The cable and internet company spent $10.54 billion buying Verizon's wireline business in California, Texas, and Florida (CTF). On paper, that move made sense. It gave the company the scale it needed to operate more efficiently. In reality, the deal turned out to be a disaster because Frontier couldn't hold on to the 3.3 million voice connections, 2.1 million broadband connections, and 1.2 million cable subscribers it paid so dearly for.
Sprint's path hasn't been quite that rocky, but the company has faced its share of problems. It has steadily lost money and failed to partner or merge with Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) or Charter Communications (NASDAQ:CHTR) after extended negotiations. In addition, the No. 4 wireless carrier tried for a second time to merge with T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS) and failed over governance issues.
What's next for Sprint?
CEO Marcelo Claure has made positive steps in at least stabilizing the company. In Q2, Sprint posted gains in both prepaid and postpaid accounts. It also cut its losses from $142 million in the same quarter in 2016 to $48 million this year.
The problem for the company is that it has achieved those results through relentless cost-cutting and heavy discounts. It's doubtful it can keep up both of those, as keeping up with its rivals when it comes to network quality requires billions of dollars in investments. On the customer side, discounts may lure people in, but when the deal expires they can easily leave.
Sprint can muddle along as it has, but as a standalone company it has little chance of sustained success. Its best path remains to make a deal with either a major cable company or T-Mobile. The problem is that none of its potential suitors seem eager to make a deal.
The wireless carrier negotiated with Comcast and Charter about either a sale or a partnership coupled with an investment. Both of those companies have dipped a toe into the wireless space, and owning Sprint would make sense. However, Sprint's drawbacks and the expense of running a wireless network have precluded a deal.
In addition, Masayoshi Son, the chairman of SoftBank (NASDAQOTH:SFTBF), which controls the majority of Sprint, has proved to be difficult to make a deal with. The T-Mobile deal broke down over his desire to maintain control over the wireless brand.
What's next for Frontier?
While Sprint has been able to go from losing customers to adding them, Frontier hasn't. The cable and internet company has lost subscribers in every quarter since closing the CTF deal in April 2016.
And while Sprint has SoftBank's backing and pocketbook, Frontier doesn't. The company has been steadily losing money as its share price has tanked. That forced the company to slash its dividend from $0.105 per share, where it's been for over two years, to $0.04 per share. It was also forced to conduct a 15-1 reverse split of its shares to avoid being delisted.
Frontier's logical paths from here are bankruptcy or acquisition. The problem for the company is that the market for a company that uses outdated technology that's been steadily losing customers isn't strong, and at least publicly there have been no reports of a pending, or even a discussed, deal.
Which is a better buy?
Neither Sprint nor Frontier should excite you, but Sprint has a better future. SoftBank won't let it go out of business, and it will either find it a merger, make a partnership deal, or invest in making the company something more than a wireless carrier.
That's a difficult path, and even a sale may not bring much of a premium for shareholders. Still, it's a more sure future than Frontier, which seems at best to be continually getting smaller and at worst to be on its way to going out of business.
Neither one of these companies is a good buy, but Sprint has more of a future. That's a very weak recommendation, but in this case, it's as strong as can be made for either of these companies.