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Goldman Gets Akamai Wrong

By Tim Beyers – Updated Nov 11, 2016 at 6:29PM

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Sell Akamai? I'd rather not, thanks.

Goldman Sachs wants me to sell my stake in Akamai Technologies (NASDAQ:AKAM). Quoting from yesterday's research note:

Beyond valuation, we are also concerned about intensifying competition as private entrants proliferate and selected large network operators begin to eye the space ... While portions of Akamai's customer base are likely relatively immune from competitive pressures, we believe that the majority of Akamai's 2,700 customers will be able to put increasing pressure on the company as contracts come up for renewal this year.

My response? Go sell crazy somewhere else.

Whining on Wall Street
Of course, I can't entirely blame Goldman for its conclusion. A huge part of the problem is Wall Street and the caffeine-and-sugar crowd that moves in and out of stocks like Jeff Gordon at Daytona.

To these traders -- no one with this itchy a trigger finger can reasonably be called an investor -- Akamai was worth only a few points. Bank 'em and move on, the thinking goes.

But Goldman isn't entirely blameless. New entrants? Large players? Talk about a sweeping analysis. Why not just say anyone with a data center is a threat? It's happened before. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) was dubbed a competitor once for that very reason.

Here, AT&T (NYSE:T) is allegedly the gorilla that could eat Akamai's bananas. Ma Bell, which reportedly outsources a fair amount of content delivery to Akamai, is thinking of building its own content delivery network (CDN).

The horror!

Or is it? The risk in Goldman's analysis is that it ignores the details. Here's how Dan Rayburn, a veteran watcher of the content delivery industry, put it recently:

Based on my briefing with AT&T and the details I gave out about the scale of their build-out, if they end this year with the 400Gbps they are aiming for, across all of their CDN service, video, software downloads, app delivery etc. ... that would give them a fraction of what Akamai has. Not to mention no transcoding service, content management, DRM and all the other functionality that Akamai's Stream OS product has.

Translation: Even with the build-out, AT&T is still a lightweight compared to Akamai.

And let's not whitewash history. Big data center operators were going to displace Akamai years ago. They didn't because content delivery isn't merely a bandwidth game. You can't just buy servers and storage and become a content delivery network. At its essence Akamai is Google -- a math company that created an algorithm for Web traffic delivery rather than search.

Courts have upheld Akamai's intellectual property rights in this area. That's no small thing; it means that every competitor, AT&T included, is going to have to pass the test that former peer Speedera and current rival Limelight (NASDAQ:LLNW) failed.

Once more with the numbers
Goldman may have a point in that pricing will take a toll on some Akamai customers. Churn rose to 4% in the most recent quarter, for example.

But the essence of the business remains. More than 100 customers spend at least $1 million on Akamai services annually. And its average revenue per customer was up 21% to $23,200 in Q1. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Microsoft are among the list.

Finally, I think Goldman's thesis depends on the market for content delivery slowing or at least normalizing. Only then would a bare-knuckles fight for market share make sense.

Evidence points to the contrary. Online video is surging, up 64% in March, according to comScore. And web content is important enough that CBS just agreed to acquire CNET (NASDAQ:CNET) for $11.50 a share.

Even so, Goldman may be right over the very short term. Churn may rise as industry newcomers play the cheap card. Over the long term though, in tech, low-cost leaders rarely become market leaders. Those that provide value -- Google, VMware (NYSE:VMW), and, yes, Akamai -- do.

So go ahead, traders. Listen to Goldman. Sell your shares. I know of some Foolish investors who'd enjoy the buying opportunity.


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Stocks Mentioned

Akamai Technologies Stock Quote
Akamai Technologies
$95.10 (0.25%) $0.24
Alphabet Stock Quote
$101.03 (0.04%) $0.04
Apple Stock Quote
$147.50 (-0.36%) $0.53
AT&T Stock Quote
$19.18 (-0.49%) $0.10
VMware Stock Quote
$121.17 (-0.26%) $0.32

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