In-Flight Phones: Let's Talk Profits

It's been a good year for Gogo  (NASDAQ: GOGO  ) . The in-flight Internet connectivity provider had a strong quarter and the stock is up 67% year to date. Gogo's total revenue was up over 45%, from $57.8 million to $85.4 million YTD. Growth was fueled by service revenue and increased in-flight broadband installations.

ViaSat (NASDAQ: VSAT  )  provides award-winning technology for in-flight communications. The firm is the 2013 World Technology Award winner in the communication and technology category. It won thanks to its high-capacity satellite system. ViaSat is up 53% YTD, while revenue reached $353.9 million, up 25% compared to last year.

New product
Gogo currently has 5,127 satellites, as well as 1,847 Air-To-Ground,  or ATG, cabin systems used in airplanes. These ATGs are routers for airplanes -- the same way friends or family can use your 2Wire router to connect to the Internet, travelers can use Gogo's ATGs to get their Facebook fix.

Fueled by increased business aviation interest in in-flight Internet connectivity, Gogo had a very strong quarter, with $50.6 million in revenue. The increased revenue is a result of high shipments of ATG units. Gogo's strong ATG shipments are due to the devices' lightweight, faster Internet speeds. Fourth-quarter ATG shipments rose from 170 to 230. Gogo also introduced the new ATG 2000 for turboprops and small jets.

Gogo also has something for business air travelers -- Gogo Text & Talk. Business air travelers now have an affordable and easy way to stay connected while they fly. Gogo Text & Talk service allows passengers to send text messages, plus place and receive calls using their own phones.

ViaStat equipped JetBlue's Airbus A320s with 12 Mbps Wi-Fi. With a 12 Mbps transfer rate, ViaStat in-flight "FlyFi" service is fast and will be available this month. The service will be installed on all of JetBlue's Airbus A320s and A321s, as well as its Embraer 190s aircraft. JetBlue's entire fleet of 370+ aircraft will be equipped with the in-flight Wi-Fi by 2015.

FlyFi will have a "free component" until after the first 30 planes are fully equipped, sometime next year. It's not exactly clear what you'll get without paying a cent, but you can expect the basics (email, browsing) to be available without charge. Streaming video, however, could carry a fee (JetBlue is still working on its pricing model there, but ViaStat's FlyFi will have a freemium mode, at least initially). JetBlue is just not sure of the pricing structure, yet. Basic email and browsing will be free. Streaming, for instance, may require payment. Its all up in the air right now.

We got contracts
Gogo recently signed Japan Airlines and will provide in-flight Internet connectivity for the airline's mainline fleet of 77 planes. In this deal, Japan Airlines will pay the upfront equipment costs and receive a 20% revenue share with Gogo. Gogo also signed Virgin America to a five-year contract. The deal includes Gogo technology upgrades, as well as a partnership launching Gogo's new Ground-To-Orbit, or GTO, technology, which is a blend of satellite and ATG technologies. Virgin was interested in the GTO's performance -- 70mbps. Gogo has set the summer of 2014 as the GTO launch for Virgin America.

This summer, JetBlue doubled its in-flight contract commitment with ViaStat. The $20 million contact reaffirmed JetBlue's partnership with ViaStat. ViaStat also has a number of active defense contracts -- the company is one of 20 prime contractors on a $10 billion U.S. army contract, not to mention ViaStat's $34 million Space and Naval Warfare Systems command contract.

Can your hear me now?
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed for expanded use of devices during flights. The FAA concluded that there are no technical issues concerning the use of devices or in-flight communications. Based on these facts, the Federal Communications Commission will propose in-flight mobile phone use.

The FCC proposal will be discussed during the commission meeting next month. The commission will invite comments and weigh concerns. Final proposal approval could take several months before a decision is reached.

Mixed signals
The carriers were surprised by the FCC proposal. Some carriers have already thrown down the gauntlet against in-flight passenger communication. Delta has emphatically stated it will not allow in-flight cell phone use. Southwest Airlines and Virgin America will not allow in-flight calls, but Virgin just signed a five-year deal with Gogo -- go figure. JetBlue at least seems to been open to change. The stance on in-flight calls may become a way for carriers to gain market share based on air travelers' acceptance or rejection of the FCC decision.

In a recent FAA survey of 1,600 American adults, the results were split: 51% against in-flight communication, and 47% in favor of in-flight communication. It was a split decision that may likely only annoy both sides of the debate. Mixed reaction to in-flight cell phone use aside, Gogo and ViaStat are uniquely positioned to grow and profit when in-flight passenger communication becomes a reality.

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