United States Cellular Corporation (NYSE:USM) Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript February 19, 2024

United States Cellular Corporation isn’t one of the 30 most popular stocks among hedge funds at the end of the third quarter (see the details here).

Operator: Good morning, and welcome to TDS and UScellular’s Fourth Quarter 2023 Operating Results Conference Call. All participants are in a listen-only mode. After the speaker’s presentation, we will conduct a question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions] As a reminder, this conference call is being recorded. I would now like to turn the call over to Colleen Thompson, Vice President of Corporate Relations. Thank you. Please go ahead.

Colleen Thompson: Good morning, and thank you for joining us. We want to make you all aware of the presentation we have prepared to accompany our comments this morning, which you can find on the Investor Relations sections of the TDS and UScellular websites. With me today and offering prepared comments are from TDS, Vicki Villacrez, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer; from UScellular, LT Therivel, President and Chief Executive Officer; Doug Chambers, Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer; and from TDS Telecom, Michelle Brukwicki, Senior Vice President of Finance and Chief Financial Officer. This call is being simultaneously webcast on the TDS and UScellular Investor Relations website.

Please see the websites for slides referred to on this call, including non-GAAP reconciliations. We provide guidance for both adjusted operating income before depreciation and amortization or OIBDA, and adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization or EBITDA to highlight the contributions of UScellular’s wireless partnerships. TDS and UScellular filed their SEC Forms 8-K, including the press releases and our 10-Ks earlier this morning. As shown on Slide 2, the information set forth in the presentation and discussed during this call contains statements about expected future events and financial results that are forward-looking and subject to risks and uncertainties. Please review the Safe Harbor paragraphs in our press releases and the extended version included in our SEC filings.

And with that, I will now turn the call over to Vicki Villacrez. Vicki?

Vicki Villacrez: Okay. Thank you, Colleen and hello, everyone. I hope you are doing well. This morning, we’ll take a quick look back at last year and also share with you our 2024 priorities and goals. 2023 was a challenging year for the organization, yet the teams navigated it well, and we ended the year in a good place as we move into 2024. Before we get into the details, I want to reiterate that as we announced on August 4 last year, we’ve embarked on a review of the strategic alternatives at UScellular. We are not going to comment on the process today except to say that it remains ongoing and that management of TDS and UScellular along with both boards are committed to a path that is in the best interest of the company and our shareholders.

Given the nature of the process, we do not expect to have updates until it is concluded. Now, let’s talk about the business. In 2023, we continue to make substantial investments in our businesses in order to improve our competitiveness while enhancing the customer experience. Over the last two years, TDS Telecom invested heavily and increased its total footprint by 21%, setting it up for strong top and bottom line growth as evidenced by Telcom’s guidance for 2024. UScellular has made progress on its 5G rollout and expects to continue investing in mid-band deployment throughout 2024. UScellular also modestly delevered in 2023 and will continue to balance ongoing investments with the need to generate positive free cash flow. While reinvesting still remains a high priority, given the interest rate environment and high cost of debt, we plan on slowing our CapEx investments for TDS Telecom in 2024 as you can see in our guidance.

Despite the high interest rate environment, TDS’s weighted average cost of debt and preferred equity is 6.5%. We believe that we have the right mix of both long-term maturities and shorter-term financings to help fund our investments while appropriately managing through the current interest rate environment. We ended the year maintaining access to liquidity and we have a sizable amount of debt that isn’t due for quite some time. I also want to note that in the fourth quarter, TDS Telecom took a $547 million non-cash goodwill impairment charge in conjunction with our annual goodwill assessment. This charge was due to a combination of factors, primarily rising interest rates and competitive pressures in our ILEC legacy markets. The non-cash charge eliminates all the goodwill at TDS Telecom and does not impact reported adjusted EBITDA or adjusted OIBDA.

From a consolidated enterprise perspective, I’m pleased that we are maintaining rigorous cost discipline programs focusing on both OpEx and CapEx which led to moderate full year 2023 increases in adjusted EBITDA and reduced capital expenditures. And at the same time, allocating our capital towards critical network investments. Before I turn the call over, as you probably saw earlier today, TDS announced its first quarter dividend raising the rate modestly from 2023, as we balance the needs of our businesses and returns to our shareholders. I’d also like to take a moment to thank all of our associates for their exceptional hard work and dedication in these dynamic times. We are positioned well to execute against our priorities for 2024. And with that, I’ll now turn the call over to LT.

Laurent Therivel: Thank you, Vicki. Good morning, everybody. My remarks this morning are going to primarily focus on our annual results highlighting the key achievements in 2023, but then I’ll turn to our priorities for 2024. Doug will then cover the fourth quarter results in a little more detail along with covering guidance. So let’s start by reviewing the highlights on Slide 5. We’ve had a consistent message that we’ve reinforced in prior calls that our goal for 2023 was to properly balance subscriber objectives with financial goals. And I think our results are a reflection of that deliberate approach. As we discussed throughout 2023, our challenge was driving subscriber growth add momentum in the context of an extremely competitive environment.

We delivered on our operating cash flow and adjusted EBITDA guidance for the year. We were able to do so through solid growth in ARPU coupled with disciplined and efficient spending. For the full year, we delivered 2% growth in postpaid ARPU and a 3% increase in adjusted EBITDA. Last year was our first full year of offering flat rate plans. And we ended the year with 17% of our postpaid handset customers on these plans. It’s up from 5% around this time a year ago. And I’m really pleased with how they’re performing. Many of our customers benefit from the options of this lower service plan pricing in exchange for lower promotional value. And as a reminder, these plans generally provide the same economics to us as our traditional plans since we don’t incur device expense.

Our average in-contract rate for 2023 was just North of 62%, that’s up 1.5 points from the prior year, and that helped us to moderate churn. For the full year, we modestly reduced both postpaid and prepaid churn. That’s a nice result given the aggressive competitive environment. Turning to growth initiatives, our third-party tower revenues reached a milestone, crossing $100 million in revenues and growing 8% for the year. As I mentioned last quarter, as the wireless industry has moderated capital expenditures last year, we experienced a slowdown in new tenant and amendment activity, and I expect that will impact tower revenue growth rates also in 2024. That being said, we remain bullish on the long-term outlook for our tower business. Although the near-term activity has slowed, the long-term capacity needs of the industry are going to require future densification, and that’s going to drive demand for our towers.

We have a unique portfolio of towers that are still below the industry average in terms of colocation, so we have a lot of opportunity to grow. We also have strong momentum in fixed wireless. We finished the year with 114,000 customers, that’s up 46% from a year ago. Over the last two years, we’ve seen strong performance with this product. And as a reminder, the vast majority of that growth has been on the low-band spectrum. Now that we’re rolling out mid-band spectrum, we’re going to be able to offer higher speeds and capacity where that spectrum is deployed. Since fixed wireless leverages the same network as our mobility product and the same investments, we believe this is a cost efficient means to grow revenue and to grow cash flows. As I mentioned, we delivered a 3% increase in adjusted EBITDA over the prior year.

And we did so through very disciplined and efficient spending. In fact, for the full year, we reduced cash expenses across LOE, system operations and SG&A. This is impressive given the usage on the network increased almost 30% in 2023. Speaking of the network, about 80% of our traffic is carried by sites that are modernized for low-band 5G. During 2023, we shifted our focus from 5G modernization to mid-band deployment. And similar to our previous network deployments, this will be a multi-year buildout. By the end of 2024, we expect to cover 30% of our POPs with mid band, and we’ll have almost half of our data traffic running on sites that are equipped with mid-band spectrum. We plan to be targeted about this rollout in order to reach the most customers with the best technology as efficiently as possible.

Finally, on the network, we sunset our CDMA network in mid-January of this year. Team did a great job in helping our customers migrate, and the vast majority of them are now on more advanced technologies that provide a better network experience. Turning to Slide 6 in 2024, our operational priorities remain consistent. Our top priority remains to balance subscriber growth with financial discipline. We delivered nice ARPU growth last year, and we expect to modestly grow it again in 2024. We feel like there’s still room to bring customers up to higher value plans and offerings. In terms of promotions, we expect to focus heavily on retention offers, anticipate pulsing, aggressive upgrade promotions throughout the year to ensure we’re taking care of our customers and that we’re retaining them.

For fixed wireless in 2024, we expect our momentum to continue. With the addition of mid-band spectrum, we can provide an even better experience for our customers, enabling us to better compete against other carriers and cable wireless providers. As I mentioned, we also expect tower revenues to grow but not at the level that we saw in early ’23. Probably closer to a low-to-mid single digit pace in the near-term. We plan to keep working on our multi-year cost reduction program. We’ve had strong success in reducing costs throughout 2023. And we still see room for more efficiencies in the upcoming year. With all that in mind, we once again intend to be cash flow positive in 2024. Briefly, I’d like to spend just a moment updating you on efforts to help bridge the digital divide.

41% of the population that UScellular covers are in rural America. And as I’ve discussed in past calls, it’s more expensive to cover rural America, more challenging network coverage environment, and there’s less customer density to help pay for the investments needed. We would not have been able to bring the high quality connectivity to many of these hard-to-serve communities without the support of the Universal Service Fund. In Washington, there’s two programs being rolled out and that can spur further deployment of 5G networks and enhance economic opportunities in rural areas. But those programs need to be aligned. They need to be sequenced carefully. The first program is the 5G Fund for Rural America, you know it as the 5G Fund, that has over $9 billion allocated to improve 5G connectivity across the country.

The second is the BEAD program, that’s $42.5 billion allocated to it to enhance broadband connectivity for homes and businesses across the country. And these are big dollars, and we as a nation owe it to rural America to spend the dollars effectively and efficiently. And as such, we believe the prudent course is to allow all of the BEAD funding decisions to be made before 5G Fund allocations take place. And there’s two reasons for that. First, BEAD will fund fiber density in areas that lack 5G coverage today. That’ll significantly reduce the cost of tower deployment. Second, BEAD will fund some fixed wireless deployments, that will, by default, bring 5G mobile connections to those areas. And after we have visibility into fiber and fixed wireless deployments funded by BEAD, the 5G fund can then further expand 5G mobile connectivity into rural areas that aren’t covered by BEAD.

And speaking of BEAD, we are encouraged with the opportunity we’ve seen so far in several states within our territory, including Missouri and Illinois and Nebraska have included fixed wireless access in their plans for BEAD deployment. And as I’ve said in the past, we have a compelling product that can meet the BEAD’s speed requirements and deliver a strong broadband experience to on and under connected geographies in a relatively short period of time. And we see a lot of advantages in working with the states on this, and we’re going to continue to do so. And finally, before I hand it off to Doug, let me just share a few thoughts on guidance. Our guidance assumes a continuation of an industry wide aggressive competitive environment, that includes aggressive competition from cable wireless players.

That’s coupled with a focus on cost reductions and efficient capital spend at Uscellular. Our focus remains on maximizing return on capital while generating positive free cash flow. We’ll be pulling the available levers to improve both of these measures over time. I want to thank the entire team for their hard work and ongoing commitment to serving our customers. And I’ll now turn the call over to Doug.

Douglas Chambers: Okay. Thanks, LT. Good morning, everybody. Let’s start with the review of our customer results on Slide 7. For the quarter, postpaid handset gross additions decreased by 25,000 and net additions correspondingly declined 33,000, largely due to the intense competitive environment as well as an increase in churn, partially attributable to a decline in our in-contract rate. Connected device results were largely in-line with the prior year and include the strong fixed wireless results that LT previously mentioned. Moving to Slide 8. Prepaid gross additions declined $18,000, driven by the competitive environment, a lower pool of prepaid gross adds, which is partially due to the availability of lower-end postpaid offerings and a reduced number of national retailers offering our full suite of prepaid products as we rationalize our prepaid distribution based on profitability.

This decrease in gross additions was mitigated by an improvement in prepaid churn as we continued to enhance both pricing and digital engagement with our prepaid customers during 2023, and as a result, prepaid net additions decreased 11,000. Now, let’s turn to the financial results starting on Slide 9. Service revenue declined 3% due to a decrease in our average retail subscriber base, partially mitigated by an increase in postpaid ARPU, which was largely driven by a decrease in promotional cost amortization. Power results are shown on Slide 10. The business delivered a solid quarter with $25 million of third-party tower revenues, which represents 3% growth. And as LT mentioned, we are bullish on the long-term revenue opportunities of the tower business.

On the next slide, as disclosed last quarter, our own towers are well diversified from a geographic and revenue distribution standpoint. Next, let’s turn to our quarterly operating performance shown on Slide 12. For this discussion, I will refer to adjusted operating income before depreciation and amortization as adjusted operating income. As I mentioned, service revenues declined 3%. However, this decline was more than offset with expense decreases, which resulted in a 19% increase in adjusted operating income. Loss on equipment or equipment sales less cost of equipment sold decreased 38%, as a result of lower transaction volume and lower promotional cost per transaction, partially due to higher adoption of flat rate plans where customers are not eligible for higher levels of device discounts.

Consistent with the industry, we saw a decline in upgrade rates which contributed to lower equipment sales. Selling general and administrative expenses decreased 7%, driven by decreases in bad debts expense, the continued favorable impact from the reduction in workforce executed in the second quarter of 2023, lower selling related expenses driven by decreased transaction volumes and ongoing expense discipline across categories. Let’s turn to our 2024 guidance on Slide 14. Our 2024 guidance contemplates the impact of our subscriber base decline in 2023, modest ARPU growth in a highly competitive and promotional environment as we continue to balance subscriber growth with financial discipline. We expect ranges of approximately $2.95 billion to $3.05 billion in service revenues, $750 million to $850 million in adjusted operating income, and $920 million to $1.02 billion in adjusted EBITDA.

These ranges include the impact of shutting down our CDMA network from both a revenue and cost perspective in January 2024. At the time of the shutdown, we had approximately 18,000 remaining CDMA connections, and we are still working to provide these customers with new devices to access our network. This is down substantially from 174,000 CDMA customers at the beginning of 2023, and as LT mentioned, reflects the great work by our marketing and sales teams to ensure our CDMA customers transition to new devices to be able to continue service upon the shutdown. These customers will not be reflected as defections or churn in our 2024 results. However, the subset of these customers that ultimately defect will have the impact of reducing 2024 service revenues.

In addition, shutting down our CDMA network is projected to result in approximately $40 million in run rate annual operating expense savings starting in 2025. Further, we expect the CDMA network shutdown to be accretive to 2024 adjusted operating income. For capital expenditures, we expect to invest between $550 million to $650 million as we continue our mid-band 5G deployment while prudently managing the level of this investment and the free cash flow of our business. I will now turn the call over to Michelle Brukwicki. Michelle?

Michelle Brukwicki: Thank you, Doug. And good morning, everyone. I’m pleased to report on TDS Telecom’s 2023 accomplishments on Slide 15. We are successfully executing on our fiber growth strategy that began many years ago. We had strong momentum in 2023 which is positioning us well for 2024. We ended 2023 with all of our expansion communities initially launched. In 2023, we exceeded our fiber address delivery goal by adding 217,000 new marketable fiber service addresses. That’s up 24% from our initial 2023 target, and it’s quite an accomplishment for this team. As we make progress on our fiber deployments, we also focus on growing broadband penetration. For the year, we grew total broadband connections 6%, mainly from growth in our expansion markets.

And finally, to address the broadband needs of our most rural markets, we successfully secured enhanced A-CAM funding, which provides us with $90 million of annual regulatory revenue support for the next 15 years. That’s $1.3 billion in total in exchange for delivering high speed broadband to approximately 270,000 addresses. Turning to Slide 16. Let me describe the vision we have for TDS Telecom. We are transforming ourselves into a fiber broadband company. We’re doing this through investments in all of our market types, expansion, cable, and ILEC markets. First is our fiber expansion program. Today, we have 370,000 service addresses in our expansion markets. They are 100% fiber. And we plan to continue growing our footprint in our expansion markets over the next several years.

Next are our cable markets. We have approximately 500,000 cable service addresses which are already enabled with 1 gig speeds using DOCSIS 3.1 and fiber. 16% of our cable addresses are fiber today. And going forward, we will add more fiber opportunistically in certain markets and in new greenfield areas. And finally, in our incumbent wireline market, which we also refer to this as our ILEC, we have just over 800,000 service addresses today. 43% of those addresses are fiber doc. We’ve been working to bring higher speeds to our ILEC for over a decade. Enhanced ACAM will help us put even more fiber into our ILEC network in order to meet the required speeds of 100 megabits per second down and 20 megabits per second up. The E-ACAM builds are expected to take place over the next several years.

So as you can see, we have plans for how we will serve customers in each of our market types. We have many investment opportunities ahead of us with our fiber expansion and E-ACAM builds that will require capital spending. As we’ve consistently stated, we will prioritize our projects and continue to pace and manage our spending on these investments to stay within prudent capital and leverage levels. Moving to Slide 17, I’ll review our longer-term goals that we’ve set at TDS Telecom. We have been making solid progress on these goals. First, across our entire footprint, we’re targeting approximately $1.2 million marketable fiber service addresses. We added 89,000 fiber addresses in the fourth quarter, which is our highest quarter to date. We ended the year with 799,000 total fiber service addresses.

So we’ve accomplished two-thirds of our goal already. We are targeting 60% of our total service addresses to be served by fiber. We ended 2023 with fiber to 47%. This reflects progress in growing fiber through our expansion markets as well as fibering up our incumbent markets. And finally, we are expecting to offer speeds of 1 gig or higher to at least 80% of our footprint. We finished 2023 with 72% at gig speeds. And that’s a combination of our fiber and DOCSIS 3.1 technologies. Another important metric to measure the success of our fiber program is broadband penetration. The lower right graph shows our business case expectation for broadband penetration and our new expansion market. We expect to achieve penetration rates of about 40% in a steady state, which is generally year four or five.

We are meeting or exceeding our business case expectations at the same time that we’re growing our footprint. On Slide 18, you can see that we grew our total service addresses 12% year-over-year. Shown on the right side of the slide, we are increasing take rates for higher broadband speeds with 76% of residential broadband customers choosing 100 megabits per second or greater and 16% are choosing 1 gig or higher at the end of the quarter. Our broadband investments are producing positive results. As shown on Slide 19, we had 7,200 residential broadband net adds in the quarter, which contributed to a 6% growth in residential broadband connections for the year. This was largely driven by increases in expansion markets. Net additions from our expansion in ILEC fiber markets more than offset the connection losses in copper and cable markets.

Average residential revenue per connection was up 5% in the quarter due to price increases and product mix partially offset by increased promotional activity. As shown in the chart on the right, we grew residential revenue 6% in the quarter with expansion market revenues increasing to $23 million. As expected, our commercial revenues decreased 13% in the quarter as we continue to decommission our CLEC markets. On Slide 20, I will share some financial highlights. Total operating revenues increased 2% in the fourth quarter and 1% for the full year as residential revenues offset commercial and wholesale declines. Almost 70% of our 2023 fiber service addresses were completed in the back half of the year. As such, we are just starting to ramp up penetrations and revenues in those markets.

Cash expenses decreased 4% in the quarter and increased 2% for the year. Adjusted EBITDA grew 19% in the quarter and was down 2% for the year. Remember that costs to get a community initially launched are incurred upfront before revenues start to grow. We are now starting to see more expansion market revenue growth along with very disciplined cost management across our organization, which is resulting in an improved adjusted EBITDA this quarter. Full year capital expenditures of $577 million were up from the prior year due to increased investment in fiber deployments. We had great momentum with our fiber builds in 2023, so we opportunistically chose to pull capital forward and get more service addresses than we originally planned. We also added more internal construction crews which required upfront investment in 2023 and but are expected to benefit build costs in future years.

On Slide 21, we’ve provided guidance for 2024. We are forecasting total telecom revenues of $1.07 billion to $1.1 billion. This reflects our goal of top line growth driven by continued improvements in residential revenues, primarily from our expansion markets, offsetting pressures in our ILEC copper markets. Adjusted EBITDA is expected to be between $310 million and $340 million in 2024. As previously discussed, we incurred upfront costs in 2022 and 2023 to get our new expansion markets launched. As penetrations and revenues grow in those markets, we expect to see adjusted EBITDA increase. In 2024, we’re planning to deliver about 125,000 fiber service addresses. We pulled forward some CapEx spend in addresses into 2023, so we’ll be slowing the pace of our builds and our spending in 2024.

Again, we will size and pace our capital expenditures commensurate with our financial capacity. With that said, capital expenditures are expected to be between $310 million and $340 million in 2024. And we believe we can deliver a meaningful number of fiber service addresses with lower capital spending in 2024 for the following reasons. First, all of our expansion markets have been initially launched. That means our upfront capital spending is behind us and we can leverage the foundational systems that we’ve put in place over the last several years. Second, we have also invested in our own internal construction crews to supplement building out fiber in certain areas. These crews provide us with both operational and financial flexibility. And finally, another reason CapEx is expected to be lower in 2024 is because we will be doing planning and engineering for our E-ACAM builds during 2024.

We do not expect capital spend on these projects to ramp up until after this year. Along with that, we have pulled back on capital in our incumbent markets knowing that E-ACAM investment will be coming soon. Although capital spending on new fiber builds is expected to be lower in 2024, we will not be slowing down our sales efforts. We will be very focused on ramping up broadband penetration and revenues across all of our deployed fiber addresses during 2024. Before turning over the call, I want to once again thank the team. We have an amazing group of associates who navigated a dynamic and challenging year. The team has demonstrated time and again, they can execute and pivot as the business evolves. We ended the year with a lot of momentum, and I look forward to what 2024 brings.

I’ll now turn the call back to Colleen.

Colleen Thompson: Okay. Just as a reminder, we will not be answering questions related to the strategic review of UScellular today. Operator, we are ready for the first question.

Operator: Thank you. [Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from Ric Prentiss from Raymond James. Please go ahead. Your line is open.

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