This Dividend Monster Is Shifting Gears


When Alaska Communications Systems (NAS: ALSK) geared up for a fourth-quarter report this week, investors were looking for two things:

The regional telecom delivered these things and more. Shares soared as high as 20.7% overnight on the report, reaching levels not seen since management took an ax to the dividend expenses.

The cold, hard numbers played a part in this stunning jump: AlaskaComm froze analyst estimates with $0.05 of earnings per share on $87.5 million in sales. The revenue outlook for next quarter also came in $17 million above Wall Street estimates, pouring more fuel on the fire.

That's an early sign of solid revenue growth, and CEO Anand Vadapalli wants more of it in 2012. Big dividends will, as previously announced, take a back seat to flexible financial management and a rapid 4G network build this year. In other words, this dividend dynamo is taking a break to become a growth stock for a while.

AlaskaComm invested $52 million in capital expenses in 2011, up from $38 million in 2012. The 4G network is only months away from lighting up, though much work remains to be done before it's complete. Management expects to spend as much as $60 million on capital expenditures in 2012. When that project is complete, annual capex drops back to roughly $45 million.

When that happens, the financial pressure to keep dividends low will subside. Management still wants to pay back a lot of debt in the next few years because this leveraged operating model costs a fortune in interest payments. Interest payments were larger than free cash flows in 2011. Paying back expensive debt is the gift that keeps on giving for companies and investors alike.

So AlaskaComm will look very different for a while, at least from a dividend-hunting point of view. In the long run, I think management is making some smart decisions here, and the industry is changing rapidly anyhow. Verizon (NYS: VZ) is stretching its wireless tendrils into Alaska right now, for example. Regional telecoms CenturyLink (NYS: CTL) and Frontier Communications (NYS: FTR) have gone on buyout rampages to stay relevant. There's no such thing as a totally safe double-digit telecom dividend anymore, though AlaskaComm may very well get back there in 2013 and beyond.

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorAnders Bylundholds no position in any of the companies mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Check outAnders' holdings and bio, or follow him onTwitterandGoogle+. We have adisclosure policy.

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