Row44′s content strategy meltdown…

Posted in Aeronautical, Financials, Services at 1:24 pm by timfarrar

As readers of this blog know, I’ve not been a fan of Row44′s content-focused strategy for inflight connectivity, and I pointed out how ludicrous Global Eagle’s forecasts were last November. However, the meltdown of this strategy has come even sooner than I expected, with today’s announcement that instead of charging for streaming video content on Southwest planes, the service will instead be sponsored by DISH Network and made available for free to passengers, in exchange for watching a 30 second commercial.

The fact that Row44 has struck this deal now, only a few months after launching the inflight TV service, suggests that the paid take-up has been dire (which is hardly a surprise, given the Southwest customer profile, their average flight length and the lack of onboard power outlets). Even worse, according to DISH’s CMO, the sponsorship has no announced end date (although it will run at least through the end of this year), suggesting that instead of being a temporary deal to boost awareness (like Gogo’s Thanksgiving to New Year 2010 free inflight WiFi offer, sponsored by Google), it may never be possible to get many passengers to pay for the service. This move may also be a pre-emptive counter to JetBlue’s plan to offer free inflight WiFi to its passengers, but will do nothing to boost take rates for Row44′s paid internet service, and will more likely undermine them now that Southwest passengers can instead watch video content for free.

The business projections presented by Global Eagle last November (setting out their supposed “highly visible” 2014 adjusted EBITDA forecast) estimated that the TV/VOD/IPTV service would have a take rate of 5.75% and generate $5 per user in 2014 (i.e. $0.29 per passenger opportunity), plus a further $0.15 per passenger in portal services. Although DISH has not revealed its sponsorship payment, according to my calculations based on Gogo’s S-1 filing, Google paid $7M for its 6 week sponsorship, or roughly $0.28 per passenger carried (about $2.50 per Internet session) during the period. Its a safe bet that DISH is paying a lot less than that for an ongoing deal: I’d estimate roughly $1M per month (~$0.10 per passenger carried), or about a third of Global Eagle’s projection for revenues from these services in 2014.

UPDATE (7/1): It was pointed out to me that the sponsorship deal is between DISH and Southwest, so it’s not clear how much of DISH’s sponsorship payments are being passed on to Row44 or indeed if Southwest will be making additional payments to Row44 to subsidize the TV service. That is possible, but its hard to believe that Southwest would want to provide a large subsidy to Row44 for an indefinite duration, when Southwest originally expected to be receiving a share of revenues, just like from inflight WiFi (and when Gogo is offering airlines a ~30% revenue share from its Gogo Vision services).

UPDATE (7/3): Global Eagle confirmed in a press release that “its Row 44 subsidiary has entered into a groundbreaking content and connectivity partnership with its customer Southwest Airlines” or (without the spin), that Row44 has changes the terms of its TV services agreement with Southwest, presumably to a flat fee rather than a revenue share. Undoubtedly this means a reduction compared to Row44′s projected 2014 revenues, although when the next set of financial results come out, look for further spin describing the change as providing a significant boost to revenues in 2013Q3 (compared of course to the near total absence of content revenues in Q2).

Based on Gogo’s published data, revenue from portal services is also going to be vastly less than Global Eagle estimates, while there has also been “an increase in license fees paid for the content delivered to airline customers” (which are unlikely to reduce, even if revenues are lower than expectations) and bizarrely, Global Eagle appears to have ignored any revenue share that may be payable to Southwest in its assumption of a 87% gross margin on content services. By my estimates, even ignoring any negative impact on Row44′s connectivity revenues from the free TV offering, that could leave a $30M to $40M hole in Global Eagle’s projected $75M of adjusted EBITDA in 2014. Put another way, it seems that this business really wasn’t “highly visible” after all.

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