Is it too soon to ask whether another trip to the bankruptcy court is now a possibility for Ligado? Pressure is growing from all sides for Ligado’s proposed changes to its spectrum plans to be turned down by the FCC, culminating in yesterday’s op-ed in The Hill by former FCC Commissioner McDowell.
He noted that back in 2010 “the FCC pivoted away from physics and toward politics in making an ill-conceived decision that fundamentally endangered aviation safety and the operation of vital military equipment” and suggested that “Ligado…hasn’t changed its tactics, is pushing hard and is hoping today’s policymakers have short memories. It won’t succeed.” Most importantly, he states “the essence of the science behind their arguments hasn’t changed: Ligado’s plan still causes harmful interference to already-licensed neighbors such as satellite services providers, NOAA’s weather service and the aviation industry.”
It is particularly ironic that McDowell is adopting such an strident tone, when he served as an expert witness for LightSquared’s special committee and testified in the first bankruptcy confirmation hearing back in March 2014 that he believed the FCC will approve LightSquared’s applications by the end of 2015. He was quoted at that time as stating:
“The issues have been before the FCC for a long time. We’re almost two years away from the end of 2015, and that is more than ample time to come up with technical solutions. One component of their decision is resolution of this bankruptcy, it will be a huge issue off the checklist for the FCC. Once that’s behind us, the commission will act with alacrity.”
However, he’s not the only heavyweight opponent that Ligado is facing, with the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union urging the (previous) Secretary of Commerce back in December “to encourage the FCC to reject Ligado’s sharing proposal [for the 1675-80MHz band] outright without establishing a further FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on this matter.”
Iridium has also shifted its position, from one of negotiating a compromise with Ligado over the uplink band to now telling the FCC that “Iridium’s technical analysis makes clear that a Ligado terrestrial network is virtually certain to cause substantial interference to Iridium users” so “absent an agreement in which Ligado sufficiently modifies its proposed ATC operations to avoid interference with the long-established Iridium services in the adjacent band, the Commission should deny Ligado’s effort to convert its operations in the 1627.5-1637.5 MHz band to a terrestrial wireless broadband service.”
Finally, by all accounts, last week’s Department of Transportation workshop for its Adjacent Band Compatibility (ABC) study was a train wreck for Ligado, with the DOT taking a very hard line on avoiding any possibility of interference, no matter how unlikely, and thereby insisting on extremely onerous power limits for Ligado’s operations, while Ligado continued its Sisyphean task of criticizing the 1dB C/N0 interference limit, which all other parties insist on using.
Moreover, last Friday Ligado filed an ex parte with the FCC indicating that for the 1526-1537MHz band “applying the model developed in consultation with the FAA and other stakeholders to potential tower sites has produced power ranges of 9 to 13 dBW EIRP” compared to the 32dBW Ligado originally proposed in its license modifications. Thus even if Ligado could resolve its issues with the DOT (which could ultimately restrict the transmitted power to an even lower level), the FAA model will make this part of the spectrum band at best only usable for small cells, and severely limit its value to any purchaser.
In summary, all the major components of Ligado’s potential spectrum portfolio now face significant challenges:
1) the FAA will severely limit the power levels in the 1527-37MHz downlink band, and the DOT may further constrain (or even effectively block) these operations;
2) the Earth science community is working to block an auction of the 1675-1680MHz NOAA spectrum, which is integral to Ligado’s other downlink band (1670-1680MHz);
3) Iridium is attempting to block use of the 1627.5-1637.5MHz uplink band which would be paired with 1670-1680MHz; and
4) The remaining uplink band (1647-1657MHz) is too close to 1670-1680MHz for it to be effectively paired (so it would only be used for the 1527-1537MHz low power downlinks).
So its quite plausible that the Reuters article a few weeks ago about Ligado hiring Goldman Sachs and PJT Partners to “consider a potential sale or new investment,” which were immediately followed by widespread rumors about whether DISH could buy into Ligado, was an attempt to boost Ligado’s credibility before all this bad news emerged.
But where do we go from here? Ligado still has some available cash, which could last well into next year, and permit the lobbyists to continue their work. However, unlike under past administrations, it may no longer be possible to just put off a difficult decision, because Chairman Pai has recently pledged that the FCC will follow Section 7, and supply an answer on petitions or applications for a new technology or service within one year. Ligado’s application and petition were put on public notice on April 22, 2016, so it is entirely possible that we could now see a yes or no ruling from the FCC within the next three weeks.
I’m unashamedly stealing the title of the book which chronicles the Iridium bankruptcy, because not only did John Bloom give a talk at this week’s Satellite 2017 conference, but discussion of new LEO satellite systems dominated the conference itself. The proposed merger of OneWeb and Intelsat is only the most visible sign of this return to the 1990s, when Iridium and Globalstar’s satellite phones and Teledesic’s proposed broadband system fascinated both the satellite industry and the wider investing community.
But below the surface there is an even more radical shift going on, as most leading operators are cutting back on their investments in high throughput GEO satellites for data services, and many of them are focused instead on the potential of LEO and MEO systems. Intelsat has already indicated that it is cutting GEO capex, and the merger with OneWeb will mean most of its future capex will be devoted to LEO, in line with Masa Son’s vision of a huge new opportunity for LEO satellites.
However, SES, whose CEO stayed away from the conference, is also hinting at a reallocation of its priorities towards O3b’s MEO system, probably accompanied by a sizeable reduction in overall capex. Telesat is also focused on developing its Ka-band LEO constellation for next generation data services, leaving only Eutelsat (which has already announced that it will cut capex substantially) amongst the Big 4 focusing solely on GEO.
This is deeply worrying for satellite manufacturers, and even the indication by Boeing that GEO demand will “remain soft” at “between 13 and 17 satellites in 2017″ may prove to be overly optimistic. All satellite manufacturers now need to play in the LEO/MEO world, with Thales constructing O3b and Iridium, and Airbus taking the lead role on OneWeb, with SS/L as a major subcontractor.
That leaves Boeing, which is not part of any announced LEO satellite contract, but has its own proposal for a V-band LEO system, which is under consideration at the FCC, along with several rival filings. While Boeing has suggested in the past that it was open to partnerships to develop this concept, most people in the industry are convinced that it already has funding from a potential customer, given the amount of effort that Boeing is putting into developing V-band service rules at the ITU and FCC. Boeing has also indicated to these people that it does not need export credit funding for the project, which supports the idea that this project is backed by a deep pocketed US entity.
There aren’t many possibilities for such a backer, and of the four large technology companies Boeing mentioned two years ago, Google and Facebook have apparently lost interest in satellites (although Google did invest $900M in SpaceX and Facebook tried with Amos-6), and Amazon is pursuing its own efforts in the launch market through Blue Origin. That only leaves Apple as never having discussed publicly its potential interest in space.
This aligns with the chatter I heard from a number of sources at Satellite 2017 that Boeing’s V-band development work is being funded by Apple, which is clearly trying to find the next big thing and has been exploring cars, TVs and other large market opportunities. Its not hard to discern why Apple might want to consider a satellite constellation, when SpaceX came out with a business plan last year that suggested SpaceX alone could generate $30B in revenue from satellite internet by 2025.
Just as in the car market there’s no guarantee that Apple would take this project forward to full deployment, but with SpaceX, SoftBank and now apparently Apple becoming enthusiastic about non-geostationary satellite systems, in addition to most of the main satellite operators, it seems that a dramatic reshaping of industry priorities is underway.
It remains to be seen whether this enthusiasm will last, or whether, like at the end of the 1990s, the pendulum will eventually swing back towards geostationary orbit. However, over the next few years, until we find out whether the ambitions of these visionaries can be realized, non-GEO satellite systems are likely to be the most important contributor to driving satellite communications technology forward.
Today’s announcement that SoftBank is investing $1.7B in Intelsat as part of a merger between Intelsat and OneWeb is eerily reminiscent of SoftBank’s investment in Sprint and subsequent purchase of Clearwire back in 2012-13. Then the motivation was acquisition of large amounts of 2.5GHz spectrum to be used with innovative small cells to revolutionize the cellular market. Today the motivation is acquisition of large amounts of NGSO spectrum to be used with innovative small satellites to revolutionize the satellite market.
There are certainly many synergies between Intelsat and OneWeb: Intelsat needs a next generation plan beyond Epic, to lower the cost of its capacity, and hamstrung by debt, it could not have afforded to build a new system on its own. OneWeb needs distribution and market access, as well as interim capacity so that it does not have to wait until the LEO system is fully deployed. So this deal makes a lot of sense, if you believe, as Masa clearly does, that new constellations will dramatically boost the future prospects for the satellite industry. On the other hand, if it doesn’t work out, would SoftBank get to the point where it is prepared to sell the assets and not even mention them in its vision of the future?
However, another potential parallel is that back in 2013, SoftBank faced a lengthy challenge from DISH, which mounted a bid for Clearwire and later made an offer for all of Sprint, and ultimately forced Masa to pay far more for Clearwire than he had hoped. Now EchoStar, which had made a $50M investment in OneWeb (then WorldVu) back in 2015, but has been far less prominently involved in OneWeb’s development efforts compared to Qualcomm (with DISH even objecting to OneWeb’s use of the MVDDS spectrum), has apparently seen its mooted partnership with SES put on hold.
Clearly Charlie Ergen needs to find a way forward for EchoStar to compete in the satellite broadband market on a global basis, building on the successful launch (and market lead) of Jupiter-2. Some analysts have been reiterating that this could involve a bid for Inmarsat, as I mentioned last summer, but the time for that has probably passed. So does Ergen use this development to revive the mooted SES deal, because SES will now need to compete more aggressively with Intelsat? Or does he want to be more actively engaged with OneWeb and get a larger slice of that development effort (and potentially use its capacity in the longer term)?
Either way it would not be surprising if DISH or EchoStar already holds some of Intelsat’s debt, and Ergen could even seek to maximize his leverage by acquiring a larger position in the company. Does Masa want a cooperative relationship with Ergen going forward (perhaps even with a view to collaboration between DISH and Sprint in the wireless sector), or is he still upset over what happened in 2013? And returning to the theme of Groundhog Day, will this movie end with the two protagonists eventually falling in love, or will we see a repeat of 2013, with yet another battle between Masa and Charlie?
UPDATED Feb 5, 2017
There’s been a lot of recent news about Chinese investments in satellite companies, including the planned takeover of Spacecom, which is now being renegotiated (and probably abandoned) after the loss of Amos-6 in September’s Falcon 9 failure, and the Global Eagle joint venture for inflight connectivity.
There were also rumors that Avanti could be sold to a Chinese group, which again came to nothing, with Avanti’s existing bondholders ending up having to fund the company instead in December 2016. The latest of these vanishing offers was a purported $200M bid from a Chinese company, China Trends, for Thuraya in mid-January 2017, which Thuraya promptly dismissed, saying it had never had discussions of any kind with China Trends.
Back in July Inmarsat was also reported to have approached Avanti, but then Inmarsat declared it had “no intention to make an offer for Avanti.” I had guessed that Inmarsat appeared to have done some sort of deal with Avanti, when the Artemis L/S/Ka-band satellite was relocated to 123E, into a slot previously used by Inmarsat for the ACeS Garuda-1 L-band satellite (as Avanti’s presentation at an event in October 2016 confirmed).
However, I’m now told that the Indonesian government reclaimed the rights to this slot after Garuda-1 was de-orbited, and is attempting to use the Artemis satellite to improve its own claim to this vacant slot before these rights expire. I also understand that with Artemis almost out of fuel, various parties were very concerned that the relocation would not even work and the Artemis satellite could have been left to drift along the geostationary arc, an outcome which thankfully has been avoided.
The action by the Indonesian government seems to hint at a continued desire to control its own MSS satellite, which could come in the shape of the long rumored purchase of SkyTerra-2 L-band satellite for Indonesian government use, similar to the MEXSAT program in Mexico. If that is the case, then presumably the Indonesians would also need to procure a ground segment, similar to the recent $69M contract secured by EchoStar in Asia (although that deal is for S-band not L-band).
Meanwhile Inmarsat still appears to be hoping to secure a deal to lease the entire payload of the 4th GX satellite to the Chinese government, which was originally expected back in October 2015, when the Chinese president visited Inmarsat’s offices. That contract has still not been signed, apparently because the Chinese side tried to negotiate Inmarsat’s price down after the visit. Although Inmarsat now seems to be hinting to investors that the I5F4 satellite will be launched into the Atlantic Ocean Region for incremental aeronautical capacity, last fall Inmarsat was apparently still very confident that a deal could be completed in the first half of 2017 once the I5F4 satellite was launched.
So it remains to be seen whether Inmarsat will be any more successful than other satellite operators in securing a large deal with China or whether, just like many others, Inmarsat’s deal will vanish into thin air. China has already launched its own Tiantong-1 S-band satellite in August 2016, as part of the same One Belt One Road effort that Inmarsat was hoping to participate in with its GX satellite, and Tiantong-1 has a smartphone which “will retail from around 10,000 yuan ($1,480), with communication fees starting from around 1 yuan a minute — a tenth of the price charged by Inmarsat.” Thus Inmarsat potentially faces growing pressure on its L-band revenues in China, and must hope that it can secure some offsetting growth in Ka-band.
Earlier this year I warned that the satellite industry seemed to be stepping off the precipice, as a Ku HTS price war culminated in the very attractive pricing (of around $1000 per MHz per month) that Gogo and Panasonic secured from SES in February 2016. What has followed over the last six months or so has been rampant negativity in the press about overcapacity and price crashes. Even NSR, who in March were noting the “generally slow and stable downward pressure on pricing up to 2016″ are now asserting that “satellite capacity pricing [is] in a prolonged freefall for most applications.”
In reality, the last six months have seen the first signs of stabilization in satellite capacity pricing, as SES and Intelsat pull back somewhat from their price war which was the proximate cause of the dramatic price declines seen from late 2014 through early 2016. In particular, SES predicted a “strong growth outlook” at its June investor day and presented a slide at the GCA Summit earlier that month showing three Ka-band HTS GEO satellites for global coverage. One of the ways SES was expected to deliver on this strategy was by “focusing on value-added, end-to-end solutions” in each of its verticals.
However, since then, SES appears to have dramatically reduced its exposure to Ka-band GEO capacity, putting virtually all the risk of the single SES-17 Ka-band satellite onto Thales, and may also have pulled back on its plans to provide “end-to-end solutions” for mobility, letting Speedcast win the bidding for Harris Caprock and indicating that it will not go direct to airlines in the inflight connectivity market. Intelsat has also won a couple of key contracts for Epic, with TIM Brazil and Global Eagle.
Its therefore interesting to see the contrast between Gogo’s assertion at its investor day on September 29 that there will be an “ample and diverse supply” of Ku-band capacity (totaling nearly 1Tbps globally by 2019) with Inmarsat’s position a week later that “Ku-band supply could be limited,” especially in North America.
At this point in time, it looks like the “unexpected softness” of satellite orders in 2016, caused by fears about a price crash will mean very few new C- or Ku-band GEO satellites being ordered in the near future without an anchor tenant. Panasonic may well follow Thales’ lead with its XTS satellites, but that won’t result in any (let alone “ample”) incremental supply for Gogo. And Gogo is not in a position to order a dedicated Ku-band satellite of its own to provide more capacity on top of its existing commitments.
Operators may well be justified in fearing dramatic erosion in pricing from new Ka-band satellites with hundreds of Gbps of capacity, but outside North America, there simply won’t be any of that capacity available before 2020. As a result, stabilization of pricing (albeit at considerably lower levels than those in historic contracts, many of which still need to be rolled over) seems plausible for 2017-18.
Instead I’m much more worried about whether substantial growth in revenue really will be stimulated by these lower prices. TIM Brazil (which is one of Intelsat’s biggest customers for cellular backhaul) is a good example, with their move to Epic Ku-band capacity giving them three times the capacity (partly from improved bps/Hz efficiency) compared to their previous C-band solution, with no increase in spending. And at least part of the fall in enterprise revenues seen by Intelsat and SES in the last two years appears to be due to less bandwidth being used by these customers, rather than simply price declines on existing (let alone incremental) capacity.
Some of that reduction in capacity utilization may be due to more efficient modems, which could be a one-off effect, but I believe that the question of demand elasticity (in the face of competition from terrestrial alternatives) is going to be much more important challenge for the satellite market in 2017 and 2018 than a supposed “freefall” in bandwidth prices. If satellite operators can identify untapped opportunities where they can be competitive with terrestrial, as O3b has done in various Pacific islands, or where there is substantial demand elasticity as passengers create on commercial airplanes and cruise ships, then revenue growth will result.
But if spend is relatively inelastic, as seems plausible for many enterprise VSAT (and perhaps some government) customers, then terrestrial competition may lead to continued market erosion. The biggest wild card is cellular backhaul: huge amounts of capacity are needed as mobile operators move from 2G to 3G to 4G in developing countries, so if these terrestrial players commit to satellite, there could be substantial revenue upside. On the other hand, if mobile operators focus on microwave as their backhaul solution of choice in Africa and Asia, it will be much more difficult to achieve significant growth in the satellite business.
In late July, EchoStar raised $1.5B in debt, to add to its existing $1.5B in cash and marketable securities. Echostar’s lack of obvious need for these additional funds has led to considerable speculation about what the company’s intentions are, including the possibility of an Avanti acquisition.
As an aside, Avanti is clearly in serious trouble, having leaked the possibility of an Inmarsat acquisition on Friday, in order to try and drum up more interest in its sale process, only to be rebuffed by Inmarsat today, with Inmarsat stating that “it has withdrawn from Avanti’s announced process and it is not considering an offer for the shares of Avanti.”
It seems very likely that there is no potential buyer for the company (otherwise the leak would not have been needed) and therefore Avanti will be forced to file for bankruptcy on or around October 1 when its next bond interest payment is due. Inmarsat would clearly be interested in certain Avanti assets, including Ka-band orbital slots for its I6 and I7 satellites and possibly the Hylas-1 satellite for additional European capacity, but these can be picked up in bankruptcy, likely for no more than $100M. And it is hard to imagine other mooted potential buyers, such as Eutelsat and EchoStar being more generous: Eutelsat has made it clear it does not intend to invest more in Ka-band satellites until they reach terabit-class economics, while Charlie Ergen’s past adversarial relationship with Solus and Mast (in DBSD, TerreStar and LightSquared) makes him very unlikely to bail out Avanti’s investors. At this point, it is therefore probable that there will be no buyer for Hylas-4, forcing Avanti’s bondholders to continue to fund its construction, if they want to avoid a NewSat-like situation, where the nearly completed satellite is simply abandoned and handed over to its manufacturer.
Returning to the question of what EchoStar intends to do with its $3B of cash, it seems that a response to ViaSat’s global ViaSat-3 ambitions is likely to emerge in the very near future. After all, Hughes announced Jupiter-1 in 2008 in response to ViaSat-1, and then pre-empted ViaSat-2 with its own Jupiter-2 announcement in 2013. EchoStar could do this in one of three ways:
1) EchoStar could build its own global satellite system. This seems like the least plausible option, because there will already be at least three global Ka-band systems (from ViaSat, Inmarsat and SES). However, if EchoStar decides it does not believe the fully global opportunity is large enough, it could decide to just build a North America focused Jupiter-3 satellite (which would likely have a capacity of at least 500Gbps, and would have competitive economics to ViaSat-3).
2) EchoStar could partner with another operator. This is very plausible, especially as SES seems poised to announce its own GEO system soon, and would be keen to offload risk to an anchor tenant. Its even possible that EchoStar could build Jupiter-3 for North America, and partner in a separate global coverage effort with somewhat lower capacity.
3) EchoStar could buy another operator. This would be the most radical option, with Inmarsat the obvious candidate. There are many challenges here, not least that EchoStar might not be able to afford to buy Inmarsat, but the fit would be perfect, enabling EchoStar to leapfrog ViaSat to fully global coverage today, while being able to backfill Inmarsat’s limited GX capacity with its own HTS satellites. Moreover, Ergen would clearly attach significant value to Inmarsat’s L-band spectrum assets, not least in the leverage he could obtain over Ligado’s efforts to become a competing source of terrestrial spectrum to DISH in the US.
There remain other possibilities, but these seem less likely to emerge in the near future. EchoStar could build out a terrestrial network to meet the buildout deadline for DISH’s AWS spectrum holdings, and lease it to DISH, but it would be odd to announce that before the incentive auction has finished. EchoStar also changed the disclosure about new business opportunities in its SEC filings earlier this year, noting that:
Our industry is evolving with the increase in worldwide demand for broadband internet access for information, entertainment and commerce. In addition to fiber and wireless systems, other technologies such as geostationary high throughput satellites, low-earth orbit networks, balloons, and High Altitude Platform Systems (“HAPS”) will likely play significant roles in enabling global broadband access, networks and services…We may allocate significant resources for long-term initiatives that may not have a short or medium term or any positive impact on our revenue, results of operations, or cash flow.
However, this new language appears to have related to Ergen’s discussions about a partnership with Google, which I noted previously, and Google appears to have opted for an alternative path for its wireless broadband buildout, with its recent acquisition of Webpass.
As a result, I think EchoStar is likely to push forward with its satellite broadband efforts in the next month or two, presenting a serious challenge for ViaSat. That means its certainly not the case, as Jefferies wrote in its coverage initiation on ViaSat today, that “ViaSat-2/3 will give [ViaSat] the best bandwidth economics in the world (for now) and a de facto monopoly in residential broadband”. Indeed, I’d predict that although ViaSat will undoubtedly grow its satellite broadband business in North America very substantially (by as much as a factor of two) over the next 5 years, its extremely unlikely to pass EchoStar in the total number of subscribers, especially given the lead to market that Jupiter-2 will have over ViaSat-2 during 2017.
Its been interesting to see the various reactions to today’s announcement from the FCC that Stage 1 of the Reverse Auction concluded with a total clearing cost of $86.4B (apparently excluding nearly $2B for the $1.75B relocation fund and other auction costs).
Most opinions, including my own, were that this amount is laughable in view of how much wireless operators have available to spend on buying spectrum. Some have suggested this means that broadcasters are pricing themselves out of the auction by asking for an excessive amount of money. But the reality is that the FCC set the initial prices (of up to $1B per station) and all broadcasters had to decide was whether or not to participate and if so, at what point to drop out.
Importantly, if the FCC had no excess supply of TV stations willing to offer their spectrum in the auction, then it was obligated to freeze the bids at the opening price. It seems very unlikely that if a broadcaster was willing to participate at an opening bid of say $900M (in New York) then it would decide to drop out at $800M or even $500M. And notably the total opening bids if the FCC moved every single station off-air would be only $342B.
So even though the FCC has described broadcaster participation in the auction as “strong”, it seems that this statement may be code for “somewhat disappointing” because it has proved impossible to obtain sufficient participation to lower the opening bids in a number of key markets, if the full 126MHz target set by the FCC is to be cleared.
Of course the FCC would have been criticized if it had set a lower initial clearance target and it subsequently became evident that sufficient participation existed to reach the maximum. However, it now seems plausible that Round 1 of the forward auction could go nowhere, because there is little reason for participants to reveal their bidding strategies if it is essentially impossible for the clearing costs to be covered. That will probably also lead to criticism of the FCC for miscalculating the level of demand for spectrum, and certainly broadcasters will be highlighting that they apparently value spectrum more highly than the wireless carriers.
As a result, we are likely to see multiple rounds of the reverse auction, in which the clearing target is gradually reduced, until a more reasonable level of clearing costs (perhaps $30B or so) is reached. Although we could see quite a sharp reduction in clearing costs in Round 2 once more markets are unfrozen, it may need as many as 3 more rounds, with 84MHz cleared (representing 70MHz of spectrum to be auctioned), assuming the FCC incrementally reduces the target from 100MHz auctioned to 90MHz to 80MHz to 70MHz. At that point DISH could have even more reason to bid up the prices aggressively, because less spectrum will be available to its competitors, especially T-Mobile, so we might actually end up with the final forward auction bids exceeding the clearing costs by $10B+.
But for now, speculation as to which broadcasters declined to participate is likely to intensify. My suspicion is that fewer of the small and non-commercial broadcasters than expected might have decided to participate. After all as one station in Pennsylvania told the WSJ back in January, “it won’t consider going off the air…because it would lose its PBS affiliation and go against the station’s stated mission of serving the public”. That would mean more of the reverse auction proceeds potentially going to commercial ventures, especially those that were bought up by investment firms with the explicit aim of selling their licenses.
Moreover, it may even be reasonable to guess at some of the markets which may have been frozen at the opening bids: for example, it seems likely that this must include some of the biggest cities, such as New York or Chicago, for such a high total clearing cost to have been reached. No doubt investors will be contemplating what that might mean for those companies that own broadcast licenses in these areas, especially if they have indicated their willingness to participate.
Back in March I noted that the Satellite 2016 industry conference “felt like 2000, as attendees peer over the edge of the precipice.” Yesterday, it seems the industry stepped off into the void, as Eutelsat’s profit warning proved to be the catalyst for a wholesale re-evaluation of the outlook for FSS/HTS data services.
Everyone is worrying about capacity pricing, where according to Eutelsat’s CEO “the outlook for data delivery is bad.” Just how bad hasn’t been obvious to many observers, not least Northern Sky Research, who in March dismissed suggestions that the sky is falling and instead claimed that so far there has only been “generally slow and stable downward pressure on pricing up to 2016″ though these drops were “expected to continue to gather steam.” Moody’s struck a similar positive note about European satellite operators in January, suggesting that “A Rebound in Revenue Growth, Stable Margins and Plateauing Capex to Support Credit Quality in 2016.”
In reality, a look at some of the largest deals shows just how much of a price decline has already taken place. Traditional wide beam transponders have been priced at $3000-$4000 per MHz per month, which made Intelsat’s offer to IS-29 anchor tenants in 2012 of about $2000 per MHz per month look like a bargain (Intelsat said it leased 20% of the capacity, i.e. about 2GHz, for $50M p.a.).
However, in February 2016, Gogo struck a deal with SES for “several GHz of both widebeam and spotbeam capacity in total” on its new SES-14 and 15 HTS satellites, followed by another agreement with Intelsat and OneWeb in early March. Gogo’s latest 10-Q has now revealed the impact of those agreements which represent commitments “to purchase transponder and teleport satellite services totaling approximately $29.5 million in 2016 (April 1 through December 31), $41.9 million in 2017, $40.4 million in 2018, $45.3 million in 2019, $58.6 million in 2020 and $309.2 million thereafter.”
Although the split between Intelsat and SES is not given, its a fairly good bet that they will be paid roughly equal amounts in 2020 and beyond. This is consistent with Intelsat renewing and extending its existing contract with more capacity being delivered at about the same revenue level (Intelsat claimed last September it had an 73% share of the aeronautical satellite communications market and Gogo had $37M of lease obligations in 2016 before these deals were struck) and also consistent with the Intelsat deal running through Dec 31, 2023 (as stated in the 8-K) and the SES deal running for “ten years from the applicable commencement of service date” for the SES-14/15 satellites (implying 7-8 years of the respective terms remaining in Jan 2021).
So if SES is leasing at least 2GHz of bandwidth to Gogo, which is the minimum amount consistent with the use of the word “several”, then the price of this capacity is no more than ~$1200 per MHz per month, and very plausibly the price may be as low as $1000 per MHz per month if Gogo is leasing say 2.5GHz. Given that the deal also represents a combination of wide beam and spot beam capacity, it certainly seems that SES’s HTS spot beam capacity is now being leased in (very!) large quantities for as little as $1000 per MHz per month, about 50% less than Intelsat’s original IS-29 deals.
That makes it pretty clear why Eutelsat has decided to step away from the HTS Ku table and limit its HTS investment “to providing broadband access to consumers and small businesses”, presumably via its European and African Ka-band satellites (and its partnership with ViaSat). Back in March I also suggested we could be in for a re-run of 2001 with “a sharp fall in satellite orders” and Eutelsat has confirmed there will now be a “downward review of our capital expenditures”.
So what comes next? Intelsat has just ordered a 9-series replacement satellite (a necessary step given that a large part of its C-band capacity reaches end of life in the next few years). But how much more Ku-band capacity is needed in the near term, given the looming threat of further price pressures from new Ka-band satellites like ViaSat-3? After all, despite large contracts with Gogo and Panasonic, there’s still a way to go just to fill up the HTS satellites that Intelsat and SES already have on order. And can Intelsat afford to match or beat SES’s price levels and still generate an adequate return on capital from the Epic satellites?
Most importantly, how much repricing is still to take place for existing Ku-band data services, and what will C-band users do if their C-band capacity becomes significantly more expensive than Ku (let alone Ka)? In addition, though Inmarsat believes (correctly) that its a very different company from Eutelsat, it has far more exposure to the data services business, and Inmarsat will now have to reconsider its pricing (and capacity provisioning) for GX services, as this low cost Ku HTS capacity impacts the aeronautical and maritime markets.
So now the Kerrisdale report has been released, along with a prebuttal from Citigroup, claiming that Kerrisdale is “Absolutely Not a Thesis Changer”. However, as I noted last week, the biggest issue in thinking about the future for DISH is likely its capital structure, which neither of the reports address at all.
I also wish that both of them were better at math, when they try to assess whether today’s wireless networks are operating at capacity (though perhaps its hardly surprising when these calculations have been a recurring problem for New Street Research, CTIA, the FCC, Ofcom and even the ITU). Citi criticize Kerrisdale for considering New Albany, Ohio as a representative location, given its lower than average population density amongst US metropolitan areas (suggesting that 1000 people per sq km is more representative than 258 people per sq km), and also allege that Kerrisdale “ignores the variance in usage during the day” (suggesting that 40% of traffic needs to be accommodated in each of the 2 hour long morning and evening rush hours).
By making these adjustments, Citi claims that average utilization with a 25MHz downlink spectrum allocation would be 280% in the morning and evening peaks, compared to the 15% daily average estimated by Kerrisdale. Of course Citi exaggerate on the upside and Kerrisdale exaggerate on the downside.
The correct calculation for a “typical” situation should take the average number of subscribers per cellsite (144M subs on 48.6K cellsites for Verizon, according to Citi’s own report, or 2965 subs/site, compared to 1773 in Kerrisdale’s report and 7092 subs/site in Citi’s report) and the average busy hour ratio for mobile traffic (6.9% according to Cisco’s Feb 2016 VNI report which says the busy hour has 66% more traffic than average, although carriers typically build to around an 8% busy hour, perhaps 9%-10% in very peaky locations) and should also derate by the share of traffic carried on the downlink (around 87% in the US according to Sandvine), which neither report takes into consideration.
That would result in a daily downlink traffic of around 258GB per site (vs 177GB for Kerrisdale and 709GB for Citi) and a busy hour traffic of 17.8GB rather than the 142GB estimated by Citi. Then, using their own assumptions about capacity per site, each site would see a busy hour utilization of 35%, not 15% and certainly not 280%, suggesting that there is some headroom on most cellsites, just as you would expect, but that carriers will need to continue to upgrade their networks in years to come, to cope with future traffic growth, especially in peak locations.
That brings us back to my original thesis: Verizon might find DISH’s spectrum useful, but its network is not in danger of imminent collapse without it. Instead Verizon might prioritize increased use of small cells, sectorization and beamforming, and treat buying spectrum as the last thing to do, as Bob Azzi (former Sprint CTO) suggested on today’s Tegus call that I participated in.
This is a poker game, and if Ergen can prolong his license term (by building out fixed wireless broadband, as all of the call participants agreed would be logical) then he may be able to wait for Verizon to come to the table. If DISH can push up the price of spectrum in the incentive auction and prevent LightSquared/Ligado from offering a midband alternative then Ergen will be in a stronger position. So it seems more logical to me to talk about where that money will come from over the next couple of years, and not whether DISH will be forced to sell at a discounted price or Verizon will be forced to pay whatever DISH demands.
Its interesting to hear that Kerrisdale is apparently raising $100M to short DISH stock, after its previous attacks on Globalstar and Straight Path. As I said back in October 2014 when Kerrisdale mounted its attack on Globalstar, all spectrum (even that owned by Globalstar) does have value, its just a question of what someone will pay for it.
The spectrum bubble has clearly deflated considerably since late 2014 (despite DISH’s successful efforts to push up the price of the paired spectrum sold in the AWS-3 auction) with DISH’s share price roughly halving since that time, and other spectrum plays (like LightSquared/Ligado) also trading at much lower price levels.
This reduction in valuation clearly seems be the result of lower anticipated prices in the upcoming incentive auction, and last week’s FCC announcement that the initial clearing target will be at the maximum level of 126MHz, allowing 100MHz to be auctioned in most of the country (other than close to the Mexican border), will reduce the initial reserve price from $1.25/MHzPOP to $0.875/MHzPOP (although that could rise if broadcasters bid too much in the reverse auction to give up their spectrum).
However, arguments that DISH’s share price will fall much further seem to rely on DISH being forced to sell its spectrum at an even more discounted price due to impending buildout deadlines, competition (not least from Ligado, which secured a Public Notice from the FCC on its revised spectrum plans a couple of weeks ago) and very low prices in the incentive auction. Its useful to look back at what has happened previously, when operators have overpaid for spectrum, notably Verizon’s lower A and B block purchases in the 700MHz auction in 2008. In that case Verizon simply waited until someone (T-Mobile and AT&T respectively for those blocks) was prepared to pay the same as Verizon had paid (plus its cost of capital over the holding period).
If DISH is not under time or competitive pressure, then Ergen could also potentially wait to realize a reasonable price, at least in line with what DISH has already invested in its spectrum holdings (including the $10B spent on AWS-3 spectrum). Verizon might even decide to do a deal to buy spectrum from DISH sooner rather than later if it believes Ergen can wait indefinitely. And all of these problems can be addressed by spending money: bidding up the prices in the incentive auction this year, outbidding Ligado for the 1675-80MHz spectrum next year, and building out a fixed broadband network in the 1695-1710/1995-2020MHz band (as I suggested in November) to meet its FCC buildout deadlines.
Those three items could represent a sizable amount of money: perhaps $3B-$5B in the incentive auction (something that does not appear to be contemplated by most of the analysts covering the auction), $1B-$2B for 1675-80MHz and $2B-$3B for a fixed wireless broadband network, for a total of $6B-$10B over the next couple of years. And at first blush many would view that as another negative for DISH’s equity.
But the key issue here is to understand DISH’s capital structure and how the money flows around. DISH has raised its existing debt in the form of unsecured bonds at the DBS subsidiary, with no recourse to the parent entity which holds DISH spectrum assets. And the DBS bonds are not protected from being structurally subordinated to new bank debt at DBS (indeed part of the plan to fund a bid for T-Mobile last year was to raise $10B-$15B of new bank debt at DBS).
So if Ergen agrees with his kids, that its crazy to be in the pay TV business long term, then it makes absolute sense to raise say $6B+ of bank debt at DBS, flow that up to the parent company to support its spectrum plans, and (depending on how quickly the pay TV business declines and if a spectrum deal can be done in the interim) eventually file Chapter 11 for the DBS subsidiary (but not the DISH parent company). In fact raising that money sooner rather than later would make sense – DISH would have to convince the bankruptcy court that the subsidiary was not insolvent at the time of the transfer, unless that transfer happened several years before the filing. Note also that DISH has no need to spin off a spectrum holdco – the parent is exactly that, once it has extracted all of the equity value from the DBS subsidiary via this bank debt.
What does all this mean? All of the upside from any spectrum deal flows to DISH’s equity, but relatively little of the downside from no deal being struck: that downside is much more likely to be a problem for the DBS bonds. So if Kerrisdale’s plan is to short the equity, then it may face an asymmetric exposure risk. In fact, some people taking the other side of Kerrisdale’s trade might even decide to be long DISH equity and buy credit default swaps on the DBS bonds. That would create the possibility that they could win from a spectrum deal taking place, but also win if DISH can’t do a deal this year and has to raise money to wait out Verizon and/or AT&T.
In conclusion, remember what DISH said in response to rumors of the Kerrisdale report: “We will continue to manage the business for the long-term benefit of our shareholders as we have done over the last 35 years.” After all, Charlie Ergen’s a shareholder, with much of his wealth tied up in DISH stock, but as far as I know he’s not a DBS bondholder.
« Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »