In a recent Report and Order, released on June 12, 2009, the FCC addressed the issue of when ICO and TerreStar can offer commercial service in North America, which has been delayed by the need to clear their uplink band (2000-2020MHz) of existing Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) users, who are being transitioned to frequencies above 2025MHz. In the Order, the FCC removed the requirement that ICO and TerreStar must wait until all of the top 30 broadcast markets have been transitioned before they can launch service. However, ICO and TerreStar will have to coordinate with BAS users if they are to operate in uncleared markets, and Sprint Nextel now has until February 8, 2010 to complete the transition. As a result, though TerreStar intends to begin offering service in late 2009, it looks likely that national service will not be available until several months later.
More importantly, as part of the order, the FCC initiated a Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making (FNPRM) related to the sharing of costs for the BAS transition (which Sprint Nextel has paid but is seeking to reclaim from other operators who will use the spectrum). The FCC “tentatively conclude[d] that MSS operators and future AWS licensees will have an obligation to share, on a pro rata basis, in the costs associated with the relocation of BAS incumbents if they “enter the band” prior to the BAS sunset date of December 9, 2013″ and “tentatively conclude[d] that an MSS operator “enters the band” and thus incurs an obligation to share in the costs associated with relocation of BAS incumbents when its satellite is found operational under its authorization milestone”. In April 2009, Sprint Nextel estimated these costs at $100M each for ICO and TerreStar. ICO and TerreStar have previously argued that they should not be liable for any of these transition costs, so if confirmed, the FCC’s tentative conclusions would be a significant additional cost for both companies. However, it is uncertain if the recent bankruptcy of ICO North America will affect Sprint Nextel’s claim, including whether the ICO Global parent company (which was not part of the bankruptcy filing) will avoid this liability.
We’re not referring to hybrid satellite-terrestrial (ATC/CGC) networks, but to the details of Inmarsat’s long term satellite development plans for its Inmarsat-5 constellation revealed at today’s investor meeting in London. Though its fifth generation satellites are not due to be launched for nearly ten years, Inmarsat is already actively developing plans for satellites which include both L-band and higher frequencies, not just a “cheap and cheerful” low cost evolution of its current satellites.
Inmarsat doesn’t plan to develop what it characterized as “high risk” L-band satellites with ground-based beamforming (which is being employed by ICO, TerreStar and SkyTerra, with no apparent problems that we can discern), but instead is looking at including other frequency bands in the I5 constellation. In addition to indicating that S-band is not needed for its core business (but would instead be used mainly for terrestrial applications), Inmarsat suggested that standard FSS frequencies (i.e. Ku-band) were not particularly interesting. Thus we conclude Inmarsat may have a preference for including military Ka and/or X-band capacity on the I5 satellites. With the US government deploying its own Wideband Global System (WGS), there will be many thousands of DoD terminals in the field capable of using these frequency bands by the time the I5 constellation is launched.
Potentially the I5 satellites could provide surge capacity for the DoD (and other defense agencies) to supplement the government-owned WGS satellites, and provide incremental revenue opportunities for Inmarsat. Alternatively, Inmarsat could carry a hosted WGS-derived payload, in the same way as Intelsat recently agreed to carry a hosted UHF payload for the Australian Defense Force. According to figures provided at the conference, Inmarsat already receives 37% of its revenues from government services, and either approach would cement or even increase the proportion of revenues from government in the future.
As Inmarsat moves towards commercial launch of its new Global Satellite Phone Service (GSPS) some time in 2010, expectations have been building in the analyst community about the potential of GSPS to gain 10%+ of the $500M satellite phone business. In reality, the $500M market estimate (given by Inmarsat in 2006 when it acquired ACeS) represents retail service revenues and is an overestimate given the significant revenue declines experienced by Globalstar and Thuraya, two of the three principal handheld satellite phone providers, in 2007 and 2008. By our estimate, Globalstar, Thuraya and Iridium generated only about $270M in wholesale service revenues from handheld satellite phones in 2008, including a significant amount from Iridium’s US government contract.
While Inmarsat will start to compete in this market during 2010, what appears to have been completely overlooked by analysts are the significant limitations of the GSPS handset. As with the current SPS phone (see p17 of the user guide), we believe that customers will be advised to use the handsfree earpierce and physically point the phone antenna at the Inmarsat satellite. Some level of user cooperation in using satellite phones is not unprecendented, since Thuraya advises customers to ensure the antenna is pointed at the satellite when operating at low elevation angles, such as in south east Australia. However, Thuraya has never achieved much success in areas where this level of user cooperation is required, and the feedback we’ve heard on the first generation SPS phone that’s in use today has been pretty negative.
Inmarsat will certainly be able to improve the performance of the GSPS service within the EMEA region, to a level comparable with Thuraya, once its more capable Alphasat satellite is launched in 2012. However, Inmarsat will be constrained in the size of the antenna that it can use on future satellites, due to the need to maintain its existing levels of maritime coverage, so Inmarsat is unlikely to be able to extend similar levels of handheld performance globally without very substantial incremental capital expense.
Thus it does not appear that GSPS will be a realistic challenger to Iridium as a global satellite phone, and it may not be easy for Inmarsat to reach its target of a 10% market share within two years of launching the product, especially if Globalstar completes its next generation system and re-enters the market as a low cost handheld provider by early 2011. More importantly, as Iridium seeks to fund its next generation system (a prospect of which Inmarsat has been openly scornful), it will be able to make a very strong argument to the US government that Iridium NEXT is a necessity to maintain support for global handheld satellite services, on which US soldiers are increasingly reliant.
So how many passengers will be willing to pay for in-flight Wi-Fi service on domestic routes? We’ve always agreed that there is “‘there is zero proof’ that a significant number of passengers are willing to pay for in-flight Wi-Fi service on domestic routes”, as noted in a recent NY Times article?
Certainly airlines are “rushing to install Wi-Fi” but its far from clear that they are “banking on a viable market” since it is rumored that Aircell is funding most if not all of the cost of installations. Instead its clear that airlines see very positive passenger reactions to WiFi availability and want to gain a competitive advantage, especially amongst high revenue business travelers. It appears that airlines are receiving a share of revenues, but unless a substantial part of these payments are being held back until the equipment costs have been covered, then the number of planes needed for Aircell to reach break even may be even higher than the 2000 planes previously indicated.
Current usage largely reflects take-up confined to this business traveler segment, with Virgin America reporting that “20 to 25 percent of its passengers use it on the San Francisco-Boston route, heavily used by business travelers” with an across the board “average of 12 to 15 percent”. That’s slightly better than our experience of 15%-20% take rates (20-25 users) on cross country daytime flights between San Francisco and Washington DC with only a handful of users on short West Coast flights, and its not clear if Virgin America is including night flights in its overall estimate. Although WiFiNetNews suggests “that’s not a bad ROI”, even if 25% of the revenue goes to covering the installation costs it will still take at least a couple of years before these have been covered, and Virgin has by far the best selection of routes (about 50% of flying hours cross country) and airplanes (all with at-seat power) and this ignores the fuel cost of flying the equipment around.
For Delta, it remains far more doubtful whether a fleet-wide installation makes economic sense (although it appears the risk is likely to be borne by Aircell rather than Delta) given the prevalence of short flights in most network carriers’ schedules. Indeed, Aircell is now experimenting with lower prices on these short flights ($5.95 on one recent flight we took from San Diego to San Francisco) in an attempt to stimulate demand. As a result, as the NY Times highlights, incremental revenues from Internet-enabled smartphones may be important to closing the Aircell business plan. However, we remain skeptical as to whether it will be possible to attract substantial usage from the average consumer, unless through consumption of video entertainment, which would likely overload the Aircell network, and its far from clear what is the compelling reason to consume sports or movies, which are already available from the entertainment system built into Virgin America’s planes.
Even if it proves difficult to generate a return on its original investment, Aircell is likely to dominate in-flight communications in North America, simply because its capex is a sunk cost and it is going to be installed on 1000+ commercial aircraft in the next 18 months. We hold out far less hope for VSAT-based services such as Row44, which believe will struggle to gain critical mass and justify their rather more expensive terminal installations. The most interesting airline to focus on will be Southwest, which is currently trialling the Row44 solution. Will it decide to proceed with fleetwide installation of in-flight WiFi, and if so will it decide to switch to the much lower cost AirCell solution?