It should be no measure of how far Level 3 (NASDAQ:LVLT) has slipped off the market's radar that its quarterly results generated the barest bones of coverage. The Associated Press noted that "revenues dipped," while CBS MarketWatch (NASDAQ:MKTW) came to the exact opposite conclusion, with "sales rise" in the headline. Beyond those two outlets with their dueling conclusions, Level 3's results were met with little more than crickets chirping. This, for a company that in the late 1990s was one of the stars of the "growth to the sky" crowd and in the past few years a magnet for more technology-savvy value-seeking investors. Outstanding Investor Digest published an extraordinarily detailed article on Level 3 in 2002, hailing it as one of the greatest values it had ever seen, then quickly wrote a special edition, basically, to take it all back.

So this is what years of disappointing results and a contemptible stock options program get you, I guess. Obscurity. All of the excitement of a test pattern. Level 3 has its core followers (no pun intended), but no one else seems to care anymore.

Of course, sometimes in investing, that's not a bad thing. When no one's looking, opportunity can knock.

Level 3's loss for the quarter narrowed to $63 million, or $0.09 per share, an improvement from $462 million, or $0.95 per share, for the same quarter a year ago. These results included a one-time gain of $147 million stemming from the company's elimination of several capital lease obligations. Even after you back out the $0.22 gain, Level 3's core results were more than anticipated on Wall Street. That's good news, but nothing earth-shattering.

The company's stock rocketed downward, though, because for Level 3, the lack of great news is increasingly becoming bad news. Level 3 raised billions in debt to build out its network, and large slugs of that debt principal are getting ever closer to coming due. Level 3 has an absolute cost advantage over its competitors such as MCI (NASDAQ:MCIP) and Qwest (NYSE:Q) for its long-haul network, but that hasn't made much difference in an environment of gobs of excess capacity and savage pricing wars. Level 3's executives have been optimistic about the company's voice over the Internet protocol (VoIP) platform, and as some of the big carriers such as AT&T (NYSE:T) make the move toward favoring VoIP, this is yet again another opportunity for Level 3. It should be remembered, though, that this is still a protocol that is early in its commercial evolution, and though it seems to have caught the investment community's fancy, the actual level of increase of VoIP traffic is likely to be somewhat gradual as compared with what a Level 3 would need to really move its revenue needle.

With CEO James Crowe guiding revenue targets lower and projecting continued cash losses at the company, along with no telling increase in deferred revenue, Level 3 seems to continue treading water. That's an achievement in and of itself in the telecommunications transport environment that exists today, but unfortunately Level 3 cannot afford to spin its wheels forever.

Bill Mann owns none of the companies mentioned in this article.