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Heard On The Street: Redialing The Internet Frenzy?

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November 13, 2003
By Peter Grant and Gregory Zuckerman

To technology aficionados, Internet-based phone service means nothing less than a revolution in the telecom business.
To investors, it means something else: a way to make, or lose, a bundle of money in a group of hot stocks.

As demand grows for systems that use a technology known as "voice over Internet protocol," or VOIP, investors already have driven up shares of companies hoping to corner the latest hot tech market. SpectraLink Corp., a Boulder, Colo., company serving the new market, has seen its stock more than quadruple in the past year -- a typical run-up in a sector that some investors say is starting to smell like the Internet business in the late 1990s.

The trick now, as it was then, is to pick companies that haven't already soared too high, but still have bright prospects for sustained growth. One gauge of the interest level: When UBS Securities hosted a Voip conference in New York in September, it expected fewer than 100 investors to come; more than 600 showed up and UBS had to find a larger hotel to host the meeting.

Analysts say that despite the stock-market froth, there still could be gains ahead for some companies trying to establish themselves as Voip players, including Avaya Inc., Comcast Corp., Verso Technologies Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and AudioCodes Ltd.

At the same time, the growing embrace of Voip could add to the woes of telephone titans like Verizon Communications Inc. and SBC Communications Inc., which are in danger of losing market share to telephone upstarts.

If all this sounds familiar -- and vaguely alarming -- it's because investors have been here before. Many became enamored with Voip businesses during the telecom boom of the late 1990s, and wound up suffering staggering losses. Not only were these businesses caught up in the downdraft of the telecom disaster, but they also suffered from the growing pains of a technology that was only rolled out commercially in 1995. Many customers, especially businesses, found the sound quality unacceptable. Now most of the technical kinks have been worked out, and demand is booming for the technology, which converts voice into data and sends it along the Internet or some other data network in the same way an e-mail, photo or text file is sent.

The potential for cost savings is enormous. That's partly because transmitting data is much less expensive than transmitting voice. Also, when voice and data travel on the same network, a wide array of new features can be added to telephone service, such as listing e-mail and voice messages together on a computer screen.

About 15% of all phones shipped to businesses today use Voip technology. But that figure is expected to exceed 50% by 2006, according to Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn., market-research firm. Voip also will increasingly be used for residential calling as cable companies and start-ups, like Vonage Holdings Corp., get into the act of providing the service.

The problem is that some Voip companies have soared so high that even a boom in the business won't be enough to support their stock price. For instance, shares of Sonus Networks Inc., a manufacturer of Voip equipment, have skyrocketed from 18 cents last October to $8.96 (see related article). That values the company at about $2.3 billion, or more than 16 times projected 2004 revenue, says Anthony Stoss, analyst with Craig-Hallum Capital Group, of Minneapolis. Typical technology companies trade at multiples of about three to eight times revenue, he says.

The rush into Voip stocks also catapulted shares of VocalTec Communications Ltd., a pioneer in the business, from under 50 cents a share at the beginning of the year to $7.60 in July. But since then, VocalTec's stock has dropped back to under $3 as the Israeli company reported disappointing results, raising concerns that others who have soared could face similar resistance if they don't meet expectations.

With so many of these stocks already trading at nosebleed levels, some investors are focusing on large telecom companies quickly seizing market share in the area. Cisco, for example, is a leading supplier of Voip phone systems to businesses, selling about $250 million of Voip equipment and phones in the third quarter of this year, according to Eastern Management Group, a telecom research firm. Cisco is expected to rack up $1 billion a year in revenue from the business next year.

Comcast, the country's largest cable company, also could cash in if Voip phones in the home become popular. Comcast is expected to launch Voip service next year. While other big-name media companies, including Cablevision Systems Corp. and Time Warner Inc. have begun to roll out their own Voip services earlier, Comcast has the greatest potential opportunity to profit because of its market dominance, says Aryeh Bourkoff, an analyst at UBS.

UBS has advised Comcast on transactions in the past. Mr. Bourkoff doesn't own shares of the company.

Meanwhile, Avaya, the company spun off by Lucent Technologies Inc. three years ago, is one of the leading sellers of Voip phone systems to businesses. Avaya's shares have swelled to more than $13 from under $2 in February but still have room to grow, according to analysts.

Avaya's stock still trades at a discount to peers such as Cisco and Nortel Networks Corp., a sign of value, notes Krishna Rangarajan, an analyst at CRT Capital Group.

Companies like Avaya, Comcast and Cisco may be good investments for investors who want to bet on the technology, but don't want the risks of betting on a company that is solely focused on VOIP. Another benefit: If these companies' Voip business takes off, it's likely to spill over into other areas. Comcast, for example, likely would be able to retain more of its cable and data subscribers if they also depend on Comcast for their phone service.

Ittai Kidron, an analyst with CIBC World Markets, is bullish on AudioCodes, an Israeli company that has developed, among other things, software that converts voice into data. (CIBC doesn't have investment-banking ties to AudioCodes.)

AudioCodes' stock traded at less than $2 last year, but now trades over $9. But Mr. Kidron, who has a $10 target price on the company, believes the stock could grow beyond that level next year when the analyst expects AudioCodes to begin recording earnings -- for the first time.

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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

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