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A Qwest for Life, Failing

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If you live in the Denver metro area, as I do, you know Qwest (NYSE: Q  ) . The story of this troubled telco isn't pretty. Between a jailed former CEO and an ugly profit picture, Qwest is the communications company we whisper about at parties, the one we pity.

This stock story didn't improve much in the third quarter, but it didn't get worse, either. Revenue fell 10%, yet operating income improved 7% thanks to cost cuts.

The cuts were significant: Capital expenditures fell 27%, and head count was down 10%. Overall operating expenses fell 12%.

Where was the growth, you ask? Good question. Qwest's press release touts a near-30% increase in "adjusted free cash flow," but cash from operations -- the most important number in the free cash flow equation -- improved just 6% year over year. Capex cuts and working capital improvements provided the bulk of the adjusted cash flow gain, and that may not be sustainable.

"A reduction in projected network volumes, lower maintenance capital requirements, and fewer project-specific requirements have contributed to lower capital expenditures throughout 2009," reads Qwest's earnings release.

Translation: We didn't spend because we aren't making enough to justify the investment.

If that's sounds bad, it's because it is. Investments create new revenue streams. But management may have no other choice but to hold back. Wireless subscriber growth, an area of strength for AT&T (NYSE: T  ) , Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) , and Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S  ) , was less than 2%, and Qwest ended the quarter with 11% fewer active access lines. Among its varying businesses, only video saw double-digit growth.

The good news -- yes, there is good news -- is that while Qwest is steering wireless customers to Verizon, the company has enough capital to survive as is. Yield chasers will appreciate the company's continued commitment to pay an $0.08-per-share quarterly dividend, a 9.00% yield at current prices.

Trouble is, as great as dividends can be, Qwest could cut or end its dividend payment at any time, as Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) did.

That's why we pity you, Qwest. We don't want to -- I don't want to -- but we can all envision the day when the last thing you have to offer investors, your dividend, falls prey to management's knife.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the market-beating Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy isn't near the phone. Could somebody please get that?


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Tim Beyers
TMFMileHigh

Tim Beyers first began writing for the Fool in 2003. Today, he's an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and Motley Fool Supernova. At Fool.com, he covers disruptive ideas in technology and entertainment, though you'll most often find him writing and talking about the business of comics. Find him online at timbeyers.me or send email to tbeyers@fool.com. For more insights, follow Tim on Google+ and Twitter.

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