There’s been a lot of recent news about Chinese investments in satellite companies, including the planned takeover of Spacecom, which is now being renegotiated after the loss of Amos-6 in September’s Falcon 9 failure, and the Global Eagle joint venture for inflight connectivity.
There have also been rumors that Avanti could be sold to a Chinese group, and that is perhaps the only potential buyer that would pay off Avanti’s debt at par (to avoid a bankruptcy filing and increased regulatory scrutiny). However, the situation appears to be much more complex than many appreciate. Back in July Inmarsat was reported to have approached Avanti, but then Inmarsat declared it had “no intention to make an offer for Avanti.”
Nonetheless, Inmarsat does appear to have done some sort of deal with Avanti, with the Artemis L/S/Ka-band satellite relocated to 123E, into Inmarsat’s slot for the ACeS Garuda-1 L-band satellite (which was confirmed in Avanti’s presentation at an event last month). It is also plausible that a sale of Artemis to Inmarsat is one explanation for Avanti’s confidence that it will be able to grow revenue “at a rate of 35-40% p.a.” in 2016-17 (although a one-off sale would not help on a 2-3 year timeframe).
[An alternative view could be that if Inmarsat did not retain the rights to the 123E slot, then another party has pre-emptively secured these and will now use the Artemis satellite to improve its own negotiating position. However, in our view this appears somewhat less likely.]
Inmarsat’s objectives in this deal are perhaps harder to understand without recollecting that Inmarsat was supposed to secure a deal to lease the entire payload of the 4th GX satellite to the Chinese government back in October 2015, when the Chinese president visited Inmarsat’s offices. That contract has still not been signed, apparently because the Chinese side tried to negotiate Inmarsat’s price down after the visit. However, I’m told Inmarsat is still very confident that a deal will be completed in the first half of 2017 once the I5F4 satellite is launched.
It seems that with an Avanti deal, Inmarsat could have secured an ace in the hole, by retaining its control of the ACeS L-band frequency rights, and giving it the potential to block operation of the Chinese Tiantong-1 satellite, which was launched in August 2016 as part of the same One Belt One Road effort and includes a smartphone which “will retail from around 10,000 yuan ($1,480), with communication fees starting from around 1 yuan a minute — a tenth of the price charged by Inmarsat.”
Thus Inmarsat now may have the potential for a compromise where it gives up some of the L-band frequency rights to the Chinese government (and perhaps loses a modest amount of L-band business in China) in exchange for a lucrative lease of I5F4 that could be worth as much as $80M-$100M per year. However, if Avanti’s Artemis satellite has been used to disrupt CASC’s Tiantong-1 project, it remains to be seen whether a Chinese purchase of the remainder of Avanti’s assets is still on the table as well.
Although there have been plenty of news articles describing the proposed 4000 satellite constellation that SpaceX filed with the FCC last week, to date there has been no analysis of how technically plausible this proposal actually is. That is perhaps unsurprising because the Technical and Legal Narratives included with the submission omit or obscure many of the most salient points needed to analyze the system and determine how realistic the claims made in SpaceX’s Legal Narrative actually are.
In particular, SpaceX claims that it has “designed its system to achieve the following objectives”:
High capacity: Each satellite in the SpaceX System provides aggregate downlink capacity to users ranging from 17 to 23 Gbps, depending on the gain of the user terminal involved. Assuming an average of 20 Gbps, the 1600 satellites in the Initial Deployment would have a total aggregate capacity of 32 Tbps. SpaceX will periodically improve the satellites over the course of the multi-year deployment of the system, which may further increase capacity.
High adaptability: The system leverages phased array technology to dynamically steer a large pool of beams to focus capacity where it is needed. Optical inter-satellite links permit flexible routing of traffic on-orbit. Further, the constellation ensures that frequencies can be reused effectively across different satellites to enhance the flexibility and capacity and robustness of the overall system.
Broadband services: The system will be able to provide broadband service at speeds of up to 1 Gbps per end user. The system’s use of low-Earth orbits will allow it to target latencies of approximately 25-35 ms.
Worldwide coverage: With deployment of the first 800 satellites, the system will be able to provide U.S. and international broadband connectivity; when fully deployed, the system will add capacity and availability at the equator and poles for truly global coverage.
Low cost: SpaceX is designing the overall system from the ground up with cost effectiveness and reliability in mind, from the design and manufacturing of the space and ground-based elements, to the launch and deployment of the system using SpaceX launch services, development of the user terminals, and end-user subscription rates.
Ease of use: SpaceX’s phased-array user antenna design will allow for a low-profile user terminal that is easy to mount and operate on walls or roofs.
What is particularly interesting is that the application says nothing whatsoever about the size of the user terminal that will be needed for the system. One hint that the user terminals are likely to be large and expensive is that SpaceX assures the FCC that “[t]he earth stations used to communicate with the SpaceX System will operate with aperture sizes that enable narrow, highly-directional beams with strong sidelobe suppression”. More importantly, by analyzing the information on the satellite beams given at the end of the Schedule S, it is clear that the supposed user downlink capacity of 17-23Gbps per satellite assumes a very large user terminal antenna diameter, because there are only 8 Ku-band user downlink beams of 250MHz each per satellite, and thus a total of only 2GHz of user downlink spectrum per satellite.
In other words this calculation implies a link efficiency of somewhere between 8.5 and 11.5bps/Hz. For comparison, OneWeb has 4GHz of user downlink spectrum per satellite, and is estimated to achieve a forward link efficiency of 0.55bps/Hz with a 30cm antenna and up to 2.73bps/Hz with a 70cm antenna. Put another way, OneWeb is intending to operate with twice as much forward bandwidth as SpaceX but with only half as much forward capacity per satellite.
That’s because OneWeb is intending to serve small, low cost (and therefore less efficient) terminals suitable for cellular backhaul in developing countries, or for internet access from homes and small businesses in rural areas. In contrast SpaceX’s system appears much more focused on large expensive terminals, similar to those used by O3b, which can cost $100K or more, and are used to connect large cruise ships or even an entire Pacific Island to the internet with hundreds of Mbps of capacity. While this has proved to be a good market for O3b, it is far from clear that this market could generate enough revenue to pay for a $10B SpaceX system. Even then, an assumption that SpaceX could achieve an average downlink efficiency of 10bps/Hz seems rather unrealistic.
SpaceX is able to gain some increased efficiency compared to OneWeb by using tightly focused steered gateway and user beams, which the Technical Narrative indicates will provide service in “a hexagonal cell with a diameter of 45 km” (Technical Annex 1-13). But there are only 8 user downlink beams per satellite, and so the total coverage area for each satellite is extremely limited. A 45km diameter hexagon has an area of 1315 sq km (or 1590 sq km for a 45km circle). Taking the more generous measure of 1590 sq km, over 5000 cells would be needed to cover the 8 million sq km area of the continental US. And SpaceX states (Technical Annex 2-7) that even in a fully deployed constellation, 340 satellites would be visible at an elevation angle of at least 40 degrees. So this implies that even when the constellation is fully deployed, only about half the land area of CONUS will be able to be served simultaneously. And in the initial deployment of 1600 satellites, potentially only about 30% of CONUS will have simultaneous service.
SpaceX could use beamhopping technology, similar to that planned by ViaSat for ViaSat-2 and ViaSat-3, to move the beams from one cell to another within a fraction of a second, but this is not mentioned anywhere in the application, and would be made even more challenging, especially within the constraints of a relatively small satellite, by the need for avoidance of interference events with both GEO and other LEO constellations.
In summary, returning to the objectives outlined above, the claim of “high capacity” per satellite seems excessive in the absence of large, expensive terminals, while the “worldwide coverage” objective is subject to some question. Most importantly, it will likely be particularly challenging to realize the “low cost” and “ease of use” objectives for the user terminals, if the phased array antennas are very large. And the system itself won’t be particularly low cost, given that each satellite is expected to have a mass of 386kg: taking the Falcon Heavy launch capacity of 54,400kg to LEO and cost of $90M, it would take at least 32 Falcon Heavy launches (and perhaps far more given the challenge of fitting 140 satellites on each rocket), costing $2.8B or more, just to launch the 4425 satellites.
Instead one of the key objectives of the narrow, steerable beams in the SpaceX design appears to be to support an argument that the FCC should continue with its avoidance of in-line interference events policy, with the spectrum shared “using whatever means can be coordinated between the operators to avoid in-line interference events, or by resorting to band segmentation in the absence of any such coordination agreement.”
This continues SpaceX’s prior efforts to cause problems for OneWeb, because OneWeb provides continuous wide area coverage, rather than highly directional service to specified locations, and therefore (at least in the US, since it is unclear that the FCC’s rules could be enforced elsewhere) OneWeb may be forced to discontinue using part of the spectrum band (and thereby lose half of its capacity) during in-line events.
OneWeb is reported to be continuing to make progress in securing investors for its system, and it would be unsurprising if Elon Musk continues to bear a grudge against a space industry rival. But given the design issues outlined above, and the many other more pressing problems that SpaceX faces in catching up with its current backlog of satellite launches, it is rather more doubtful whether SpaceX really has a system design and business plan that would support a multi-billion dollar investment in a new satellite constellation.
So now Trump has won the White House, the opportunity for Globalstar to secure approval for its Terrestrial Low Power Service (TLPS) that was first proposed four years ago has finally disappeared. Instead of a 22MHz WiFi Channel 14, that was supposed to have access to a “massive and immediate ecosystem” (an assertion that was challenged by opponents), Globalstar is now asking for a low power terrestrial authorization in only its 11.5MHz of licensed spectrum.
That takes us back essentially to the compromise that Jay Monroe rejected in summer 2015, apparently because he didn’t believe that it would be possible to monetize the spectrum for low power LTE. However, with the FCC still keen to allow Iridium to share more of the L-band MSS spectrum for NEXT, and even Google supporting the concept of Globalstar using only its licensed spectrum for terrestrial operations, an approval seems very plausible in the near term, albeit with a further comment period required on the proposed license modification, as Globalstar acknowledges in its ex parte letter.
UPDATE (11/11): This email, produced earlier in the year by the FCC in response to a FOIA request, gives some further insight into the key June 2015 meeting with Globalstar that I referred to in my post. With its reference to “the conditions for operation in Channels 12 and 13″ and changes to “out-of-band emission levels in the MSS licensed spectrum” it seems clear that FCC staff were contemplating operation by unlicensed users right up to the 2483.5MHz boundary at least, presumably in conjunction with some reciprocity for Globalstar to operate below 2483.5MHz. Thus the deal proposed by FCC staff (although not necessarily validated with Commissioners’ offices) and rejected by Globalstar appears to have been somewhat different to this latest proposal from Globalstar (and perhaps more similar to the Public Knowledge proposals of shared use that came to the fore later in 2015). However, it seems hard to argue that the deal on the table in summer 2015 wouldn’t have been more favorable to Globalstar (due to the ability to actually offer a full 22MHz TLPS WiFi channel), if approved by Commissioners, than Globalstar’s latest proposal.
So the question now becomes, is there value in a non-standard 10MHz TDLTE channel, which is restricted to operate only at low power? Back in June 2015, I noted that there clearly would be some value for standard high power operation, but the question is a very different one for a low power license. After all, even Jay didn’t believe this type of authorization would have meaningful value last year.
Of course, its only to be expected that lazy analysts will cite the Sprint leaseback deal, which supposedly represented a huge increase in the value of 2.5GHz spectrum (though in practice this deal included cherry picked licenses for owned spectrum in top markets, and the increase in value was actually quite modest). And they will also presumably overlook the impact of the power restrictions and lack of ecosystem.
What is really critical is whether Globalstar could use such an approval to raise further funds before it runs out of money next year. Globalstar’s most recent Q3 10-Q admitted that “we will draw all or substantially all of the remaining amounts available under the August 2015 Terrapin Agreement to achieve compliance with certain financial covenants in our Facility Agreement for the measurement period ending December 31, 2016 and to pay our debt service obligations.”
In other words, Globalstar does not have the money to pay its interest and debt payments in June 2017. And with an imminent Terrapin drawdown of over $30M in December, Globalstar really needs an immediate approval to get its share price up to a level where Terrapin won’t be swamping the market with share sales next month. So how will the market react to the prospects of a limited authorization, and will investors be willing to put up $100M+ just to meet Globalstar’s obligations under the COFACE agreement in 2017?
Its important to note that the biannual debt repayments jump further in December 2017 and Globalstar will not be able to extend the period in which it makes cure payments beyond December 2017 unless “the 8% New Notes have been irrevocably redeemed in full (and no obligations or amounts are outstanding in connection therewith) on or prior to 30 June 2017″. Thus its critical that the financing situation is resolved through a major cash injection in the first half of 2017. As a result, it looks like we should find out pretty soon whether this compromise is sufficient for Thermo (or more likely others) to continue funding Globalstar.
Yesterday was an eventful day, not only for the US as a whole, but also for the inflight connectivity sector when both ViaSat and GEE announced their quarterly results at the same time. We’ve all been waiting for Southwest Airlines to make a decision about their future connectivity choices, so when ViaSat announced that “Subsequent to the end of the second quarter of fiscal year 2017 (i.e. since September 30), ViaSat was selected by a North American airline to retrofit more than 500 aircraft from its existing, mainline domestic fleet with ViaSat’s highly advanced in-flight internet system” it was natural to assume that this was Southwest.
Coming after Inmarsat and Rockwell Collins’ recent win of Norwegian Airlines for GX, which is GEE’s second biggest connectivity customer, this would also have helped to explain GEE’s announcement of a Chinese investment and joint venture which will serve over 320 planes in China.
However, GEE has now denied that the ViaSat’s new customer is Southwest and when asked about the progress of the Southwest RFP on their results call, GEE stated that investors should “stay tuned” for an announcement but that GEE “expect[s] to continue to enhance the product and services that we provide at Southwest. And our expectation that we will remain a major customer of our connectivity business well beyond the current commitments.”
What this doesn’t say is that GEE is likely to retain anything like its current business with Southwest, indeed this statement is eerily reminiscent of Gogo’s assertion in February that it hoped to “retain a strong and lasting relationship” with American, when American ultimately split its orders between Gogo and ViaSat. And a conclusion to the Southwest competition appears imminent, with either Panasonic or ViaSat expected to capture a major share of Southwest’s fleet. Panasonic certainly think they are still in the game, but others (not just ViaSat itself) appear to believe ViaSat is now in the lead on the back of aggressive terminal pricing.
So what did ViaSat actually announce? Most have assumed that if it wasn’t Southwest, it must be the outstanding mainline aircraft at American Airlines, which American has the option to move away from Gogo’s ATG service. But those orders were expected to be decided in two separate batches and not necessarily in the immediate future, since American has still not even received the first installations for either of the existing contracts with Gogo 2Ku and ViaSat.
UPDATE: So its a big surprise that American has now confirmed that it will be moving essentially all of its mainline fleet to ViaSat (other than the pending 2Ku installations). I had wondered if the order might instead be for upgrades at United (where ViaSat already serves 360 planes) combined with United’s rumored pending order for 100-120 new planes. And that might very well still be another win for ViaSat in the next month or two.
FURTHER UPDATE: Back in late May, Gogo signed a term sheet with American Airlines which specified that its “terms will form the basis for transition to a new unified agreement to be negotiated in an effort to sign no later than October 1st, 2016.” Curiously, Gogo’s Q3 10-Q filed on November 3, makes no mention of a new agreement being signed with American Airlines either before or after the end of the quarter, which raises the question of exactly what is the status of this relationship right now, and whether the companies were unable to finalize the agreement because American decided to move the remaining mainline aircraft off Gogo’s ATG network without making any further commitment to 2Ku. However, we may not get much clarity on this issue for some time, perhaps not until Gogo’s Q4 report at the end of February.
Sorry I jumped the gun on Southwest, but things still look bad for GEE, and may in fact be even better for ViaSat than I expected if they win both American and much of Southwest’s fleet, not to mention another possible win for 100+ new planes and 360 upgrades at United.
In the meantime, we face more intrigue with respect to SmartSky and Gogo’s unlicensed ATG plans, with Microsoft filing with the FCC for tests to “develop channel models for air-to-ground operations in the 2.4 GHz ISM band” and to “examine various techniques that might minimize the potential for the air-to-ground link to disrupt Wi-Fi communications on the ground in the area surrounding the ground station.”
After Microsoft tested Globalstar’s proposed TLPS solution (which incidentally may have been administered the coup de grace by Trump’s win last night) and claimed a “profound negative impact,” it would not be in the least surprising if they now propose that the FCC should commence a rulemaking on where these ATG ground stations should be located (presumably not in the vicinity of Xboxes!), similar to the work on LTE-U (which also complies with existing FCC rules for unlicensed spectrum).
While those rules would not necessarily prevent deployment (ATG ground stations would simply be located in rural areas away from other buildings), any rulemaking could result in delays of 1-2 years before the network can be deployed. The consequence of that would potentially be to accelerate the migration of mainline commercial aircraft away from ATG and towards satellite solutions, in order to free up more capacity on Gogo’s network for smaller aircraft and business jets.
Overall, my concerns about continued ruinous competition in the inflight connectivity market have now been amplified further. Inmarsat has achieved key wins with Norwegian and IAG, which have put it firmly back in the game. ViaSat continues to grow its market share and now GEE’s refocusing on China and new investment from ShareCo could allow it to continue to compete in some international markets as well. Thales may be able to take JetBlue away from ViaSat (as Inmarsat suggested at its Capital Markets Day last month) and move these aircraft onto AMC-15/16 and ultimately SES-17. And Gogo and Panasonic still have a massive backlog of orders to work through. So despite all the talk of potential consolidation, it looks like airlines (and hopefully passengers) will continue to benefit from terminal subsidies, lower wholesale session costs and increasing bandwidth for some time to come.
Earlier this year I warned that the satellite industry seemed to be stepping off the precipice, as a Ku HTS price war culminated in the very attractive pricing (of around $1000 per MHz per month) that Gogo and Panasonic secured from SES in February 2016. What has followed over the last six months or so has been rampant negativity in the press about overcapacity and price crashes. Even NSR, who in March were noting the “generally slow and stable downward pressure on pricing up to 2016″ are now asserting that “satellite capacity pricing [is] in a prolonged freefall for most applications.”
In reality, the last six months have seen the first signs of stabilization in satellite capacity pricing, as SES and Intelsat pull back somewhat from their price war which was the proximate cause of the dramatic price declines seen from late 2014 through early 2016. In particular, SES predicted a “strong growth outlook” at its June investor day and presented a slide at the GCA Summit earlier that month showing three Ka-band HTS GEO satellites for global coverage. One of the ways SES was expected to deliver on this strategy was by “focusing on value-added, end-to-end solutions” in each of its verticals.
However, since then, SES appears to have dramatically reduced its exposure to Ka-band GEO capacity, putting virtually all the risk of the single SES-17 Ka-band satellite onto Thales, and may also have pulled back on its plans to provide “end-to-end solutions” for mobility, letting Speedcast win the bidding for Harris Caprock and indicating that it will not go direct to airlines in the inflight connectivity market. Intelsat has also won a couple of key contracts for Epic, with TIM Brazil and Global Eagle.
Its therefore interesting to see the contrast between Gogo’s assertion at its investor day on September 29 that there will be an “ample and diverse supply” of Ku-band capacity (totaling nearly 1Tbps globally by 2019) with Inmarsat’s position a week later that “Ku-band supply could be limited,” especially in North America.
At this point in time, it looks like the “unexpected softness” of satellite orders in 2016, caused by fears about a price crash will mean very few new C- or Ku-band GEO satellites being ordered in the near future without an anchor tenant. Panasonic may well follow Thales’ lead with its XTS satellites, but that won’t result in any (let alone “ample”) incremental supply for Gogo. And Gogo is not in a position to order a dedicated Ku-band satellite of its own to provide more capacity on top of its existing commitments.
Operators may well be justified in fearing dramatic erosion in pricing from new Ka-band satellites with hundreds of Gbps of capacity, but outside North America, there simply won’t be any of that capacity available before 2020. As a result, stabilization of pricing (albeit at considerably lower levels than those in historic contracts, many of which still need to be rolled over) seems plausible for 2017-18.
Instead I’m much more worried about whether substantial growth in revenue really will be stimulated by these lower prices. TIM Brazil (which is one of Intelsat’s biggest customers for cellular backhaul) is a good example, with their move to Epic Ku-band capacity giving them three times the capacity (partly from improved bps/Hz efficiency) compared to their previous C-band solution, with no increase in spending. And at least part of the fall in enterprise revenues seen by Intelsat and SES in the last two years appears to be due to less bandwidth being used by these customers, rather than simply price declines on existing (let alone incremental) capacity.
Some of that reduction in capacity utilization may be due to more efficient modems, which could be a one-off effect, but I believe that the question of demand elasticity (in the face of competition from terrestrial alternatives) is going to be much more important challenge for the satellite market in 2017 and 2018 than a supposed “freefall” in bandwidth prices. If satellite operators can identify untapped opportunities where they can be competitive with terrestrial, as O3b has done in various Pacific islands, or where there is substantial demand elasticity as passengers create on commercial airplanes and cruise ships, then revenue growth will result.
But if spend is relatively inelastic, as seems plausible for many enterprise VSAT (and perhaps some government) customers, then terrestrial competition may lead to continued market erosion. The biggest wild card is cellular backhaul: huge amounts of capacity are needed as mobile operators move from 2G to 3G to 4G in developing countries, so if these terrestrial players commit to satellite, there could be substantial revenue upside. On the other hand, if mobile operators focus on microwave as their backhaul solution of choice in Africa and Asia, it will be much more difficult to achieve significant growth in the satellite business.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the failure of Google Fiber and if there are any wider lessons about whether Silicon Valley will ever be able to compete effectively as an owner and builder of telecom networks, or indeed in other large scale capex intensive businesses (such as cars).
One conclusion I’ve come to is that there may be a fundamental incompatibility between the planning horizon (and deployment capabilities) of Silicon Valley companies and what is needed to be a successful operator of national or multinational telecom networks (whether fiber, wireless or satellite). The image above is taken from Facebook’s so-called “Little Red Book” and summarizes pretty well what I’ve experienced living and working in Silicon Valley, namely that the prevailing attitude is “There is no point having a 5-year plan in this industry” and instead you should think just about what you will achieve in the next 6 months and where you want to be in 30 years.
In software that makes a lot of sense – you can iterate fast and solve problems incrementally, and scaling up (at least nowadays) is relatively easy if you can find and keep the customers. In contrast, building a telecom network (or a new car design) is at least two or three year effort, and by the time you are fully rolled out in the market, its four or five years since you started. So when you start, you need to have a pretty good plan for what you’ll be delivering (and how its going to be operated at scale) five years down the road.
For an existing wireless operator or car company that planning and implementation is obviously helped by years of experience in operating networks or manufacturing facilities at scale. But a new entrant has to learn all of that from scratch. And its not like technology is transforming the job of deploying celltowers, trenching fiber or running a vehicle manufacturing line. Software might change the service that the end customer is buying, but its crazy to think that “if tech companies build cars and car companies hire developers, the former will win.”
Of course self-driving cars will drastically change what people do with vehicles in the future. But those vehicles still have to be made on a production line, efficiently and with high quality. Mobile has changed the world dramatically over the last 30 years, but AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, BT, etc. are still around and absorbed some of the most successful wireless startups.
Moreover, Silicon Valley companies simply don’t spend capex on anything like the scale of telcos or car companies. In 2015 Alphabet/Google’s total capex for all of its activities worldwide was $9.9B and Facebook’s capex was only $2.5B (surprisingly, at least to me, Amazon only spent $4.6B, though Apple spent $11.2B and anticipated spending $15B in 2016).
But the US wireless industry alone invested $32B in capex in 2015, which is more than Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple put together, and that excludes the $40B+ spent on spectrum in the AWS-3 auction last year. In the car industry, GM and Ford each spent more than $7B on capex in 2015. So in round numbers, total wireless industry and car industry capex on a global basis are both of order $100B+ every year, a sum that simply can’t be matched by Silicon Valley.
So when Silicon Valley companies aren’t used to either planning for or spending tens of billions of dollars on multi-year infrastructure developments, why are people surprised when it turns out Google can’t support the investment needed to build a competitive national fiber network? (Indeed its not been widely reported, but I’m told that earlier this year Google’s board also turned down a $15B+ partnership with DISH to build a new national wireless network.) Or when it appears “The Apple dream car might not happen” and “Google’s Self-Driving Car Project Is Losing Out to Rivals“?
Instead it appears that we may be shifting towards a model where the leading Silicon Valley companies work on new technology development and “give away the blueprints…so that anyone from local governments to Internet service providers can construct a new way to get Internet signals into hard-to-reach places“. Similar Google could “enable [rather] than do” in the field of self-driving cars. Whether that will lead to these technologies being commercialized remains to be seen, but it does mean that Facebook and Google won’t have to change their existing ways of working or radically increase their capital expenditures.
Undoubtedly some other Silicon Valley companies will end up try to build their own self-driving cars. But after the (continuing) struggles of Tesla to ramp up, it seems more likely that most startups will end up partnering with or selling their technology to existing manufacturers instead. And similarly, in the telecom world, does anyone believe Google (or any other Silicon Valley company) is going to build a new national wireless broadband network that is competitive with AT&T, Verizon and Comcast?
It seems to me that about the best we could hope for is for Google to push forward the commercialization of new shared access/low cost frequency bands like 3.5GHz (e.g. as part of an MVNO deal with an existing operator) so that the wireless industry no longer has to spend as much on spectrum in the future and can deliver more data at lower cost.
However, that’s not necessarily all bad news. It seems almost quaint to look back a year or two at how wireless operators were reportedly “terrified” of Facebook and concerned about how Project Loon could “hand Google an effective monopoly over the Internet in developing countries.”
If Facebook and Google are now simply going to come up with clever technology to reduce network costs (rather than building rival networks) or even just act as a source of incremental demand for mobile data services, then that will be good for mobile operators. Those operators may just be “dumb pipes,” but realistically, despite Verizon’s (flailing) efforts, that’s pretty much all they could hope for anyway.
Back in November 2014, I published my analysis of what was happening in the AWS-3 spectrum auction to scorn from other analysts, who apparently couldn’t believe that Charlie Ergen would bid through multiple entities to push up the price of paired spectrum. Now we’re seeing relatively little speculation about who is doing what in the incentive auction (other than an apparently mystifying consensus that it will take until at least the end of September to complete Stage 1), so I thought it would be useful to give my views about what is happening.
The most important factor to observe in analyzing the auction is that overall demand relative to the amount of spectrum available (calculated as first round bidding units placed divided by total available supply measured in bidding units) has been considerably lower than in previous large auctions (AWS-1, 700MHz) and far short of the aggressive bidding seen in the AWS-3 auction.
That’s attributable partly to the absence of Social Capital, but much more to the 100MHz of spectrum on offer, compared to the likelihood that of the five remaining potential national bidders (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, DISH and Comcast), none of them are likely to need more than about 30MHz on a national basis.
What’s become clear so far over the course of the auction is that most license areas (Partial Economic Areas) are not attracting much excess demand, apart from the top PEAs (namely New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) in the first few rounds. I said before the auction that DISH’s best strategy would probably be to bid for a large amount of spectrum in a handful of top markets, in order to drive up the price, and that appears to be exactly what happened.
However, it now appears we are very close to reaching the end of Stage 1, after excess eligibility dropped dramatically (by ~44% in terms of bidding units) in Round 24. In fact a bidder dropped 2 blocks in New York and 3 blocks in Los Angeles, without moving this eligibility elsewhere, somewhat similar to what happened on Friday, when one or more bidders dropped 5 blocks in Chicago, 3 blocks in New York and 1 block in Los Angeles during Round 20.
However, a key difference is that a significant fraction of the bidding eligibility that moved out of NY/LA/Chicago during Round 20, ended up being reallocated to other second and third tier markets, whereas in Round 24, total eligibility dropped by more than the reduction in eligibility in New York and Los Angeles. It is natural that a bidder such as T-Mobile (or Comcast) would want licenses elsewhere in the country if the top markets became too expensive, whereas if DISH’s objective is simply to push up the price, then DISH wouldn’t necessarily want to bid elsewhere and end up owning second and third tier markets.
This suggests that DISH has been reducing its exposure in the top three markets, in order to prevent itself from becoming stranded with too much exposure there. My guess is that DISH exited completely from Chicago in Round 20 and is now reducing exposure in New York and Los Angeles after bidding initially for a full complement of licenses there (i.e. 10 blocks in New York and Chicago and 5 blocks in Los Angeles).
If DISH is now down to about 8 blocks in New York and only 2 blocks in Los Angeles, then its maximum current exposure (if all other bidders dropped out) would be $4.52B, keeping DISH’s exposure under what is probably a roughly $5B budget. Of course DISH could potentially drop out of Los Angeles completely and let others fight it out (for the limited allocation of 5 blocks), if its objective is simply to maximize the end price, but this may not be possible in New York, because there are 10 license blocks available, which could give Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Comcast enough to share between them.
Regardless, with the price increasing by 10% in each round, the price per MHzPOP in New York and Los Angeles would exceed that in the AWS-3 auction before the end of this week, implying that a resolution has to be reached very soon. If DISH is the one to exit, then it looks like Ergen will not be reallocating eligibility elsewhere, and DISH’s current eligibility (256,000 bidding units if it is bidding on 8 blocks in New York and 2 in Los Angeles) is likely higher than the excess eligibility total of all the remaining bidders combined (~182,000 bidding units at the end of Round 24 if all the available licenses were sold). This implies that a rapid end to Stage 1 of the auction is now likely, perhaps even this week and almost certainly before the end of next week, with total proceeds in the region of $30B.
Of course we will then need to go back to the next round of the reverse auction, but it looks plausible that convergence may be achieved at roughly $35B-$40B, potentially with as much as 80-90MHz sold (i.e. an average price of ~$1.50/MHzPOP). If DISH is forced out in Stage 1, then prices in key markets would probably not go much higher in future rounds of the forward auction, so the main question will be how quickly the reverse auction payments decline and whether this takes 1, 2 or 3 more rounds.
Also, based on the bidding patterns to date, it seems likely that Comcast may well emerge from the auction with a significant national footprint of roughly 20MHz of spectrum, potentially spending $7B-$10B. In addition, unless the forward auction drops to only 70MHz being sold, all four national bidders could largely achieve their goals, spending fairly similar amounts except in New York and Los Angeles, where one or two of these players are likely to miss out. In those circumstances, it will be interesting to see who would feel the need to pay Ergen’s asking price of at least $1.50/MHzPOP (and quite possibly a lot more) for his AWS-3 and AWS-4 spectrum licenses.
UPDATE (8/30): Bidding levels in New York and Los Angeles dropped dramatically in Round 25 (to 10 and 8 blocks respectively), with total bidding units placed (2.096M) now below the supply of licenses (2.177M) in Stage 1. This very likely means that DISH has given up and Stage 1 will close this week at an even lower price of ~$25B, with convergence of the forward and reverse auction values probably not achieved until the $30B-$35B range. This lower level of bidding activity increases the probability that 4 stages will now be required, with only 70MHz being sold in the forward auction at the end of the day.
In late July, EchoStar raised $1.5B in debt, to add to its existing $1.5B in cash and marketable securities. Echostar’s lack of obvious need for these additional funds has led to considerable speculation about what the company’s intentions are, including the possibility of an Avanti acquisition.
As an aside, Avanti is clearly in serious trouble, having leaked the possibility of an Inmarsat acquisition on Friday, in order to try and drum up more interest in its sale process, only to be rebuffed by Inmarsat today, with Inmarsat stating that “it has withdrawn from Avanti’s announced process and it is not considering an offer for the shares of Avanti.”
It seems very likely that there is no potential buyer for the company (otherwise the leak would not have been needed) and therefore Avanti will be forced to file for bankruptcy on or around October 1 when its next bond interest payment is due. Inmarsat would clearly be interested in certain Avanti assets, including Ka-band orbital slots for its I6 and I7 satellites and possibly the Hylas-1 satellite for additional European capacity, but these can be picked up in bankruptcy, likely for no more than $100M. And it is hard to imagine other mooted potential buyers, such as Eutelsat and EchoStar being more generous: Eutelsat has made it clear it does not intend to invest more in Ka-band satellites until they reach terabit-class economics, while Charlie Ergen’s past adversarial relationship with Solus and Mast (in DBSD, TerreStar and LightSquared) makes him very unlikely to bail out Avanti’s investors. At this point, it is therefore probable that there will be no buyer for Hylas-4, forcing Avanti’s bondholders to continue to fund its construction, if they want to avoid a NewSat-like situation, where the nearly completed satellite is simply abandoned and handed over to its manufacturer.
Returning to the question of what EchoStar intends to do with its $3B of cash, it seems that a response to ViaSat’s global ViaSat-3 ambitions is likely to emerge in the very near future. After all, Hughes announced Jupiter-1 in 2008 in response to ViaSat-1, and then pre-empted ViaSat-2 with its own Jupiter-2 announcement in 2013. EchoStar could do this in one of three ways:
1) EchoStar could build its own global satellite system. This seems like the least plausible option, because there will already be at least three global Ka-band systems (from ViaSat, Inmarsat and SES). However, if EchoStar decides it does not believe the fully global opportunity is large enough, it could decide to just build a North America focused Jupiter-3 satellite (which would likely have a capacity of at least 500Gbps, and would have competitive economics to ViaSat-3).
2) EchoStar could partner with another operator. This is very plausible, especially as SES seems poised to announce its own GEO system soon, and would be keen to offload risk to an anchor tenant. Its even possible that EchoStar could build Jupiter-3 for North America, and partner in a separate global coverage effort with somewhat lower capacity.
3) EchoStar could buy another operator. This would be the most radical option, with Inmarsat the obvious candidate. There are many challenges here, not least that EchoStar might not be able to afford to buy Inmarsat, but the fit would be perfect, enabling EchoStar to leapfrog ViaSat to fully global coverage today, while being able to backfill Inmarsat’s limited GX capacity with its own HTS satellites. Moreover, Ergen would clearly attach significant value to Inmarsat’s L-band spectrum assets, not least in the leverage he could obtain over Ligado’s efforts to become a competing source of terrestrial spectrum to DISH in the US.
There remain other possibilities, but these seem less likely to emerge in the near future. EchoStar could build out a terrestrial network to meet the buildout deadline for DISH’s AWS spectrum holdings, and lease it to DISH, but it would be odd to announce that before the incentive auction has finished. EchoStar also changed the disclosure about new business opportunities in its SEC filings earlier this year, noting that:
Our industry is evolving with the increase in worldwide demand for broadband internet access for information, entertainment and commerce. In addition to fiber and wireless systems, other technologies such as geostationary high throughput satellites, low-earth orbit networks, balloons, and High Altitude Platform Systems (“HAPS”) will likely play significant roles in enabling global broadband access, networks and services…We may allocate significant resources for long-term initiatives that may not have a short or medium term or any positive impact on our revenue, results of operations, or cash flow.
However, this new language appears to have related to Ergen’s discussions about a partnership with Google, which I noted previously, and Google appears to have opted for an alternative path for its wireless broadband buildout, with its recent acquisition of Webpass.
As a result, I think EchoStar is likely to push forward with its satellite broadband efforts in the next month or two, presenting a serious challenge for ViaSat. That means its certainly not the case, as Jefferies wrote in its coverage initiation on ViaSat today, that “ViaSat-2/3 will give [ViaSat] the best bandwidth economics in the world (for now) and a de facto monopoly in residential broadband”. Indeed, I’d predict that although ViaSat will undoubtedly grow its satellite broadband business in North America very substantially (by as much as a factor of two) over the next 5 years, its extremely unlikely to pass EchoStar in the total number of subscribers, especially given the lead to market that Jupiter-2 will have over ViaSat-2 during 2017.
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.
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