Better Buy: CenturyLink vs. Frontier Communications

An ethernet cable plugged into the back of a modem.

With the end of 2018 right around the corner, things are shaping up to end on a sour note for CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) and Frontier Communications (NASDAQ: FTR) . CenturyLink is down 11% year to date, erasing as much as a 40% gain over the summer. As for Frontier, it has been on a consistent downtrend and is set for a 68% drop.

The story for both companies is similar: Legacy voice, video, and internet services have been in decline, putting pressure on revenue and profit margins. One of these two companies has turned a corner, though, and has a plan to return to growth.

CenturyLink on the mend... sort of

After acquiring communications rival Level 3 last year, CenturyLink has seen its core business continue to slide. Third-quarter 2018 comparable revenue was down 3.6% from a year ago to $5.82 billion, with every reportable segment falling.

The company's plan to return to growth revolves around higher internet speeds for consumer accounts and managed internet services for business . However, gains haven't been able to offset the loss of slower internet subscriptions to higher-speed offerings, voice services that are going the way of mobile, and cable TV packages that are being canceled in favor of internet streaming options. It could take some time to offload the old and replace with the new.

What's left in the way of strategy, then, is the reduction of expenses to prop up the bottom line. On that front, CenturyLink has done quite well post-merger with Level 3. Free cash flow -- money left over after operating expenses and capital expenditures are paid for -- keeps getting upgraded, the last being during the third quarter, when management called for $4 billion to $4.2 billion for the full year of 2018, compared with previous guidance of $3.6 billion to $3.8 billion. Total dividends paid out are $2.3 billion -- which currently works out to a whopping 14% -- so that gives the company plenty of room to keep the cash flowing to shareholders while it tries to turn the tide on revenue.

No inspiring plan at Frontier

Over the past decade, Frontier acquired landline and other rural community communications assets from the likes of AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) . The big wireless operators' willingness to offload the services is now telling. Debt-laden and losing subscribers for years, Frontier is now thinking about doing the same to help right the ship.

In the third quarter , revenue was down 5.6% to $2.13 billion, and the company recorded a $33 million operating loss -- most of that from a one-time $400 million impairment charge on assets. Moreover, Frontier's free cash flow is starting to trend down this year, as the company has limited ability to expand services in its existing markets to offset declines in legacy services.

To provide some reprieve for its vanishing business, Frontier suspended its dividend payment early in 2018. Without a payday and with customers leaving in droves, Frontier doesn't have much going for it at the moment.

The dubious winner?

It's difficult to get too excited about either of these companies, but CenturyLink's generous dividend and improving free cash flow are good signs. What does Frontier have going for it? It could be valued pretty cheap right now after the drubbing it took this year. Price to free cash flow currently sits at a mere 0.3.

It's cheap for a reason, though, as investors have indicated a complete lack of confidence in the company's ability to turn things around. While the long-term situation is still a concern at CenturyLink -- price to free cash flow is still cheap at 4.7 -- the company has at least shored up its bottom line and has a plan to eventually return to growth. It's thus the better buy right now, though there are still question marks.

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Nicholas Rossolillo and his clients own shares of Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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