Better Buy: Frontier Communications Corp. vs. Sprint

By Daniel B. Kline Markets Fool.com

Frontier (NASDAQ: FTR) and Sprint (NYSE: S) have both struggled to keep up with bigger players in their spaces.

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The wireless carrier has slipped to No. 4 in a four-way race and, perhaps more importantly, has lost its identity. While T-Mobile (NASDAQ: TMUS) has staked out its place as the alternative to the top two companies in the space, Sprint has essentially become a "me-too" proposition without an established niche of its own.

Frontier has also struggled, having steadily lost customers since it spent $10.54 billion to buy 3.3 million voice connections, 2.1 million broadband customers, and 1.2 million FiOS video subscribers in California, Texas, and Florida (CTF). Like Sprint, the internet, phone, and cable company lacks an identity, and other than some short-term pricing gimmicks, it too does not offer any compelling reasons for customer adoption.

In considering which one may be a better buy, you have to look at future prospects for both companies. Can either brand reverse its fortunes, or would one be a more attractive acquisition property than the other?

Image source: YCharts.com.

The case for Sprint

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For the past few years, Sprint has been getting clobbered by T-Mobile. The Un-carrier passed it for third place among the big four major wireless carriers and, more importantly, staked out a place as the clear option for customers looking for quality service at a lower price.

In the most recent quarter, though, there have been signs that Sprint's effort to push itself as a good value have paid off. In its Q2 2017earnings release, the company reported its first year-over-year growth in operating revenues in more than two years. It also saw a big jump in postpaid phone net additions going from 62,000 in Q2 2016 to 347,000 for the current period. Those are encouraging numbers despite the company still putting up a net loss of $142 million.

These numbers suggest Sprint may have turned a corner, and the company expects to soon return to profitability driven by over $1 billion in cost savings. The carrier certainly still faces a difficult road, but it's perhaps a little less bumpy than it was just a year ago.

The case for Frontier

While you can argue that Sprint has turned a corner, you can't make the same case for Frontier. After doubling in size with the CTF deal, which closed on April 1, the company has been going in the wrong direction. It went from 5.28 million residential subscribers at the end of Q2 to 5.07 million to close Q3. It also dropped 12,000 business customers and lost 92,000 video users, as well as 99,000 broadband users. That last number might be the most disappointing since the industry has been adding broadband subscribers in large numbers while pay television numbers have been declining.

Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy has a plan for a turnaround, and he has been very aggressive about managing costs, achieving $1.4 billion in projected annual savings. But while Sprint has shown at least preliminary success, Frontier's comeback is merely in the theoretical stage. It may work -- and McCarthy has shown that he's a strong, disciplined leader -- but nothing has been proven yet.

Is Sprint or Frontier a better buy?

Sprint operates in a market where T-Mobile has shown that dissatisfaction with the market leaders means millions, maybe tens of millions of customers are in play. The No. 4 carrier has also shown in its most recent quarter that it might be able to profit from that rather than losing out to its low-cost rival.

Frontier has a problem in that it does not really have a differentiated product from the bigger cable and internet providers. It's an alternative choice, but specifically in the cable space, consumers are increasingly choosing between cutting the cord and keeping it, not shopping the best price between pay-TV providers.

The best arguments for buying Frontier are that the company pays a dividend, and it could be an acquisition target. It's hard to argue in favor of the dividend when the underlying price of the stock keeps dropping, but the company could very well sell itself at a steep premium. That might not be enough to make longtime shareholders whole, but it could be a boon for people buying in now.

Sprint could, of course, also get bought -- though it would face larger regulatory hurdles -- and its shareholders would certainly profit from that. Aside from an acquisition scenario, though, it's clear that Sprint has proven that, at least for now, it's a better buy. The company has shown that it can add subscribers and cut its losses, while Frontier has only offered up a plan.

Neither one of these companies are in particularly strong positions, but Sprint has shown that it may have a future. Frontier has yet to prove that, and until it does, its best play remains selling itself off.

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He is a former subscriber of both of these companies. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.