Talk America's Growth Days May Be Numbered

The FCC's latest pricing order -- due in a few weeks -- could give more power back to the Bells.
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Editor's Note: This column first appeared in

The Tech Edge

, a proprietary newsletter, on Tuesday, June 3. For more information on

The Tech Edge

, click here

.

Talk America's

(TALK)

stock performance has spoken volumes to investors, but some say that happy script is about to change.

The Reston, Va., phone service reseller has surged back from the brink of obscurity this year, and its shares have more than doubled. Owing largely to a change of business strategy, a generous pricing mandate from the feds and Wall Street's embrace of any speculative tech play that promises growth, Talk America told a convincing story.

However, observers fear that at its core this is a company where success or failure depends on the shifting whims of regulatory decree. And worse, after watching thousands of customers jump ship for cheaper calling plans, the Baby Bells have launched their own all-you-can-eat offers that promise to slow, if not reverse, Talk America's progress.

The pricing rules in question are the much-debated unbundled network elements platform, or UNE-P, a purportedly pro-competitive policy that forces local phone giants to rent their networks to rivals at steep discounts. On Feb. 20, the day Talk America started its recent rise, the Federal Communications Commission handed down a preliminary ruling giving jurisdiction on the pricing matters over to the states, stipulating a three-year phase out.

As readers may recall, the decision was seen as a huge blow to the Bells, which had been losing hundreds of thousands of customers per quarter to outfits like

MCI

,

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

and Talk America. The FCC's final version of the order is due out in the coming weeks and is expected to spell out slightly more favorable terms for the Bells.

But the Bells haven't exactly been sitting on their hands. Both

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

and

SBC

(SBC)

(SBC:NYSE), the nation's two largest phone companies, have introduced flat-rate unlimited calling plans for local and long-distance service.

Though it is very early in the process, the Bells have already managed to slow the pace of their customers' flight. In the first quarter of 2003, SBC lost 770,000 local lines, compared with 810,000 in the previous quarter. And similarly, Verizon lost 386,000 lines in the first quarter, far fewer than the 470,000 in the previous period.

That trend reversal suggests that the days of Talk America's unfettered growth are numbered, say observers.

Much to new management's credit, Talk America -- formerly called Tel-Save -- has improved dramatically from a business that was rapidly deteriorating in a collapsing long-distance market and saddled with a costly relationship to

AOL

(AOL)

. After the departure of the gun-toting, scandal-plagued Daniel Borislow, the new CEO Gabe Battista plotted a new course for the company.

Switching from a flailing long-distance business to a local bundling strategy three years ago to capitalize on cheap local resale discounts, Battista has proved to be a shrewd operator. Talk America has posted four straight quarters of sales growth and six consecutive quarters of profits. The company has also trimmed its debt load to $74 million from $120 million a year ago.

Executives recently raised the company's financial projections, calling for a 2003 net profit of $27 million on $370 million in revenue. Analysts had expected earnings of $20 million and sales of $360 million.

Though the company operates in 27 states, its largest concentration of customers is in Michigan, where it has 5% of the local phone business in some markets. Notably, Michigan has some of the lowest discount rates in the nation, and SBC, the dominant phone company there, has vowed to win back its customers.

If Battista is expecting any impact from the Bells' new bundling strategy, he wasn't showing it at a recent Wall Street gathering.

Speaking to investors at a conference in New York last week, Battista shrugged off the Bell's bundling threat. "At the present time, we don't see that impacting our ability to grow."

But others do, especially now that this growth stock trades nearly three times higher than its 52-week low. For the tech pragmatists, talk isn't so cheap.