Looking Back at Level 3's Tumultuous Year

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Level 3 Communications (NYS: LVLT) makes the turn into 2012 as a member of the prestigious NYSE and with international growth plans in mind. The long-distance data carrier is doing a lot of things right, and yet share prices have fallen substantially from mid-year highs. Did the business fall apart over the summer?

What's wrong, dear?
Well, let's see. Level 3 opened some $650 million of new debt in late July in order to restructure its existing debt and facilitate the acquisition of smaller peer Global Crossing. At about the same time, data-wrangling rival Akamai Technologies (NAS: AKAM) started showing cracks in its formerly ironclad growth story. Limelight Networks (NAS: LLNW) quickly followed suit. All of a sudden, the oh-so-healthy data transport industry was falling apart.

Level 3 has yet to report quarterly results since the Global Crossing merger; the most recent quarter ended a few days before the deal closed. The company jumped into Latin America just weeks before major customer Netflixexpanded video-streaming services into that region. Digital video is a big driver of worldwide connectivity needs, and Level 3 is smart to stay connected to that trend.

Level 3's plight wasn't helped by the unpopular decision to do a 15-for-1 reverse stock split in conjunction with the Global Crossing deal. Thanks to that move, Level 3 cleared the share-price hurdle to trading on the NYSE. That's curious, especially in light of telecom Frontier Communications moving in the opposite direction to save on listing fees. Exactly why Level 3 wanted to transfer its shares to the NYSE isn't entirely clear -- management said something about a "natural and mutually beneficial step" for both Level 3 and the exchange, because they've done business together for so long.

And that, of course, does go hand-in-hand with the international reach afforded by the Global Crossing deal to begin with. The company now proudly trumpets "a unique global services platform" with fiber optics laid down over 45 countries on three continents. Global coverage has pretty much become Level 3's platform, and you better believe in it if you're going to invest here.

Some things change, some stay the same
So Level 3 is in some ways a very different company in December from the one it was in January -- larger, broader, and with obvious plans on overseas expansion. Through other lenses, it's much the same: unprofitable and cash-burning, unless Global Crossing's similar financial performance produces enough synergies to magically change that longstanding trend. But management didn't see fit to offer any guidance on how the combined company is doing, so it's anybody's guess as to exactly how well the integration is going.

This company has a lot to prove in 2012. If you're nervous about making a bet on Level 3's opaque story, you should grab a copy of this free report. In it, you'll find five stocks the Fool owns and you should too, including one top-notch technology stock. Just click here to get yours today -- it's totally free.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Netflix but holds no other position in any of the companies mentioned. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of NYSE Euronext and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Check out Anders' holdings and bio, or follow him on Twitter and Google+. We have a disclosure policy.

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