The biggest news of this week’s Satellite 2012 show was only hinted at in the background, with many elements of the announcement (which I’m told was originally scheduled for Monday March 12) apparently delayed while the final details are worked out. Panasonic hinted at their role in this deal on the in-flight connectivity panel, stating that they would be investing “more than any other player in the aeronautical sector” in a new network, while Inmarsat backpeddled on their recent aggressive approach to potential Global Xpress partners, by indicating that they would allow GX maritime distribution partners to keep their own VSAT services rather than being forced to resell Inmarsat’s XpressLink Ku-band service for the next 2-3 years.
What has shaken up the industry is that Intelsat apparently planned to announce additional elements of their global Ku-band maritime and aeronautical service, using new spot beam Ku-band satellites in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific ocean regions. Although Intelsat did issue a press release on Monday, highlighting their focus on mobility, this largely reiterated existing commitments, and omitted both new satellite plans (including IS-29, which is expected to be a high capacity satellite in the Atlantic, and will likely be built by Boeing) and Intelsat’s anchor tenant(s). More details on both of these elements are expected soon. Panasonic will apparently be the anchor aeronautical tenant for this new network and is expected to make an upfront commitment (for purchase of capacity) to help fund Intelsat’s satellite program which could exceed $100M. Many maritime VSAT providers are also looking actively at potential use of the network, as an alternative to Inmarsat’s Global Xpress project, because Intelsat have promised to operate purely as a wholesale capacity provider, rather than competing with their own customers as Inmarsat is doing. The cost of Intelsat’s Ku-band capacity is said to be comparable to Global Xpress (though that will undoubtedly be disputed by Inmarsat), and with Intelsat’s numerous Ku-band mobility beams, coverage will apparently be nearly as great as on Global Xpress.
The repercussions of this development are far-reaching, not least because it will make Inmarsat’s already challenging GX transition plan even more tricky. Inmarsat have recently backed off their original plan to select Rockwell Collins as the aeronautical terminal and distribution partner for GX and now appear poised to use Honeywell (who were originally Panasonic’s terminal development partner before Panasonic opted to bring that work in-house). Up until this week Inmarsat were requiring potential GX maritime distributors to drop their own VSAT service and instead act as agents for XpressLink until GX was launched, but Inmarsat’s CEO indicated on Wednesday that this is no longer the case. And Inmarsat are raising their prices for FleetBroadband service to try and prevent maritime VSAT competitors from using FleetBB as a backup, driving some of them such as KVH into Iridium’s arms with their new (and very aggressively priced) OpenPort backup service, which can cost less than 20% of Inmarsat’s on-demand FleetBB price per Mbyte.
Now the question is whether Inmarsat will have to engage in a further rethink of their maritime distribution strategy (prior to their hastily arranged maritime partner conference in May) as they look to assuage the widespread anger amongst distributors. Many distributors are openly delighted about Intelsat’s move, after they were told at Inmarsat’s January 2012 partner conference that they would just have to accept Inmarsat’s terms, and hand over their VSAT customers for XpressLink, because there was no other choice available. Inmarsat will also have to consider whether their revenue forecast for Global Xpress (of $500M in wholesale revenue by 2019 and $200M-$300M in 2016, based on their 8%-12% p.a. wholesale revenue growth target in 2014-16) is still achievable, especially if some of the key potential partners for maritime GX want to continue to use well-proven Ku-band services and therefore opt to stay with Intelsat for their maritime VSAT capacity.