Are Viasat too honest to succeed?

Posted in Broadband, VSAT at 11:28 am by timfarrar

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve thought about the value proposition for Viasat’s new Exede satellite broadband service on several occasions, but I still fail to understand what on earth Viasat were thinking when they came up with their new price plans. These plans all offer the same speeds (up to 12Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream) and differentiate only on the amount of data you can consume each month (7.5GB for $49.99, 15GB for $79.99 or 25GB for $129.99).

Viasat have been trying to highlight the superiority of their new service to earlier generations of satellite broadband and potentially also to “low end” DSL, and clearly hope that the new service will dramatically increase the potential market for consumer satellite broadband. However, by focusing on monthly data caps as the only difference between their price packages, when those data caps are precisely their weakness compared to DSL and the major problem as far as customers are concerned, Exede’s price packages appear to violate one of the cardinal rules of marketing, that you should sell your strengths not your weaknesses.

By providing direct price comparisons to 3G and 4G wireless data pricing (at $5-$7/Gbyte), Exede have also given up control of its future pricing (because 4G data could easily drop by 50% on a per Gbyte basis within the next year or two) and highlighted the relative unattractiveness of the service itself (because with 3G/4G wireless you can offload to WiFi for free and usually have a portable device that you can carry around). Although the comparison is certainly a little harsh, if Iridium in the 1990s was a business plan dreamt up by people who were international business travelers and thought everyone else was like them, this looks to me to be a business plan dreamt up by people with a weekend cabin in the mountains who think everyone else is like them.

None of this is to discount the potential of the consumer satellite broadband market, which could certainly expand to roughly double its current 1M users, just by serving consumers as the “last resort” option. However, Viasat has much bigger ambitions (with targets of 5M+ subscribers mentioned) to compete with at least some terrestrial alternatives and is making investment plans for a Viasat-2 satellite on this basis.

To have any chance of success in this endeavor, it seems to me it would have been much better to use traditional price differentiation by data rate (or simply have a basic capped plan and upsell to an “unlimited” plan with a Fair Access Policy) and focus instead on controlling the data consumption of the highest users (as AT&T does with the “unlimited” iPhone users). Of course Exede would then face complaints from those “power” users about how they had not been honest and upfront about the data caps, but at least Exede might then have a more compelling marketing message about how it is superior to low end DSL for the “typical” consumer.

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