I won’t belabor the errors of physics in the movie, instead just noting that even though you might think that in space things can keep going in a straight line indefinitely, they are still subject to gravity and you can’t get to a higher orbit without some form of propulsion.
We’ve now seen confirmation from Iridium of what I pointed out last week, that Q3 was very bad for the MSS industry. Iridium missed its expectations for equipment revenues (i.e. handset sales) and subscriber growth (i.e. M2M net adds), although at least the government contract renewal is more favorable than expected – the unlimited nature of the contract removes the incentive for the DoD to scrub its user base to remove unused handsets, which has been a headwind for Iridium in the last couple of years.
Its far from clear that anyone else is doing better: it looks like Iridium’s competitors also saw pretty poor handset sales in Q3 and the SPOT 3 has been very slow to arrive in stores as well. Moreover, the government business is dire – Intelsat’s profit warning (which included its off-net business reselling MSS) is a bad sign for Inmarsat, as are the large scale layoffs in Astrium’s government business last week.
Inmarsat has now followed up its promise not to raise FleetBB prices in 2014 with an enormous 48% rise in maritime E&E prices from January, in an attempt to sustain maritime revenue growth next year. While the stated intention is to persuade the remaining pay as you go customers to move off the E&E network and choose FleetBB instead, the vast majority of higher spending B and Fleet customers have already migrated and many of the remaining users are mini-M voice-only users or really want the PAYG service because they are only occasional users, so FleetBB is not necessarily the ideal option.
Inmarsat is clearly calculating that these customers won’t want to risk moving to Iridium after the OpenPort problems earlier this year and has stepped up its efforts to portray Iridium’s network as “failing”. Despite all this, no-one believes that Inmarsat could possibly achieve its 8%-12% revenue growth target for 2014 and I expect this to be “softened” in the near future as well. Inmarsat is also likely to emphasize its opportunities for internal cost savings next year and move to dispose of some retail business units like Segovia.
Its interesting to speculate about implications for the wider satellite industry as well. Last time around (in 1999-2003), problems in the MSS industry were a harbinger of a downturn in the FSS industry a couple of years later. That came in the wake of a peak in satellite orders in the 1999-2001 timeframe and after the launch of these satellites, which resulted in a sharp decline in prices, the FSS industry took a big hit. We’ve seen a similar peak in orders in recent years (2009-10), and while the major operators are much more likely to retain pricing discipline (in a far more consolidated industry than a decade ago), the advent of High Throughput Satellites, especially those owned by smaller players like Avanti (who might become the most desperate for contracts), could pressure prices in certain market segments and geographies.
Just as an example, in recent years, underlying transponder demand has grown at roughly 4% p.a., but revenues have been boosted by around 2% p.a. by price rises. Even if demand growth continues (not a foregone conclusion in some sectors like government where WGS is an alternative), a reversal of the pricing trend would certainly make a big difference to the FSS revenue outlook. As I said at the beginning of this post, gravity clearly exerts a force, even in space.
As others have noted, in order to get a 700MHz interoperability deal, which will largely benefit Verizon and AT&T (as AT&T are now the only plausible national user of the A block spectrum and are likely to acquire both Verizon and Leap’s spectrum holdings in this band), DISH has secured a pretty good deal in Washington from interim FCC Chairman Clyburn: in exchange for DISH agreeing to low power use of the 700MHz E block (and bidding $0.50 per MHzPOP in the H block auction), DISH appears set to obtain an option to reband its AWS-4 uplinks to downlinks and an extension of the AWS-4 buildout milestones.
UPDATE (11/13): T-Mobile is raising $2B for spectrum purchases and is now rumored to be contemplating a bid for Verizon’s 700MHz A block spectrum. This would only give T-Mobile a 5x5MHz LTE network, which would not add much capacity in urban areas, but if T-Mobile is seeking to improve its rural coverage then it would have to buy other A block licenses as well.
This gives DISH a significant advantage both in the upcoming LightSquared bankruptcy auction, where no-one really expects any alternative bidder to emerge for the L-band spectrum, because the FCC has all but guaranteed it will not propose the so-called spectrum “swap” that LightSquared has asked for: it’s understood that Ergen will simply drop the request when he buys LightSquared’s satellite assets, so there is no point in the FCC annoying those in Congress who would want to see the 1675-80MHz spectrum band auctioned instead.
More importantly, if DISH is given an option but not an obligation to reband the AWS-4 uplinks (DISH has asked for 30 months to decide, but I would expect the FCC to only allow 12-18 months at most), then it also has a huge advantage in the H-block auction, because if Sprint were to win the spectrum then DISH could hold up standardization of the band (and delay any ability for Sprint to use the H block to relieve capacity constraints in its PCS G block LTE network). After years of experience in being held hostage by Ergen, its therefore hardly surprising that the smart move for Sprint will be to let DISH have the H block at the reserve price. That will force DISH to drive the standardization efforts, and potentially even allow Sprint to put roadblocks in DISH’s way instead of vice versa.
UPDATE (11/13): Both T-Mobile and Sprint have now ruled out bidding for the H-block spectrum. So it seems that both have made the smart move by leaving Ergen to contemplate what to do with ~80MHz of spectrum and no partners.
Moreover, it will establish a low benchmark price for the rest of DISH’s spectrum holdings, well below the $1.00 per MHzPOP that many analysts have been touting recently, and Ergen will then have doubled his bets on spectrum to roughly $8B, when taking into account both the LightSquared and H-block spectrum, without any clear route to monetization. With AT&T focused on European expansion and Verizon encumbered by the debt from buying out Vodafone’s stake, Sprint could then hope to hold the whiphand in any partnership negotiations with DISH.
Indeed next year’s auctions of 70MHz of additional spectrum (AWS-3, 1695-1710MHz and J block) may further impact perceptions of spectrum value: a $0.50 per MHzPOP valuation will again be ample to cover the costs of clearance plus the $7B needed to fund FirstNet. That is the FCC’s key objective in the upcoming spectrum auctions, so it can limit AT&T and Verizon’s participation in the 2015 broadcast TV incentive auction and ensure that Sprint and T-Mobile gain sufficient low frequency spectrum to preserve a four player market after the next presidential election. Once no net revenues need to be raised from the incentive auction, then it won’t matter if AT&T and Verizon refuse to participate, as that would simply keep the price low for Sprint and T-Mobile (or ensure that not as much broadcast spectrum is cleared).
However, rather than negotiating with Sprint on their terms, I expect that Ergen will instead pursue a merger with DirecTV, as an alternative to any wireless partnership, and I still expect a commitment to build out a fixed wireless broadband network with rural coverage to be key to getting regulatory approval for such a deal. Nevertheless, if DirecTV doesn’t put as much value on DISH’s spectrum holdings as Ergen does, it may be difficult to reach agreement on the respective value of the two companies. As a result, while Ergen builds his tower of spectrum cards ever higher, it will be interesting to see whether investors stay confident that he can ultimately create substantial value from these holdings.
Incredible…it’s even worse than I thought
That’s been the reaction to my 57 page Globalstar profile, released on Friday (you can see the contents list here and get an order form here), because of the history of challenges that the MSS industry has faced in the past and more particularly the difficulties that the industry is seeing this year.
After discussions with a number of people in the industry over the last few weeks, it looks like Q3 has been pretty disastrous for MSS sales across the board, with none of the usual surge in demand expected in the summer months, as customers stock up to prepare for outdoor adventures or potential hurricanes. Part of that relates to slow government orders, as a result of the sequester (predating the current shutdown), but commercial demand has also been poor, and that’s much harder to explain.
In the handheld segment, one suggestion is that Hurricane Sandy proved that terrestrial cellphone networks are now considerably more reliable during disasters (and far more data capable than MSS phones), so companies are no longer giving as high a priority to MSS equipment in their disaster planning. In the M2M segment, a fairly convincing explanation is that service providers who formerly specialized in MSS are now focusing more and more on selling cellular-based solutions to customers who find they don’t need MSS as a backup.
As a result, I’m now convinced that subscriber growth (and equipment sales) will fall short of expectations this year, particularly in the handheld and M2M segments, for almost all of the major MSS players, with knock-on effects for subscriber revenues in Q4 and more particularly next year. The defense business also looks poor (as shown by Intelsat’s recent profit warning): the word on the street is that Inmarsat may dispose of its Segovia government FSS business, as revenues in Inmarsat’s US Government business unit fell by 11% year-on-year in the first half of 2013 and appear to have eroded further in recent months, particularly in Segovia’s VSAT business. The sale price would be a fraction of what Inmarsat paid for Segovia, but in exchange Inmarsat would hope to secure a GX airtime contract, similar to its RigNet deal in the energy sector.
In the case of Globalstar, the implications of the MSS downturn are that while Globalstar should be able to meet the new bank case revenue forecasts, it won’t be easy to beat them. However, unlike some other players, Globalstar is fortunate in having the potential upside from monetizing its spectrum, if it can complete a deal with Amazon or another company. The report looks at spectrum valuation for both LTE and TLPS and concludes that there could be substantial value for Globalstar, although realizing this will require both rapid approval from the FCC and for a deal to be struck fairly quickly, before new spectrum bands such as 3550-3650MHz develop an alternative ecosystem at what will likely be much lower prices. If you are interested in getting a copy, please contact me for more details.