Fitch Assigns 'BBB' Rating to TDS Notes; Outlook Negative

CHICAGO--()--Fitch Ratings has assigned a 'BBB' long-term debt rating to Telephone and Data Systems, Inc.'s (TDS) proposed million unsecured senior notes due 2061. Proceeds from the offering will be used principally for general corporate purposes. The Rating Outlook is Negative.

In Fitch's view, TDS has some flexibility to withstand operating challenges at its current rating category. The company has a good cash position, undrawn committed revolver lines, no material maturities in the next 20 years and a significant level of other assets that could be monetized.

The Negative Outlook reflects Fitch's longer-term concerns with the company's wireless operations. Postpaid subscriber additions at United States Cellular Corp. (USM), TDS' subsidiary, have been under material pressure for nearly three years. During 2012, the company reported postpaid net losses that are materially worse than Fitch expectations. USM has begun to improve traction with share gains and positive year-over-year postpaid gross addition trends during the past couple of quarters. However, churn has increased approximately 20 basis points as a result of the competitive intensity, lack of iPhone offering, and economic environment.

USM has taken steps to address these operational shortfalls with the divestiture of the Chicago and St. Louis markets, new branding campaign, targeted churn initiatives and broader third-party distribution. The sale of the wireless markets to Sprint Nextel will benefit the company's operating profile by improving profitability and cash flows, reducing capital spending, and improving past negative subscriber trends. As a result, the sale of these underperforming markets should provide better transparency with USM's operations in its remaining more mature markets where the company has achieved better penetration.

However, the sale of wireless assets also represents a retrenchment of its strategic plans and USM's inability to compete against the national operators despite being in the Chicago market for over 10 years. The competitive environment will also only get more challenging in the future. Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless have continued to strengthen their position against the rest of the industry through spectrum acquisitions and increased subscriber penetration to drive greater revenue and cash flow share. Verizon Wireless' early advantage with 4G LTE coverage and new share data plans has resulted in material share gains during 2012. T-Mobile and Sprint have also taken significant steps to improve their competitive positions longer term.

USM's increased distribution through Walmart should help further improve its gross addition trends as the company was more heavily reliant on distribution through company-owned stores versus its national peers. Fitch believes USM could pursue other initiatives to broaden its distribution mix although subscribers acquired through third-party channels are typically less profitable, with higher churn characteristics. Fitch also believes the lack of iPhone distribution creates a material competitive disadvantage relative to the national operators.

USM also has exposure longer term to declines from eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) revenues, which is a higher-margin revenue source. USM had received in excess of $150 million of ETC revenue at its peak. Going forward, ETC revenue subsidies received by USM are subject to reform plans by the FCC, as payments are scheduled to be reduced 20% annually. These reductions began in mid- 2012.

Longer term, Fitch believes TDS' ability to grow revenues and cash flows while competing effectively against much larger national operators is key to maintaining its investment grade ratings. Fitch acknowledges the steps the company has taken to improve its operating profile and profitability. However, Fitch remains concerned with the company's scale and competitive position. A failure by TDS to demonstrate the ability to sustain improved operating performance across its wireless and wireline segments would lead to a negative rating action.

TDS has good financial flexibility because of its cash, committed credit lines and other assets. At the end of third-quarter 2012, TDS' consolidated cash balance was approximately $589 million. TDS also has $181 million of added liquidity in longer-dated treasury or treasury-backed securities. TDS and USM maintain approximately $700 million of undrawn revolver capacity, principally through TDS' $400 million revolving credit facility and USM's $300 million revolver, which both mature in December 2015. The principal covenant contained within the facility is a consolidated leverage ratio of 3.0x, which allows the company considerable flexibility.

Consolidated free cash flow (FCF) which had been at least $200 million the past three years was a deficit of $86 million for the last 12 months. This was due in part to capital spending that has peaked at over $1 billion as a result of USM's LTE expansion, growth related to wireline projects and the new wireless billing system. Looking forward, Fitch expects FCF levels in 2013 could be flat to moderately negative due to the continued high level of capital investment, decommissioning costs related to the Chicago/St. Louis markets and higher cash tax payments in 2013 as the benefit of bonus depreciation reverses. TDS will benefit by avoiding the significant capital investment that would have been required in the Chicago/St. Louis markets.

TDS does not have any significant maturities until after 2030. For the last 12 months, TDS' consolidated leverage of 1.4x and interest coverage of 11.0x were strong for its rating category, as ratings remain constrained by subscriber trends, competitive environment and lack of wireless scale.

TDS has other sizable assets that could be monetized, including USM's cellular towers and a 5.5% minority interest in Verizon Wireless' Los Angeles partnership, although a sale of the partnership interest could potentially affect the ratings depending on the use of the proceeds. The cash generation from these assets accounts for a material portion of its cash from operations at approximately 10%.

TDS has been active with share repurchase programs at both TDS and USM in the past. As of Sept. 30, 2012, TDS and USM had not repurchased any shares. TDS' current share repurchase program expired in November 2012; however, Fitch expects TDS' board will authorize a new share repurchase program. USM has authorized up to 1.3 million shares to be repurchased on an annual basis.

WHAT COULD TRIGGER A RATING ACTION

Negative: The ratings have a Negative Outlook. Future developments that may individually or collectively lead to a negative rating action include:

--A further erosion in the operating performance of the wireless segment due to negative postpaid subscriber trends associated with competitive pressure on churn or gross additions. Fitch must see an improved performance in gross addition and churn trends that can be sustained over this Outlook period as the company has taken initial steps to improve this deficiency.

--TDS must demonstrate progress toward improved profitability across the wireline and wireless operations that can be sustained for the longer term. A failure to accomplish this would be a further concern.

--Negative growth trends in Wireless revenue if ARPU growth slows and/or wireless net additions are negative thus further pressuring cash flows.

--Improvement in future FCF expectations beyond 2013.

--TDS undertakes more aggressive share repurchase activity, potentially from shareholder pressure, thus weakening its liquidity position.

Positive: Fitch believes that competitive factors, current subscriber trends and the company's relative position in the wireless industry would not likely allow for a positive rating action at this time.

Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'. The ratings above were solicited by, or on behalf of, the issuer, and therefore, Fitch has been compensated for the provision of the ratings.

Applicable Criteria and Related Research:

--'Corporate Rating Methodology' (Aug. 8, 2012);

--'Rating Global Telecom Companies: Sector Credit Factors' (Aug. 9, 2012).

Applicable Criteria and Related Research:

Corporate Rating Methodology

http://www.fitchratings.com/creditdesk/reports/report_frame.cfm?rpt_id=684460

Rating Telecom Companies

http://www.fitchratings.com/creditdesk/reports/report_frame.cfm?rpt_id=682323

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