A Primer on the Telecom Sector

Worldwide Invest Better Day 9/25/2012

This month at The Motley Fool, we're taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to getting back to basics, culminating on Sept. 25 with Worldwide Invest Better Day. With this in mind, my Foolish colleagues and I are opening the floodgates and unleashing vital information to help you invest better. In a previous article, we reviewed stock diversification, a key fundamental of investing. Today, we'll focus on telecom stocks.

Telecom Sector 101
For many years, the telecom industry was dominated by few players in clearly marked territories. But with the advent of cable, satellite, smartphones, and tablets, the lines of demarcation blur. Traditional telecom companies like AT&T (NYSE: T  ) now offer services like broadband and video. Meanwhile, cable and satellite companies like Comcast offer phone and wireless services. Even Internet and tech companies offer communication services like Microsoft's acquisition of Skype. The race is on; all want to be the one-stop-shop for your communication and entertainment needs.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, half of all Americans own a smartphone. And this number is growing by nearly 2% per month. As such, wireless data consumption has experienced incredible growth both in the U.S. and internationally, as we demand more data on our mobile devices. Research by the World Bank finds that "for every 10% increase in the penetration of broadband services, developing countries can see an increase in economic growth of 1.3%." The wireless carriers poised to profit are the ones with rising numbers of subscribers and the ability to tie data consumption to revenue.

Saying hello to dividends
Stable earnings and cash flows have traditionally characterized the relatively defensive telecom sector. Typically, telecom companies pay healthy dividends, a main reason why investors flock to them, especially during periods of low interest rates. But not all dividends are created equal. Just because a company pays a hefty dividend doesn't necessarily mean it's a sustainable one.


Dividend Yield

5-Year Dividend Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

Windstream (Nasdaq: WIN  ) 9.3% (1%) 333%
Frontier Communications (Nasdaq: FTR  ) 8.6% (7%) 523%
Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) 1.5% 13% 33%

Source: The Motley Fool.

Without a doubt, Windstream and Frontier Communications -- which primarily provide landlines to rural areas and small- and medium-sized cities -- both pay mouth-watering dividends. But even though Windstream generates significant cash flow, the company carries a cumbersome amount of debt on its balance sheet and is losing money. Hefty debt loads and falling subscriber rates also challenge Frontier Communications. Both companies' 100%-plus dividend payout ratios signal they pay more in dividends than they make in earnings. Frontier cut its dividend earlier this year. Further cuts shouldn't surprise investors. Meanwhile, communications equipment manufacturer Qualcomm pays a punier dividend, but has increased it substantially and has lots of room to grow even more.

A simple way to own the sector
If you're clueless when it comes to telecom stocks, consider exchange-traded funds. Some ETFs mimic the performance of an index, like the S&P 500, while others provide specific exposure to certain sectors. Sector-specific ETFs like SPDR S&P Telecom ETF are helpful when you lack information to make a good investing thesis. Using the MSCI World Sector Weightings as a benchmark, roughly 4% of your overall stock portfolio should be allocated to the telecom sector.

Invest better
If you bet wrong in the stock market, it could cost you. Instead, develop a diversified strategy for adding all sectors to your portfolio. That way, regardless of what happens in the market, you'll sleep well at night knowing a portion of your portfolio will prevail.

Think Frontier's dividend looks mighty tempting? We've fully vetted the company for you, and the information is all part of our brand-new premium research report. In the report, you'll find everything you need to know about Frontier, including key opportunities and risks facing the company. You'll even score a year's worth of analyst updates. To get all the details, click here now.

Join us for more investing basics on our microsite for Worldwide Invest Better Day. On the site, we've posted many exceptional articles aimed at helping you do just that.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Windstream had already cut its dividend. We regret the error.

Fool contributor Nicole Seghetti owns shares of AT&T and Microsoft. Follow Nicole on Twitter @NicoleSeghetti. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft and Qualcomm. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have also recommended creating a synthetic covered call position in Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 18, 2012, at 7:11 PM, fool3090 wrote:

    Watch out on telecom, especially Frontier. They try to paint a rosy picture in the recent proxy statement, yet (and I love this line): "Our legacy markets performed well with an annual access line loss rate of 5.9%."

    What this means is that its existing landline customers are shriking at nearly a 6 percent clip annually. What is at all sustainable about this?!?

    They're trying bundling, commercial accounts, etc. But at the heart of Frontier is a landline, copper wire phone company that serves small markets. Not a fun place to be. Do your homework before investing a dime. Falling knives, anyone?!

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Nicole Seghetti

Nicole is a contributing writer for The Motley Fool. She's worked as a financial advisor and planner for over a decade. Nicole holds an MBA from the University of the Pacific and a chemical engineering degree from Purdue University. She welcomes you to follow her on Twitter.

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