Looking at Helio With an Investor's Eye (ELNK, SKM)

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Includes: ELNK, SKM
by: Jon Ogg

Today is the launch date for Helio, a new mobile service geared toward young adults deemed in the twenty-something demographic -- though the company is targeting those aged 18 to 34. Helio is a joint venture between Earthlink (NASDAQ:ELNK) and Korea's SK Telecom (NYSE:SKM) that runs off of Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) CDMA technology on space rented on the Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) network.

The investor relations site notes that the company is capitalized with $440M worth of investments from its partners. This is a new service that includes many next generation features as well as what they claim is an exclusive arrangement with NewsCorp's (NASDAQ:NWS) MySpace and video, audio, 3G, games and the like. Helio's target is reportedly set to be 3 million users over the next 3 years

The joint venture does have an interesting and capable management team: Earthlink's founder Sky Dayton is the CEO; the President & COO is Dr. Wonhee Sull, the former R&D Platform head of SK Telecom; the CFO is Todd Teppin, former CFO of Internet paid-search giant Overture.com; Stuart Redsun is the EVP of Marketing, who was the worlwide general manager of brand marketing for Motorola since 2002; Ali Zanjani is EVP of sales and distribution, formerly the president of consumer retail at Sprint PCS; Terry Boyle is the VP of Operations, who served as vice president of operations at PeoplePC in 2000 that sold to Earhlink in 2002; Michael Grossi is VP of Business Development, a former vice president/partner at Adventis.

Interestingly enough I started typing in affluent zip code searches for New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles and found that most of the distributors of Helio are independent wireless shops that resell many wireless plans, rather than at any of the big box retailers or at any of the big electronics sales behemoths like Best Buy, Radio Shack or Circuit City. After checking those websites, they did not mention anything about it. The importance of this is that in order to successfully grow many new launches it is often required that gadgets and phones be sold and supported by some of the big retailers because they are deemed key destination points for this target audience.

It is currently expected to sell at 1,000 retail outlets by the end of this month and expected to sell at 3,000 retail outlets by the end of the year. Retail partners will include music retailers Tower Records and Sam Goody, as well as more than 100 university campus bookstores around the country.

From an investor's point of view this looks and feels like it may be a coin toss. SK Telecom (SKM) has a market cap of $20+ Billion after converting the Korean ADR's, but Earthlink (ELNK) currently has a market cap of merely $1.19 Billion at current prices. With Earthlink having such a smaller market cap and with this being more US-based, you would expect Earthlink to be the larger beneficiary of this IF it is an astounding success.

This service does seem very interesting, considering how most US cell phones do not really have 3G capabilities (even though most claim to) and that it really ties in some mobile computing, blogging, and constant contact. The worrisome issue here is that both the phones (starting at $250.00) and the monthly service plan (starting at $85/month) are going to be priced out of the typical range of the target demographics, but the plans do include the wireless data packages.

They also need more distribution partners, although it is very possible that they already have that in the works and it may just be too new for all of the resellers to have it up on their sites.

While Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Origami mini-PC launch is significantly more expensive and even with so many other communication gadgets out there such as Palm (PALM), Blackberry (RIMM) and Sony's PSP (NYSE:SNE), it seems like the verdict is still out on Helio. The launch campaign hasn't exactly been stellar, which is why you are just getting all of this today instead of a week or two before the launch date.

Some plan details:

All-In Membership Includes Unlimited: MySpace on Helio; H.O.T. (Helio on Top) Service; 3G Network Access; Wireless internet plus Yahoo! Search; Video Messaging*; Picture + Text Messaging*; Data Transfer; Night and weekend calling.

CALLING PLANS:
1000 Anytime Minutes $85 / month
1500 Anytime Minutes $100 / month
2500 Anytime Minutes $135 / month

Kickflip for $250:
Loaded Camera - 2 megapixel, 4x digital zoom, with built-in flash for night shots;
Video Camera - MPEG 4 video camera for action shots anywhere you and your friends go;
Big Screen - Large 2.2" QVGA, 240 x 320 resolution screen;
Mega Memory - 70 MB + up to 1200 friends' contacts! Get extra memory via memory cards;
Internet Surfing - Yahoo! Search and one-click access to your favorite websites and MySpace;
Entertainment - Plays the latest 3D games and also supports: MP3, MPEG 4 player, VOD, MMS, Mobile Flash and TV output.

Hero for $275:
Huge Screen - Large 2.2” QVGA, 260K color TFT-LAC, 240 x 320 resolution;
Fast Processor - Power chip to support cutting-edge multimedia, 3D games, and MPEG 4 video;
Mega Memory - 70 MB + extra memory available via MicroSD Card (TransFlash);
Loaded Camera - 2 megapixel, built-in flash, 4x digital zoom, and MPEG 4 video camera;
Superior Audio - Built-in dual full duplex stereo speakers for awesome video and gaming sound;
Entertainment - Personal Entertainment Center supports: MP3, MPEG 4/H.264 player, QVGA video, VOD, MMS, Mobile Flash.

Here is the list of content partners: