The latest Global Eagle investor presentation, which was filed with the SEC on November 27, makes for some pretty entertaining reading, much like the script for one of those Hollywood disaster movies that Row 44′s new owners may be fond of. Of course it requires some pretty convoluted logic to argue that Row 44, which is selling equipment at cost and losing money on every megabyte of data carried across its network, is worth $250M.
That’s especially true when the company fully intends to continue to sell equipment at cost and intends connectivity to be a “lower margin” service. In addition, despite a new contract with Southwest, which is expected to lead to a near 50% increase in connectivity revenue per passenger by 2014, the connectivity service is projected to produce less than $5M of gross margin (not EBITDA) that year. Instead, Row 44 and Global Eagle “believe the next frontier for growth will be providing quality entertainment, vast entertainment, first through the airlines into a projected multi-billion-dollar marketplace in the air” and so are projecting that Row 44 will make $49M of gross margin in 2014 from “TV/IPTV/VOD” and portal services.
What’s wrong with this picture? At its simplest, Row 44 is projecting that the take rate for connectivity on Southwest will grow to 6.5% (not outrageous, but perhaps ambitious given recent trends for Gogo and the predominantly leisure orientation of Southwest’s customer base) and the take rate for the “TV/IPTV/VOD” service will be 5.75% in 2014. Recall that passengers are paying $5 for internet connectivity on Southwest, which is the same as Row44′s assumed $5 per passenger fee for TV/IPTV/VOD. That’s all well and good if this was seatback IFE, available (and very visible) to all passengers with attractive early window content (very few people pay for live TV onboard planes in the US today), but remember that the only way to get access to the “TV/IPTV/VOD” service is through an Internet-enabled portable device.
Why on earth would almost as many passengers decide to pay (the same amount) for access to just the walled garden “TV/IPTV/VOD” service as pay for access to the rest of the Internet (where they might expect to have access to any content they choose – unless Row 44 decides to cripple the Internet service, which of course will lead to its own problems)? Will Row 44 have some incredibly compelling early-window content? Well studio executives apparently “Lol’d” when asked about whether they would allow early window content to be streamed over wireless IFE networks. And remember that while you might happily access email and social media on your iPhone, its far more difficult to watch long form video on a phone for an hour or two, so in reality even less devices may be suitable for watching the content services than for accessing the Internet.
Row 44 also intends to generate $19M ($0.15 per passenger carried) from its portal business by 2014, even though it has “only nominal revenue from the portal business today”. As another point of comparison, Row44 expects to make more than half of its passenger revenue from the video and portal services by 2014, when today Gogo only generates 2% of its Commercial Aviation revenue from “Gogo Vision, Gogo Signature Services and other service revenue” (i.e. video and portal services combined, plus other services such as VOIP for flight crews).
Fundamentally, I simply can’t understand why on earth Global Eagle think that this business is a good investment (though lack of understanding might be one reason). The history of inflight connectivity is littered with failures, and even Gogo, the market leader, is facing challenges in getting a return on its investment, let alone completing a successful IPO. In every respect, Row 44 is a worse business than Gogo: it has substantial ongoing bandwidth costs, far more expensive equipment, and (in Southwest) probably the least attractive airline in the US from the point of view of demand (few business travelers, short flights and no power outlets). I can only conclude that, as in the picture above, Global Eagle is suffering from the Icarus Syndrome, and flying too close to the sun for its own good.