbps service, 40% can receive at least 50 Mbps service. By the end of March, 30% will be able to receive 100 Mbps service.

 

A satisfied Windstream customer talks about his upgrade to 50/8 Mbps, which replaces his old 6 Mbps DSL service. (6:03)

Windstream’s “Aspirational” Broadband: DSL Customers Not Getting Advertised Speed

An unhappy customer in Georgia.

Victor Brown, like many residential customers in rural northeastern Ohio, has one option for internet access — Windstream, an independent phone company that typically serves areas larger companies like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink forgot. For 17 years, his internet speed has been absolutely consistent, and slow.

“It’s 1.2 Mbps day or night, no more and no less, and for that they are charging me $58 a month,” Brown told Stop the Cap! “In that time, there has never been an upgrade, a real commitment to improve service, or anything except repetitive sales calls and mailers offering to upgrade me to a faster speed level Windstream cannot actually deliver.”

Windsteam has told its investors that it expects to offer 60% of its customers at least 25 Mbps service by the end of 2018. In fact, Brown has already been offered that for nearly a year, but the service is not actually available.

“They will switch you to 25 Mbps today, with the higher bill to boot, but you won’t actually get any better speed than you have right now,” Brown said. “I know because we tried.”

Brown and several of his neighbors all attempted to upgrade to the higher-speed service advertised. Windstream accepted their orders, charged them more, and delivered exactly the same 1.2 Mbps service they have always had.

“It took a service technician coming out to make it clear to us there was no way we would ever get faster speed because there was too much copper wiring between their office and our homes,” Brown said. “The technician felt for us, and about half of his service calls were disappointing customers like us.”

Brown explained the Windstream technician candidly told him that the company’s head office is behind the speed upgrades, but does not actually have a clear understanding of the state of the local network. Marketing then sells customers on better service Windstream’s network is not capable of providing.

“They need to spend money to replace some copper with fiber but there is no money for that,” Brown said. “The most the technician could suggest was installing a bonded DSL connection that would use two different phone lines and deliver 2.4 Mbps. That would come at a price, however.”

Ruth in Cochranton, Penn., is in exactly the same position.

“We are paying for internet speed that we aren’t receiving,” Ruth complained. “It is so slow that we have a hard time getting a short 50 second video to load. Forget watching a YouTube video, it’s not going to happen.”

Over in Lilitz, Penn., Eileen and her neighbors were also dealing with temporary phone lines Windstream installed by dropping both on their lawns and then leaving them unburied for nine months. She cannot get anyone from the company to bury the lines despite seven separate phone calls. Down the street, internet and phone outages can last a week after a strong rainstorm hits the area, and since the weather has turned much colder, hum and crackle on the neighborhood’s phone lines have disrupted phone calls and DSL service. Nobody from Windstream has come to fix the problem.

Windstream tells a very different story to its investors in the form of ‘upgrades by press release’ and cheerful investor conference calls that claim dramatic improvements in service and growth. While cable operators are touting increasing availability of gigabit service, phone companies like Windstream are promising to give a little more than half their customers the minimum definition of broadband service — 25/3 Mbps, by the end of this year. Many of Windstream’s other half get nothing close to those speeds, with 1-3 Mbps common in rural areas.

Wall Street balks at the dollar amounts it would take for Windstream to fully update its network to offer broadband speeds that were common for cable subscribers a decade ago. That kind of network investment would likely drive down the share price, impact shareholder dividends or stock buyback plans, and increase debt. Instead, many phone companies are hoping the federal government will come to the rescue and subsidize rural network improvements through the FCC’s Connect America Fund or government grants. But many of those grants won’t deliver service improvements to existing customers. Instead it will allow rural phone companies to bring broadband to customers who never had it before.

Even the threat of new competition has not inspired many investor-owned phone companies to embark on a spending spree. That competition may eventually come from new wireless broadband services like 5G, but most observers predict that will be years away in the rural communities Windstream traditionally serves. Where Windstream does face competition, it often still loses market share, usually to the local cable company.

“My sister has Comcast and although they are evil as can be, at least their internet speed matches what they sell, and it is shockingly fast in comparison to what DSL has given me for nearly 20 years,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, no cable company is going to wire us up. There are only a few houses on my street.”

Brown believes it is time for the federal government to start insisting that investor-owned phone companies do better.

“We have universal service laws for landlines but not for internet? That does not make sense to me,” Brown tells us. “Isn’t it time for the government to insist that all providers deliver at least 25 Mbps service to their customers? They are not going to do it without someone ordering them to.”

Despite Net Neutrality, Providers Launch Fiber Spending Spree

Phillip Dampier October 3, 2017 Altice USA, AT&T, Broadband Speed, Cablevision (see Altice USA), CenturyLink, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Frontier, Net Neutrality, Verizon, Windstream Comments Off on Despite Net Neutrality, Providers Launch Fiber Spending Spree

Despite claims from some industry-backed researchers and former members of Congress that Net Neutrality has reduced investment in telecommunications, a new research note from Deutsche Bank shows America’s top telephone and cable companies are spending billions on fiber upgrades to power wireless, business, and consumer broadband.

“Telecoms have become much more public signaling their intent to increase fiber investment, with AT&T and Verizon leading the spending ramp,” reports Deutsche Bank Markets Research.

Verizon has been on a fiber spending spree in the northeastern United States, signing contracts with Corning and Prysmian worth $1.3 billion to guarantee a steady supply of 2.5 million miles of fiber optic cable Verizon plans to buy over the next three years. Much of that spending allows Verizon to lay a foundation for its future 5G wireless services, which will require fiber to the neighborhood networks. But in cities like Boston, Verizon is also once again expanding its FiOS fiber to the home service to consumers.

AT&T is committed to connecting 12.5 million homes to gigabit-ready fiber broadband by 2019 — part of a deal it made with the FCC to win approval of its acquisition of DirecTV. AT&T claims it has already connected 5.5 million homes to its gigabit AT&T Fiber network, expected to reach 7 million by the end of this year.

Deutsche Bank thinks providers’ future drive towards 5G service will also simultaneously benefit fiber to the home expansion, because the same fiber network can power both services.

“To support the upcoming innovations such as autonomous driving, IoT, smart cities, the US needs to densify its fiber network,” Deutsche Bank said. “The U.S. fiber penetration rate is 20% vs. 75% for leading OECD countries, which suggests a large gap needs to be closed.”

Altice founder Patrick Drahi (second from left) and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei (center) visit a Cablevision fiber deployment on Long Island, N.Y.

The bank predicts companies will spend around $175 billion over the next 10 years building out their fiber networks, with most of the spending coming from the phone companies, who may see fiber buildouts as their best attempt to level the playing field with cable operators’ hybrid fiber-coaxial cable networks. As cable operators expand their networks to reach more business parks, they have been gradually stealing market share for phone and data services from phone companies. Consumer broadband is also increasingly dominated by cable operators in areas where phone companies still rely on selling DSL services.

FierceCable notes Comcast and Altice have stepped up aggressive spending on fiber networks for their consumer and business customers. Altice is planning to decommission Cablevision’s existing coaxial cable network and move customers to fiber-to-the-home service. Comcast is deploying fiber services while still selling traditional cable broadband upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1, which supports substantially faster broadband speeds. The two networks co-exist side-by-side. Customer need dictates which network Comcast will use to supply service.

Customers benefit differently in each state, depending on what type of service is available. Comcast’s large footprint in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, is usually served by traditional coaxial cable. Verizon still sells DSL in much of the state. In Massachusetts, Verizon is building out its FiOS network to serve metro Boston while Comcast will depend on DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades to speed up its internet service. In New Jersey, long a battleground for Verizon’s FiOS service the company stopped aggressively expanding several years ago, Comcast has announced DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the entire state.

Independent phone companies are also seeing a bleak future without fiber upgrades. Both CenturyLink and Windstream are planning moderately aggressive fiber expansion, particularly in urban service areas and where they face fierce cable competition. Frontier continues its more modest approach to fiber expansion, usually placing fiber in new housing developments and in places where its copper facilities have been severely damaged or have to be relocated because of infrastructure projects.

None of the companies have cited Net Neutrality as a factor in their future broadband expansion plans. In fact, fiber networks have opened the door to new business opportunities to the companies installing them, and the high-capacity networks are likely to further reduce traffic/transit costs, while boosting speeds. That undercuts the business model of selling digital slow and fast lanes.

Windstream Brings Kinetic TV to Communities Around Charlotte, North Carolina

Kinetic WindstreamWindstream will bring its fiber to the neighborhood service Kinetic TV to around 50,000 homes in 13 suburban and exurban communities surrounding Charlotte, N.C., to stay competitive with Time Warner Cable/Charter and a publicly owned cable system serving Mooresville.

The independent phone company submitted a formal application for a cable television franchise with North Carolina’s Department of the Secretary of State to begin offering television service in Albemarle, Badin, China Grove, Concord, Harrisburg, Hemby Bridge, Indian Trail, Kannapolis, Matthews, Mooresville, Mt. Pleasant, New London and Oakboro.

Windstream claims Kinetic TV leverages “a 100 percent fiber-backed network,” which leaves customers with the impression they are getting fiber optic delivery of television, broadband, and phone service. In fact, for many communities Windstream is constructing a network similar to AT&T U-verse. The phone company brings fiber optic cables into each neighborhood, but relies on existing copper wire infrastructure connecting individual homes to a nearby fiber optic-connected neighborhood hub. The upgrade allows Windstream to expand broadband capacity to support concurrent use of television, phone and internet access. For many Windstream customers complaining about the poor performance of Windstream’s DSL service, that offers a significant improvement. But Windstream does provide even better upgrades in some communities. In April 2016, Windstream launched gigabit speed internet service for seven North Carolina towns: China Grove, Concord, Davidson, Harrisburg, Kannapolis, Lewisville and Matthews. By applying for a statewide video franchise agreement in North Carolina, Windstream will be able to sell cable television service along with gigabit broadband speed.

Kinetic TV is now an exceptionally good deal for new customers.

Kinetic TV is currently available in Lincoln, Neb., Lexington, Ky., and Sugar Land, Tex.

Kinetic TV is already available in Lincoln, Neb., Lexington, Ky., and Sugar Land, Tex.

Windstream aggressively prices its most deluxe double play package of 50Mbps broadband and 270+ channels and Whole House DVR service at a one-year introductory price of $89.99 a month with a one-year service commitment. Customers can upgrade to a triple play package with the same 12 month commitment that includes a phone line with unlimited long distance calling for just $2 more — $91.99 a month. New double/triple-play customers also receive a one-time bill credit of $250, which will generally cover the first two months of service. This promotion is by far the best value for money. Unfortunately, after the promotion expires your price increases by $72.99 to $162.98 a month.

Kinetic TV operates with wireless set-top boxes that can be moved to different televisions as needed. The DVR can handle recording four channels at the same time and Windstream promises no lag while channel changing. The usual $80 installation fee is waived when new customers sign up under a promotional offer. Anyone can register to be notified about Windstream’s promotional offers on the company’s website and will likely receive an invitation as Kinetic TV becomes available in your area.

Earlier this year, Windstream debuted Kinetic TV in Sugar Land, Tex., joining the communities of Lexington, Ky. and Lincoln, Neb. The 13 small cities and communities in North Carolina will be Windstream’s fourth service area for Kinetic TV.

Kinetic TV's Whole House DVR

Kinetic TV’s Whole House DVR

The service has received generally positive reviews from those not expecting to place a lot of demand on the service. The fastest internet package tops out for most at 50Mbps and some customers report their actual speeds are sometimes slightly lower. Windstream currently offers Kinetic customers unlimited, uncapped data plans. If you cancel service before the end of your contract, the penalty as stated in Windstream’s terms and conditions is among the steepest we have ever seen: 100% of the charges you would have paid had you kept the service through the rest of your contract.

There is other fine print:

  • Kinetic TV cannot support more than four Standard Definition video streams (television sets in use concurrently). HD channels for recording or viewing are limited to between one and four, depending on the capacity of your connection. If you exceed it, the remaining video streams or recordings will be in Standard Definition.
  • Kinetic TV will not allow pay per view or video on demand charges to exceed $200 in a calendar month.
  • Prices above include one Kinetic TV receiver. Each additional box is billed at $7 a month, and may be limited in quantity. A Windstream gateway, also required for service, is assessed a separate monthly charge.
  • Your internet speeds may be affected by how many televisions are concurrently in use in your home.
  • Windstream collects information about programming watched, recorded, or accessed. Currently, they use this information to make general programming recommendations to all customers and/or specific recommendations to you based on your personal viewing habits.

(Windstream pricing information gathered by entering a residential street address in Sugar Land, Tex., Zip Code 77478.)

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