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Touch America expands network center, faces splitoff vote

Wed, 09/05/2001 - 8:00pm
Anne Kerven

Touch America announced a $1 million, 3,000-square-foot expansion of its Network Operations Center in Butte, Mont. Parent Montana Power Co. also will hold a special shareholder's meeting Sept. 14 to vote on the company's restructuring.

The expansion brings the center to 8,700 square feet on the building's second floor, says spokesman Cort Freeman. The 15-year-old center oversees the company's fiber optic national backbone. Presently about 22,000 miles long, it will extend 26,000 miles by its year-end completion, with Frame ATM and IP "on top of it," he says. At that point, Touch America will "do swaps" with others who are completing their routes. Permits permitting, that should bring the company what it needs.

Almost.

Montana Power Co. will hold a special shareholder meeting Sept. 14 to vote on restructuring. Freeman says the plan is to separate Touch America from Montana Power and sell the utility to NorthWestern Corp. The vote will include redemption of two issues of preferred stock.

The utility sale should bring $1.1 billion — $602 million in cash and $488 million in debt, Freeman says. That, plus another $697.5 million from previous or pending sales of oil, coal and power assets, will go toward completing the network, lighting it and "conducting business in a prudent manner," Freemen says.

The company has drawn some fire for the restructuring, after an Aug. 22 Wall Street Journal article outlined the deal and its impact on investors and on power customers in the area. Freeman says Montana Power is the only locally based company traded on the NYSE. "So we get scrutinized much more heavily" than other utilities.

Freeman says the company is confident it will get the approval, but if it doesn't, Montana Power will find other ways to complete the deal. The two businesses are too different, and confuse investors, he says, adding that management wants to put its efforts into one area. No plan B yet, although other options may include spinning one off or selling either. For now, "Plan B is to separate the companies," Freeman says.

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