Its been interesting to hear the feedback on my new ViaSat profile that I published last weekend, especially with regard to ViaSat’s supposed technical advantages over the HTS competition. As I noted in the report, ViaSat has apparently been struggling with its beamhopping technology, reducing the capacity of its upcoming ViaSat-2 satellite from an originally planned 350Gbps (i.e. 2.5 times the capacity of ViaSat-1) to around 300Gbps at the moment.
However, even that reduced target may require extra spectrum to achieve, with ViaSat asking the FCC in late May for permission to use 600MHz of additional spectrum in the LMDS band. Fundamentally this appears to be due to the reduced efficiency that ViaSat now expects to achieve relative to that set out in its original beamhopping patent. The patent suggested that for a ViaSat-2 design (with only 1.5GHz of spectrum, rather than the 2.1GHz ViaSat now intends to use), the efficiency could be as high as 3bps/Hz on the forward link (i.e. 225Gbps) and 1.8bps/Hz on the return link (i.e. 135Gbps) for a total of 360Gbps of capacity. But at Satellite 2016, ViaSat’s CEO indicated that an efficiency (apparently averaged between the forward and return links) of only 1.5bps/Hz should be expected, no better than existing HTS Ka-band satellites and nearly 40% lower than ViaSat originally estimated.
A notable side-effect of this additional spectrum utilization (even assuming approval is granted by the FCC) is that new terminals will be required, including replacement of both the antenna and the modem for aircraft that want to make use of the extended coverage of ViaSat-2. That’s why American Airlines is waiting until the second half of 2017 for this new terminal to be developed, before it starts to install ViaSat’s connectivity on new aircraft.
While the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers Order yesterday does contemplate continued use of the LMDS band for satellite gateways (though utilization by user terminals appears more difficult), it looks like other Ka-band providers intend to shift more of their future gateway operations up to the Q/V-band, rather than building hundreds of Ka-band gateways as ViaSat will need for its ViaSat-3 satellite. That decision could reduce the costs of competing ground segment deployments substantially, while retaining continuity for user links. Thus, as a result of the lower than expected beamhopping efficiency, it remains to be seen whether ViaSat’s technology will now be meaningfully superior to that of competitors, notably SES and Inmarsat who both appear poised to invest heavily in Ka-band.
SES gave a presentation at the Global Connected Aircraft Summit last month, depicting its plans to build three new Ka-band HTS satellites for global coverage as shown above, and the first of these satellites could be ordered very shortly, because as SES pointed out in its recent Investor Day presentation, it has EUR120M of uncommitted capex this year and nearly EUR1.5B available in the period through 2020.
Meanwhile Inmarsat is hard at work designing a three satellite Inmarsat-7 Ka-band system, with in excess of 100Gbps of capacity per satellite. Although the results of the Brexit referendum may complicate its efforts, Inmarsat is hoping to secure a substantial European Commission investment later this year, which would replace the four proposed Ka-band satellites that Eutelsat had previously contemplated building using Juncker fund money.
So now it appears we face (at least) a three way fight for the global Ka-band market, with deep-pocketed rivals sensing that ViaSat may not have all the technological advantages it had expected and Hughes poised to secure at least a 6 month (and possibly as much as a 9-12 month) lead to market for Jupiter-2 compared to ViaSat-2. Victory for ViaSat is far from certain, and perhaps even doubtful, but beyond 2020 Ka-band therefore appears very likely to be the dominant source of GEO HTS capacity.
Its been interesting to see the various reactions to today’s announcement from the FCC that Stage 1 of the Reverse Auction concluded with a total clearing cost of $86.4B (apparently excluding nearly $2B for the $1.75B relocation fund and other auction costs).
Most opinions, including my own, were that this amount is laughable in view of how much wireless operators have available to spend on buying spectrum. Some have suggested this means that broadcasters are pricing themselves out of the auction by asking for an excessive amount of money. But the reality is that the FCC set the initial prices (of up to $1B per station) and all broadcasters had to decide was whether or not to participate and if so, at what point to drop out.
Importantly, if the FCC had no excess supply of TV stations willing to offer their spectrum in the auction, then it was obligated to freeze the bids at the opening price. It seems very unlikely that if a broadcaster was willing to participate at an opening bid of say $900M (in New York) then it would decide to drop out at $800M or even $500M. And notably the total opening bids if the FCC moved every single station off-air would be only $342B.
So even though the FCC has described broadcaster participation in the auction as “strong”, it seems that this statement may be code for “somewhat disappointing” because it has proved impossible to obtain sufficient participation to lower the opening bids in a number of key markets, if the full 126MHz target set by the FCC is to be cleared.
Of course the FCC would have been criticized if it had set a lower initial clearance target and it subsequently became evident that sufficient participation existed to reach the maximum. However, it now seems plausible that Round 1 of the forward auction could go nowhere, because there is little reason for participants to reveal their bidding strategies if it is essentially impossible for the clearing costs to be covered. That will probably also lead to criticism of the FCC for miscalculating the level of demand for spectrum, and certainly broadcasters will be highlighting that they apparently value spectrum more highly than the wireless carriers.
As a result, we are likely to see multiple rounds of the reverse auction, in which the clearing target is gradually reduced, until a more reasonable level of clearing costs (perhaps $30B or so) is reached. Although we could see quite a sharp reduction in clearing costs in Round 2 once more markets are unfrozen, it may need as many as 3 more rounds, with 84MHz cleared (representing 70MHz of spectrum to be auctioned), assuming the FCC incrementally reduces the target from 100MHz auctioned to 90MHz to 80MHz to 70MHz. At that point DISH could have even more reason to bid up the prices aggressively, because less spectrum will be available to its competitors, especially T-Mobile, so we might actually end up with the final forward auction bids exceeding the clearing costs by $10B+.
But for now, speculation as to which broadcasters declined to participate is likely to intensify. My suspicion is that fewer of the small and non-commercial broadcasters than expected might have decided to participate. After all as one station in Pennsylvania told the WSJ back in January, “it won’t consider going off the air…because it would lose its PBS affiliation and go against the station’s stated mission of serving the public”. That would mean more of the reverse auction proceeds potentially going to commercial ventures, especially those that were bought up by investment firms with the explicit aim of selling their licenses.
Moreover, it may even be reasonable to guess at some of the markets which may have been frozen at the opening bids: for example, it seems likely that this must include some of the biggest cities, such as New York or Chicago, for such a high total clearing cost to have been reached. No doubt investors will be contemplating what that might mean for those companies that own broadcast licenses in these areas, especially if they have indicated their willingness to participate.
Back in March I noted that the Satellite 2016 industry conference “felt like 2000, as attendees peer over the edge of the precipice.” Yesterday, it seems the industry stepped off into the void, as Eutelsat’s profit warning proved to be the catalyst for a wholesale re-evaluation of the outlook for FSS/HTS data services.
Everyone is worrying about capacity pricing, where according to Eutelsat’s CEO “the outlook for data delivery is bad.” Just how bad hasn’t been obvious to many observers, not least Northern Sky Research, who in March dismissed suggestions that the sky is falling and instead claimed that so far there has only been “generally slow and stable downward pressure on pricing up to 2016″ though these drops were “expected to continue to gather steam.” Moody’s struck a similar positive note about European satellite operators in January, suggesting that “A Rebound in Revenue Growth, Stable Margins and Plateauing Capex to Support Credit Quality in 2016.”
In reality, a look at some of the largest deals shows just how much of a price decline has already taken place. Traditional wide beam transponders have been priced at $3000-$4000 per MHz per month, which made Intelsat’s offer to IS-29 anchor tenants in 2012 of about $2000 per MHz per month look like a bargain (Intelsat said it leased 20% of the capacity, i.e. about 2GHz, for $50M p.a.).
However, in February 2016, Gogo struck a deal with SES for “several GHz of both widebeam and spotbeam capacity in total” on its new SES-14 and 15 HTS satellites, followed by another agreement with Intelsat and OneWeb in early March. Gogo’s latest 10-Q has now revealed the impact of those agreements which represent commitments “to purchase transponder and teleport satellite services totaling approximately $29.5 million in 2016 (April 1 through December 31), $41.9 million in 2017, $40.4 million in 2018, $45.3 million in 2019, $58.6 million in 2020 and $309.2 million thereafter.”
Although the split between Intelsat and SES is not given, its a fairly good bet that they will be paid roughly equal amounts in 2020 and beyond. This is consistent with Intelsat renewing and extending its existing contract with more capacity being delivered at about the same revenue level (Intelsat claimed last September it had an 73% share of the aeronautical satellite communications market and Gogo had $37M of lease obligations in 2016 before these deals were struck) and also consistent with the Intelsat deal running through Dec 31, 2023 (as stated in the 8-K) and the SES deal running for “ten years from the applicable commencement of service date” for the SES-14/15 satellites (implying 7-8 years of the respective terms remaining in Jan 2021).
So if SES is leasing at least 2GHz of bandwidth to Gogo, which is the minimum amount consistent with the use of the word “several”, then the price of this capacity is no more than ~$1200 per MHz per month, and very plausibly the price may be as low as $1000 per MHz per month if Gogo is leasing say 2.5GHz. Given that the deal also represents a combination of wide beam and spot beam capacity, it certainly seems that SES’s HTS spot beam capacity is now being leased in (very!) large quantities for as little as $1000 per MHz per month, about 50% less than Intelsat’s original IS-29 deals.
That makes it pretty clear why Eutelsat has decided to step away from the HTS Ku table and limit its HTS investment “to providing broadband access to consumers and small businesses”, presumably via its European and African Ka-band satellites (and its partnership with ViaSat). Back in March I also suggested we could be in for a re-run of 2001 with “a sharp fall in satellite orders” and Eutelsat has confirmed there will now be a “downward review of our capital expenditures”.
So what comes next? Intelsat has just ordered a 9-series replacement satellite (a necessary step given that a large part of its C-band capacity reaches end of life in the next few years). But how much more Ku-band capacity is needed in the near term, given the looming threat of further price pressures from new Ka-band satellites like ViaSat-3? After all, despite large contracts with Gogo and Panasonic, there’s still a way to go just to fill up the HTS satellites that Intelsat and SES already have on order. And can Intelsat afford to match or beat SES’s price levels and still generate an adequate return on capital from the Epic satellites?
Most importantly, how much repricing is still to take place for existing Ku-band data services, and what will C-band users do if their C-band capacity becomes significantly more expensive than Ku (let alone Ka)? In addition, though Inmarsat believes (correctly) that its a very different company from Eutelsat, it has far more exposure to the data services business, and Inmarsat will now have to reconsider its pricing (and capacity provisioning) for GX services, as this low cost Ku HTS capacity impacts the aeronautical and maritime markets.
As I predicted last week, TLPS missed its chance for approval on April 22, despite Jay Monroe being convinced that it was in the bag when he presented at the Burkenroad conference earlier that day. He presumably had been assured of that by Globalstar’s General Counsel, Barbee Ponder, who thought they had answered all the FCC’s questions in late March and seemingly didn’t bother to follow-up after that point.
Now today we have seen an experimental license filing from Microsoft to test TLPS in Redmond, WA. Microsoft’s application states:
“Microsoft will test terrestrial operations in the 2473-2483.5 MHz unlicensed band and the adjacent 2483.5-2500 MHz band, consistent with Globalstar Inc.s proposal to operate a terrestrial low-power service on these frequencies nationwide (see IB docket no. 13-213). Microsoft seeks to quantify the affect [sic] of such operations on the performance and reliability of unlicensed operations in the 2.4 GHz ISM band.”
The application also includes the incidental admission that Gerst is correct that the Ruckus APs have been modified (by removal of coexistence filters) from the approved versions (the testing will include “the use of an intentional radiator in the 2473-2483.5 MHz unlicensed band that has not received an equipment authorization as ordinarily required under 47 C.F.R. § 15.201″) although it should be noted that Microsoft plans to use different APs from those in Globalstar’s own tests, including a consumer model which was one of Microsoft’s primary concerns.
The duration of the experimental license is requested to be 6 months, from May 23 to November 23, suggesting that we may not see results until the fall. This could perhaps permit FCC consideration of the results after the November election if Microsoft identified no problems whatsoever (or if the FCC sets a hard deadline for further testing, though as noted below Bloomberg is reporting that the initial authorization will last at least a year), but more likely it will set the scene for additional back and forth between Globalstar and its opponents in the period before the next FCC Chairman gets his or her feet under the desk in spring 2017.
UPDATE (5/13): Despite Microsoft’s experimental application, Globalstar’s TLPS proposal has finally made it onto the FCC’s circulation list this afternoon. That raises the question of whether Microsoft’s application was made with Globalstar’s cooperation (as I had assumed) or if Microsoft anticipated the issuance of an order that all sides acknowledged would require more testing and simply jumped the gun in preparing to conduct its own testing after that point (which now seems the most plausible explanation).
So now the focus will shift to what this order contains. It seems to basically be taken for granted that there will be increased sharing of L-band spectrum with Iridium (though that would come in a separate parallel ruling by the International Bureau on delegated authority) and that additional power limits will be imposed as an interim measure, probably at a 200mW level. Bloomberg is also reporting that there will be constraints on the number of APs that may be deployed, with a limit of 825 in the first year, and “the FCC will assess whether they cause interference to other services”. However, prior to the rejected deal last summer the FCC also contemplated changes to the OOBE restrictions that would permit increased use of Channels 12 and 13 by terrestrial users, and it will be interesting to see if these changes are still present, or if they have been modified, perhaps due to concerns about possible impacts on Bluetooth LE users in the upper part of the unlicensed spectrum.
So now the Kerrisdale report has been released, along with a prebuttal from Citigroup, claiming that Kerrisdale is “Absolutely Not a Thesis Changer”. However, as I noted last week, the biggest issue in thinking about the future for DISH is likely its capital structure, which neither of the reports address at all.
I also wish that both of them were better at math, when they try to assess whether today’s wireless networks are operating at capacity (though perhaps its hardly surprising when these calculations have been a recurring problem for New Street Research, CTIA, the FCC, Ofcom and even the ITU). Citi criticize Kerrisdale for considering New Albany, Ohio as a representative location, given its lower than average population density amongst US metropolitan areas (suggesting that 1000 people per sq km is more representative than 258 people per sq km), and also allege that Kerrisdale “ignores the variance in usage during the day” (suggesting that 40% of traffic needs to be accommodated in each of the 2 hour long morning and evening rush hours).
By making these adjustments, Citi claims that average utilization with a 25MHz downlink spectrum allocation would be 280% in the morning and evening peaks, compared to the 15% daily average estimated by Kerrisdale. Of course Citi exaggerate on the upside and Kerrisdale exaggerate on the downside.
The correct calculation for a “typical” situation should take the average number of subscribers per cellsite (144M subs on 48.6K cellsites for Verizon, according to Citi’s own report, or 2965 subs/site, compared to 1773 in Kerrisdale’s report and 7092 subs/site in Citi’s report) and the average busy hour ratio for mobile traffic (6.9% according to Cisco’s Feb 2016 VNI report which says the busy hour has 66% more traffic than average, although carriers typically build to around an 8% busy hour, perhaps 9%-10% in very peaky locations) and should also derate by the share of traffic carried on the downlink (around 87% in the US according to Sandvine), which neither report takes into consideration.
That would result in a daily downlink traffic of around 258GB per site (vs 177GB for Kerrisdale and 709GB for Citi) and a busy hour traffic of 17.8GB rather than the 142GB estimated by Citi. Then, using their own assumptions about capacity per site, each site would see a busy hour utilization of 35%, not 15% and certainly not 280%, suggesting that there is some headroom on most cellsites, just as you would expect, but that carriers will need to continue to upgrade their networks in years to come, to cope with future traffic growth, especially in peak locations.
That brings us back to my original thesis: Verizon might find DISH’s spectrum useful, but its network is not in danger of imminent collapse without it. Instead Verizon might prioritize increased use of small cells, sectorization and beamforming, and treat buying spectrum as the last thing to do, as Bob Azzi (former Sprint CTO) suggested on today’s Tegus call that I participated in.
This is a poker game, and if Ergen can prolong his license term (by building out fixed wireless broadband, as all of the call participants agreed would be logical) then he may be able to wait for Verizon to come to the table. If DISH can push up the price of spectrum in the incentive auction and prevent LightSquared/Ligado from offering a midband alternative then Ergen will be in a stronger position. So it seems more logical to me to talk about where that money will come from over the next couple of years, and not whether DISH will be forced to sell at a discounted price or Verizon will be forced to pay whatever DISH demands.
Its interesting to hear that Kerrisdale is apparently raising $100M to short DISH stock, after its previous attacks on Globalstar and Straight Path. As I said back in October 2014 when Kerrisdale mounted its attack on Globalstar, all spectrum (even that owned by Globalstar) does have value, its just a question of what someone will pay for it.
The spectrum bubble has clearly deflated considerably since late 2014 (despite DISH’s successful efforts to push up the price of the paired spectrum sold in the AWS-3 auction) with DISH’s share price roughly halving since that time, and other spectrum plays (like LightSquared/Ligado) also trading at much lower price levels.
This reduction in valuation clearly seems be the result of lower anticipated prices in the upcoming incentive auction, and last week’s FCC announcement that the initial clearing target will be at the maximum level of 126MHz, allowing 100MHz to be auctioned in most of the country (other than close to the Mexican border), will reduce the initial reserve price from $1.25/MHzPOP to $0.875/MHzPOP (although that could rise if broadcasters bid too much in the reverse auction to give up their spectrum).
However, arguments that DISH’s share price will fall much further seem to rely on DISH being forced to sell its spectrum at an even more discounted price due to impending buildout deadlines, competition (not least from Ligado, which secured a Public Notice from the FCC on its revised spectrum plans a couple of weeks ago) and very low prices in the incentive auction. Its useful to look back at what has happened previously, when operators have overpaid for spectrum, notably Verizon’s lower A and B block purchases in the 700MHz auction in 2008. In that case Verizon simply waited until someone (T-Mobile and AT&T respectively for those blocks) was prepared to pay the same as Verizon had paid (plus its cost of capital over the holding period).
If DISH is not under time or competitive pressure, then Ergen could also potentially wait to realize a reasonable price, at least in line with what DISH has already invested in its spectrum holdings (including the $10B spent on AWS-3 spectrum). Verizon might even decide to do a deal to buy spectrum from DISH sooner rather than later if it believes Ergen can wait indefinitely. And all of these problems can be addressed by spending money: bidding up the prices in the incentive auction this year, outbidding Ligado for the 1675-80MHz spectrum next year, and building out a fixed broadband network in the 1695-1710/1995-2020MHz band (as I suggested in November) to meet its FCC buildout deadlines.
Those three items could represent a sizable amount of money: perhaps $3B-$5B in the incentive auction (something that does not appear to be contemplated by most of the analysts covering the auction), $1B-$2B for 1675-80MHz and $2B-$3B for a fixed wireless broadband network, for a total of $6B-$10B over the next couple of years. And at first blush many would view that as another negative for DISH’s equity.
But the key issue here is to understand DISH’s capital structure and how the money flows around. DISH has raised its existing debt in the form of unsecured bonds at the DBS subsidiary, with no recourse to the parent entity which holds DISH spectrum assets. And the DBS bonds are not protected from being structurally subordinated to new bank debt at DBS (indeed part of the plan to fund a bid for T-Mobile last year was to raise $10B-$15B of new bank debt at DBS).
So if Ergen agrees with his kids, that its crazy to be in the pay TV business long term, then it makes absolute sense to raise say $6B+ of bank debt at DBS, flow that up to the parent company to support its spectrum plans, and (depending on how quickly the pay TV business declines and if a spectrum deal can be done in the interim) eventually file Chapter 11 for the DBS subsidiary (but not the DISH parent company). In fact raising that money sooner rather than later would make sense – DISH would have to convince the bankruptcy court that the subsidiary was not insolvent at the time of the transfer, unless that transfer happened several years before the filing. Note also that DISH has no need to spin off a spectrum holdco – the parent is exactly that, once it has extracted all of the equity value from the DBS subsidiary via this bank debt.
What does all this mean? All of the upside from any spectrum deal flows to DISH’s equity, but relatively little of the downside from no deal being struck: that downside is much more likely to be a problem for the DBS bonds. So if Kerrisdale’s plan is to short the equity, then it may face an asymmetric exposure risk. In fact, some people taking the other side of Kerrisdale’s trade might even decide to be long DISH equity and buy credit default swaps on the DBS bonds. That would create the possibility that they could win from a spectrum deal taking place, but also win if DISH can’t do a deal this year and has to raise money to wait out Verizon and/or AT&T.
In conclusion, remember what DISH said in response to rumors of the Kerrisdale report: “We will continue to manage the business for the long-term benefit of our shareholders as we have done over the last 35 years.” After all, Charlie Ergen’s a shareholder, with much of his wealth tied up in DISH stock, but as far as I know he’s not a DBS bondholder.
Its interesting that Globalstar has decided to announce its Q1 results this Thursday afternoon, which may be just before the FCC releases the draft agenda for its May open meeting and would presumably therefore mean Globalstar management is not in a position to discuss TLPS, just as in late February.
UPDATE (5/3): On the other hand, if the FCC issues the agenda on Wednesday or Thursday, its possible that Globalstar will either be able to celebrate or will face questions during the call on why the process has not yet reached a conclusion.
The May open meeting could be the last chance for Globalstar to get a ruling on TLPS from the FCC in 2016, as Chairman Wheeler tries to triage his enormously long to-do list before the change of administration at the end of the year. Otherwise Globalstar might well find itself being measured up for a “political funeral”.
The results of Smitty’s triage efforts became evident on Friday April 22, with the release of the final agenda for the April open meeting (which addressed the 3.5GHz band) accompanied by the public notices on LightSquared/Ligado’s modification applications resulting from its GPS settlement and petition for a 1675-80MHz rulemaking.
It seems clear that Globalstar also expected to be included in the day’s releases, with Jay Monroe announcing that morning at the Burkenroad conference that TLPS “authority expected shortly”. That was a notable contrast to the Q4 results call on February 25, where he said only that “it is in all of our best interest not to provide any additional comments or answer any questions during the Q&A on the subject of the proceeding”.
However, it looks probable that Globalstar was derailed not just by Google’s poison pill, but also by growing worries about potential interference with Bluetooth hearing aids, a topic that was brought up by Gerst Capital in a meeting on March 30, and elevated to a more significant concern by a letter from two members of Congress on April 7. Technical meetings with the Hearing Industries Association on April 19 and 20 then seem to have failed to put these issues to rest.
Its not only Globalstar’s TLPS ambitions that now may be prepared for burial, but also its prospects for MSS business growth. Distributors appear to expect that release of new devices based on the Hughes chipset will be delayed, with the Sat-Fi 2 unlikely to be available in volume until the fall (amid only tepid interest after the struggles of other satellite WiFi devices), the new two-way SPOT expected after that, in winter 2016/17, and the next generation handheld phone delayed to as late as the end of 2017 (even assuming funds are available for product development next year).
Voice pricing has been changed to remove the popular $25 per month service plan, with little or no notice given to current subscribers that their bill will jump by $15 this month. While that may lead to an increase in ARPU, it may also prompt an increase in churn, unless Globalstar caves when customers threaten to terminate their service. Instead, Globalstar will presumably intensify its efforts to give away free phones to new $65 per month customers, including an increase in internet advertising that I’ve noticed recently. However, the handheld market remains pretty slow for all MSS operators.
So now the question is whether Jay Monroe can keep up his optimism about Globalstar’s promising mass market future and multi-billion dollar spectrum opportunity, despite all these problems. More to the point, once the Terrapin equity line is exhausted later this year, will he put his own money on the line to keep Globalstar afloat, or will he once again be able to find others willing to keep buying Globalstar’s equity?
As I noted after the Satellite 2016 conference a couple of weeks ago, the outline of an FCC compromise over Globalstar’s TLPS proposal has become clear in recent weeks. That would involve increased sharing of the Big LEO L-band spectrum (which led Jay Monroe to use nearly as many F-words about Matt Desch as he did about me at the conference) and a restriction of the initial approval to operate at a power level of not more than 200mW (consistent with, but not specifically limited to, indoor operation). Then testing of Globalstar’s (supposedly all-capable, but apparently not yet contracted from ViaSat or even fully defined) Network Operating System would be required to demonstrate that any interference would be prevented, before any potential increase in power levels would be contemplated.
This mechanism was sought by Globalstar because then it would have an authorization for commercial deployment and, on the back of that, could go and raise $150M to keep the company funded (and avoid Jay having to put in any more money) for the next couple of years, while Globalstar looked for a partner that would attribute value to TLPS. Of course that may well be an endless task, if the cable companies do not “have an interest in leasing or buying Globalstar’s spectrum even if that company received approval by the FCC” and Cisco is unwilling to pay billions of dollars to acquire Globalstar.
I was told that an FCC order would very likely come before the end of this month, because the FCC wanted to get a precedent in place (of non-interference with existing unlicensed services, as recommended by Public Knowledge) before it considered what to do about LTE-U.
However, it seems everyone reckoned without Google’s continued interest in the proceeding, which has now forced Public Knowledge to change its tune, and emphasize that the FCC should impose the “public interest condition” of “authoriz[ing] reciprocal public use of Wi-Fi Channel 14 in locations where Globalstar’s TLPS is not deployed…in return for the auction-free windfall that Globalstar seeks.”
Google’s insistence on the “examination of options for general public use of Wi-Fi Channel 14″ seems like just the sort of poison pill that would prevent Globalstar from raising additional funding after the initial approval, because who would give Globalstar money for spectrum that they could use anyway whenever Globalstar had not deployed in a given location?
So if the FCC does include this condition, it seems highly likely that Jay will reject the deal, just as he did last summer when the FCC tried another compromise that would have involved low power approval only within Globalstar’s licensed spectrum, along with increased L-band sharing with Iridium. As a result, the uncertainty about the eventual outcome of the TLPS proceeding may last a little longer yet.
The Satellite 2016 conference this week has reminded me of years past. All the talk has been of ViaSat and their new ViaSat-3 1Tbps high throughput satellite (depicted above), just like in 2004 when Mark Dankberg used his Satellite Executive of the Year speech to describe his ambitions to build a 100Gbps satellite. Unlike back then (when most dismissed Dankberg’s plans as pie-in-the-sky), ViaSat’s announcement has already caused some large investment decisions by major operators to be postponed, and re-evaluated or perhaps even cancelled. Indeed the entire industry seems frozen like a deer in the headlights, trying to decide which way to run.
Some competitors, like Inmarsat, have chosen to portray ViaSat-3 as a “mythical beast” and ViaSat’s current offering of free streaming video on JetBlue as a “marketing stunt”. However, its far more serious than that. One perceptive observer suggested to me that its like competing for the presidency against Donald Trump: how do you respond to a competitor who is clearly intelligent and has a plan to win, but deliberately says things that fundamentally contradict your (supposedly rational) world view.
In the satellite industry the prevailing world view is that (at least in the foreseeable future) there is no need to build 1Tbps satellites offering capacity at $100/Mbps/mo, because satellite broadband will never compete directly with terrestrial and capture tens of millions of subscribers. But if ViaSat is determined to blow up the industry, most current business plans for two-way data applications (including essentially all Ku-band data services) are simply no longer viable. And if competitors remain frozen (or worse still dismissive) in response to ViaSat’s plans, then ViaSat will gain a head start on building these new higher capacity satellites.
In addition to this overarching theme, several other nuggets of information emerged: Inmarsat is acquiring a seventh “GX payload” by taking over Telenor’s Thor-7 Ka-band payload in Europe on a long term lease, presumably at a very attractive rate (perhaps even approaching the Eutelsat-Facebook-Spacecom deal price of ~$1M/Gbps/year, given Telenor’s lack of Ka-band customers). And Globalstar now appears to have a roughly 60%-70% chance of getting FCC approval for TLPS in the next couple of months, given the FCC’s desire to set a precedent of protection for existing unlicensed services that can be used in the upcoming LTE-U rulemaking. However, it appears that any deal would require a compromise of 200mW power limits (the maximum level demonstrated to date) and sharing of Globalstar’s L-band spectrum above 1616MHz with Iridium.
Going back to the title of this post, if last year’s conference felt like 1999, with exuberance about multiple new satellite projects, this year felt like 2000, as attendees peer over the edge of the precipice. Following on from that, next year could be like 2001, with pain to be shared all around the industry: a sharp fall in satellite orders, as operators re-evaluate the feasibility of their planned satellites, a continuing fall in prices, and the possibility of stranded capacity, either at operators, who are unable to sell their growing inventory of HTS capacity, or at distributors, who entered into contracts for capacity leases at prices far above current market rates.
As I predicted back in January, American Airlines has now selected ViaSat over Gogo to equip its next batch of 200 new 737 aircraft. However, Gogo rejected American’s notification that “ViaSat offers an in-flight connectivity system that materially improves on Gogo’s air-to-ground system” which led American to file a petition for declaratory judgment to enforce its rights under the contract with Gogo.
The clause in dispute is 13.5.2 which reads as follows (with certain confidential information redacted):
With respect to each of the Fleet Types, if at any time after the [***] of the Trigger Date for such Fleet Type (A) an in-flight connectivity services provider other than Aircell offers a connectivity service (B) that provides a material improvement in connectivity functionality [***] (C) such that American reasonably believes that failing to offer such service to passengers on such Fleet Type would likely cause competitive harm to American by [***], (D) such competitive system is installed and in commercial operation on [***], and (E) American has completed sourcing processes with respect to the competitive offering sufficiently rigorous such that American can validate the technology, functionality and feasibility of the competitive offering and provide objective system performance and functionality criteria to Aircell for its use in determining whether it wishes to submit a proposal as contemplated below, then American may provide written notice thereof (including such criteria) to Aircell. In such event, Aircell will have the opportunity to submit a proposal to provide such service to American, which proposal will include, without limitation, proposed terms regarding pricing, system functionality and implementation dates, within [***] after receipt of such notice, and if Aircell timely submits such proposal then American will in good faith consider such proposal. If American reasonably determines that Aircell’s proposal is at least as favorable as the competitor’s offering, this Agreement will be amended to incorporate such additional or replacement offering or functionality and the agreed upon terms. If Aircell declines or fails to submit a proposal to American within such [***], or if American reasonably determines that Aircell’s proposal is not as favorable as the competitor’s offering, then American may elect to termination this Agreement with respect to such Fleet Type. Such election must be made by providing at least [***] advance notice thereof to Gogo, and in such event this Agreement will terminate as and to the extent and otherwise in accordance with American’s termination notice. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained herein, American shall not be required to provide to Aircell any information that American may not disclose pursuant to confidentiality obligations to any third party.
It seems that Gogo could only have based its rejection of American’s notice on an assertion that either ViaSat’s service is not a “material improvement” (over basic ATG!) or that it is not in “commercial operation” but neither rationale appears likely to hold up in court. Moreover, the competition to equip American’s next gen 737 fleet has been going on for the last six months or more and Gogo has already offered 2Ku to American in this competition. In fact, according to Runway Girl Network, American told Gogo some time ago to stop working on the STCs needed to install 2Ku on American’s new planes.
UPDATE (2/18): According to Runway Girl Network (although not specified in Gogo’s public filings), the suit “covers approximately 200 of the carrier’s 737 aircraft known as the ‘pre-Apollo’ fleet”, which are older aircraft (delivered before 2009) “flying with ATG today and no in-seat IFE screens.” A key difference between these older aircraft and American’s decision to desire to use ViaSat on future deliveries, is that Clause 13.5.2 references a different “Trigger Date” for each “Fleet Type” and so it seems likely that the time period, after which a termination notice can be issued for the new aircraft deliveries, has not yet expired, and American may therefore not have the right to terminate the Agreement in respect of its new aircraft fleet at this point in time. Conversely, American certainly has the right to terminate the older aircraft even though for some of them, with limited remaining lifespan, it may not be economic to retrofit with satellite communications.
So I’m forced to conclude that in reality, Gogo is simply trying to delay American’s decision to select ViaSat for future aircraft, probably threatening litigation as it initiated (and lost) against Southwest when it purchased AirTran and switched that fleet of Gogo-equipped aircraft to Global Eagle (Delta ultimately purchased 88 of the 128 aircraft which remained on Gogo). And in response, American seems to have decided that it would go nuclear by issuing a termination notice on older aircraft, and a public lawsuit, in order to force Gogo’s hand. However, Gogo made a further filing on Tuesday Feb 17, stating that it had rescinded its prior letter which had questioned American’s termination notice (on the grounds of “system performance and functionality of the competitive technology”), and claimed that as a result American’s suit was now “moot,” presumably in an effort to limit the public airing of the two companies’ disagreements.
After all, if American did not exercise its rights under Clause 13.5.2 of the agreement, it appears that it would have to use Clause 13.5.1, which contemplates a payment to Gogo apparently equal to at least a year’s revenue per plane:
American will have the right to terminate this Agreement at any time on or after the [***] of the Trigger Date for the last retrofitted Fleet Type, by giving [***] written notice and paying Aircell an amount equal to the amount obtained by multiplying (A) [***] by (B) Aircell’s [***] from Connectivity Revenues earned by Aircell in the year ending on the applicable anniversary of the Trigger Date.
Gogo has declared that it now plans “to submit a competing proposal to install our latest satellite technology – 2Ku – on this fleet”. However, given that American has already considered 2Ku with regard to “system functionality and implementation dates” for its newer aircraft, Gogo’s only option to improve its offer would be to reduce the pricing significantly. As I’ve noted in conference presentations, ViaSat is providing significantly better service, to 4-5 times more passengers, with a revenue per boarded passenger of around $0.50, compared to the $0.80 that Gogo currently generates from its ATG network. In other words, ViaSat’s revenue per Mbyte is something like a factor of 10 lower than Gogo generates at present (and remember Gogo has told investors that the cost of capacity for 2Ku is similar to ATG-4, albeit with future reductions expected as Ku HTS satellite capacity becomes cheaper).
It therefore seems that Gogo will lose either way: it either loses American’s old and/or new aircraft, setting the scene for a complete termination of the existing contract if ViaSat proves to offer a significantly superior service, or it wins the deal by offering dramatically lower pricing, which will reduce its revenue per boarded passenger and increase its capacity costs on these new aircraft, and would presumably provide a benchmark for a renegotiation of the deal covering the rest of the American fleet. That would be a far different trajectory from the increases to as much as $4-$5 per boarded passenger that Gogo set out as its long term objective in previous analyst days.
However, it remains to be seen how and whether American will ultimately be able to proceed with its original plan to install ViaSat on new aircraft deliveries, or whether we are set for a long and ugly stalemate between American and Gogo over how these aircraft will be equipped.
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