Perhaps no industry has seen quite as much chaos in the past few decades as the telecommunications business. From the breakup of AT&T to the rise of cellular phone service and on into the worlds of Internet access, VoIP, and competitive local service providers, it has been a wild ride.
selection Citizens Communications
Results for the first quarter were basically on target. While access-service revenue was a bit weak (down 3%), strong growth in the DSL business helped to compensate. The company added more than 30,000 new DSL subscribers in the quarter and reported revenue growth in both the data-services and directory-services units.
Despite a very modest decline in revenue, Citizens did post year-over-year growth in operating income. More importantly, though, the company also reported 12% growth in free cash flow, to just less than $153 million.
Big cash flow is the name of the game here. Not only does this cash flow allow the company to pay a healthy dividend, but it also permits a recently announced $250 million share buyback plan and debt reduction.
That's not to say that it's a risk-free ATM for investors, though. The telecommunications industry is still in a state of persistent flux, and there's no telling whether, or when, the likes of Qwest
The company's cash-flow situation will be changing a bit in the near future. Since the company will have to begin paying cash taxes again around 2007, the payout ratio will go up and the company will have a bit less wiggle room to raise the dividend. What's more, although the company is managing its debt, there is quite a bit of it to manage.
Lastly, the company needs to continue to stay on the front end of new service offerings. It has done well with its high-speed-Internet business, and a partnership with EchoStar
Citizens is by no means a staid telecom company just looking to stay one step ahead of extinction. Rather, the company's management appears to be dynamic and committed to exploring new ways of staying ahead of the decline of the traditional wire-line business. Citizens may not be the safest income stock in the market, but it's definitely worth a look for serious income investors.
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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).