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[Have you taken the FREE 30-day trial to the Fool Community?] Myths and facts about AOL:
1. Myth: The America Online service is the growth engine for AOL Time Warner Inc.
Fact: America Online is, for now at least, just another premium subscriber service provided by AOL. The real growth engine for this company, for now, is its cable division. Through cable, AOL will offer pay-per-view movie services, premium high-speed Internet service, bundling options that could increase magazine sales, etc. America Online stands to grow revenues by exploiting AOL's broadband properties -- and not the other way around -- in the near future.
Moreover, online subscriber growth is slowing as the industry matures toward saturation. Cable, by contrast, is expected to continue to grow dramatically, both in terms of new subscribers and as a result of new services providing an increasing number of revenue streams.
This could change, of course, if consumer sentiment were to shift away from cable broadband access to DSL, satellite, or some other technology. Broadband is not expected to become widespread until about 2005-2008, and the real profits may not come until the wireless Internet takes off through the use of Microsoft's ".NET" and/or AOL's "Magic Carpet" services. (So far, it bears noting that AOL trails Microsoft badly in developing these services, although AOL's hefty lead in current online subscribers nonetheless gives it a formidable advantage toward keeping these customers.) DSL and/or satellite may yet make a dent in cable's dominance as the means by which people are obtaining broadband online services.
But for now, it is generally conceded that cable access could shape the limits of AOL's broadband service offerings in the decades to come.
2. Myth: AOL is not heavily dependent on the advertising market.
Fact: AOL is extremely dependent on advertising. Every division in the company feeds off advertising, and, in a better ad market, AOL might actually have made its numbers. The advertising swoon has also led, indirectly, to a credibility gap for the company: To fill unsold advertising space, AOL has sold advertising from one division to another (e.g., America Online and CNN advertise on one another). This has raised questions about how AOL accounts for these sales, and AOL's reluctance to specifically address these concerns division by division has cost AOL the confidence of some analysts and some of its larger shareholders.
3. Myth: AOL wants ISP service access to AT&T Broadband's and Comcast's cable pipes as soon as possible and its failure to strike a deal so far is cause for alarm.
Fact: Shareholders certainly want this deal ASAP because of their concerns about AOL's seeming lack of appreciation for the expected future shift to broadband services, but AOL will almost certainly wait to strike a deal, at least until the merger (assuming it is approved) closes. First, its major leverage in striking a deal is its offer to buy out the 25% of TWE that AT&T Broadband currently owns. AOL is likely to use this to buy its way into the combined enterprise, rather than make a deal now just for access to the AT&T properties. Second, AOL will likely wait to see if federal regulators will deny the merger or insist on open-access requirements that could give AOL additional leverage in striking a deal for access on favorable terms.
4. Myth: Microsoft's financial support for Comcast will render the company unwilling to strike a deal for offering America Online.
Fact: At this point, AT&T Broadband is a debt-laden, money-losing enterprise, albeit one expected to grow revenues dramatically in the future, hence its high price tag. Comcast wants to immediately "monetize" its customers to pay off the debt. An immediate source of cash would be an AOL buyout of AT&T's share of TWE, and Comcast is eager to strike such a deal. Further, Comcast sees AOL's high share of online subscribers and wants the opportunity to direct those customers in its cable-serviced areas toward higher-premium services like broadband Internet access, from which it, too, can profit. Comcast and AOL thus have a common interest in striking a deal for access. If AOL cannot strike a deal with Comcast, it will likely look to expand its cable holdings by going after, say, Cox. But this would likely be a move of last resort, rather than a preferred option.
5. Myth: AOL lost $54 billion last quarter.
Fact: AOL's market capitalization lost more than $200 billion since the merger, of which approximately $54 billion can be attributed to "good will" that can no longer legitimately be regarded as a bona fide asset given the company's current market cap, and thus that, under recently adopted accounting rules, must be accounted for now rather than amortized over the next 20 or so years. In terms of money changing hands, AOL virtually broke even last quarter, beating consensus earnings estimates handily but failing
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Myths and facts about AOL: