In April 2009, Inmarsat announced that it would be taking a 19% stake in SkyWave, facilitating SkyWave’s acquisition of Transcore’s satellite communications assets. However, SkyBitz, Wireless Matrix, XATA and Comtech Mobile Datacom [the Commenters] jointly objected to SkyWave’s FCC application for the transfer of these assets, citing “numerous and substantial negative impacts on MSS Providers and other end-users using L-band capacity”. Although the submission is heavily redacted, it appears that one of their primary concerns relates to the “restrictive trade covenants included by Inmarsat” in the Transaction and they demand an explanation of how Inmarsat “will ensure non-discriminatory treatment of all MSS Providers and other end-users with respect to capacity, availability and contractual terms and conditions”. The Commenters “believe in fact that the Transaction will (i) actually eliminate competition for end-users (as a result of the Covenant), (ii) delay deployment of advanced satellite services to end-users other than SkyWave’s customers, (iii) result in higher pricing to end-users at the expense of higher margins for SkyWave and Inmarsat, and (iv) ultimately reduce the affordability of MSS services for end-users.”
While it remains unclear exactly what is contained in the “Covenant” referred to in these comments, Inmarsat noted at its recent investor conference that one of its motivations for investing in SkyWave was to promote consolidation in the Low Data Rate (LDR) industry, and that more than half of the investment comes in the form of future airtime credits. The Transaction also “provides for a fully funded development programme for new products and services” and will drive “traffic growth on Inmarsat satellite network”, we assume at least partly as a result of SkyWave and Transcore committing to use Inmarsat’s capacity exclusively (Transcore currently uses SkyTerra’s L-band capacity in North America). The airtime credits and development program certainly give SkyWave an advantage over other providers using leased L-band capacity, and this financial and commercial advantage is presumably what would induce the “consolidation” that Inmarsat seeks.
What is particularly interesting is that on June 29, SkyWave withdrew its FCC application to undertake the Transaction and on June 23, Inmarsat (in conjunction with other MSS operators) sought an extension of time until July 14 to respond to the FCC’s consultation proceeding for its Third Annual Report to Congress on Status of Competition in the Provision of Satellite Services in which the only meaningful concern was also expressed by SkyBitz.
With SkyBitz (which currently uses leased SkyTerra capacity) cited by Inmarsat as one of the “key competitors” in the LDR market (and the only plausible one that could switch to Inmarsat capacity, since the other key competitors listed, namely Iridium, Qualcomm and Orbcomm, all use incompatible technologies), it will be very interesting to see what happens over the next few weeks: will Inmarsat restructure (or even abandon) the SkyWave Transaction to eliminate the “restrictive trade covenants” that SkyBitz is concerned about (presumably making it more difficult to promote the consolidation Inmarsat seeks), or will Inmarsat actually facilitate a deal between SkyBitz and SkyWave to fulfill its market consolidation objective and eliminate the most prominent source of objections?