09.28.18

Fake it till you make it?

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 1:03 pm by timfarrar

As students of history and those who were there at the time (such as FCC International Bureau chief Jose Albuquerque) know only too well, sometimes a dud satellite can be just as good as a real one for promoters of a new broadband LEO system. Back in February 1998, the Teledesic BATSAT apparently never worked properly (some say not at all), but the launch was instrumental in causing Prince Alwaleed to invest $200M in the company in April and more importantly in persuading Motorola to abandon its own Celestri LEO system and join forces with Teledesic in May 1998, investing $750M for a 26% stake.

So the question now is whether SpaceX is in the same position with Starlink? After all, when basking in the glow of apparent back-to-back successes with Falcon Heavy and Starlink during February 2018, followed by receipt of its constellation license from the FCC, SpaceX raised $500M the following month at a reported valuation as high as $27B, supposedly to develop the Starlink constellation.

And subsequently, SpaceX has been positioning itself to play a role in DARPA’s Blackjack satellite constellation program, which will provide total funding of up to $117.5M to be split between several bidders. Notably, SpaceX filed a new experimental application with the FCC in August 2018 “to reflect additional test activities undertaken with the federal government” and add “two new types of earth stations, one of which will transmit uplink signals to the Microsat satellites first from the ground and later from a moving aircraft”. In that application, SpaceX told the FCC that:

“These experimental engineering verification vehicles are currently engaged in the test regimen as authorized, in order to enable the company to assess the satellite bus and related subsystems, as well as the operation of space-based and ground-based phased array technologies.”

As he looks to secure both DARPA funding (which should be announced in the next couple of weeks) and FCC approval of the new experimental license application, Elon Musk is certainly extraordinarily sensitive to any suggestion that there might be a problem with Starlink. Notably, within a few hours after my previous blog post appeared on September 18, it seems he planted a (rather bizarre) question on Twitter so that he could state that “Starlink should be active by then [2023]“. Indeed, he was so keen to get this assertion out there that the same question was posted twice.

And if we look back to Elon’s previous tweet about the status of Starlink, its hard to believe it was purely a coincidence that this information was released the day after DARPA’s Blackjack solicitation.

But the reality is that the Starlink satellites have not performed in accordance with the plan that SpaceX presented to the FCC as recently as February 1, 2018, when Patricia Cooper told the FCC that:

“As set out in the original application, after system checkouts are performed and the system is evaluated as ready to proceed, SpaceX will engage in orbit-raising maneuvers until the spacecraft reach a circular orbit at an altitude of 1,125km.”

And the original application stated that:

“After system checkouts are performed and the system is evaluated as ready to proceed, the orbit-raising phase of the mission will commence. This segment will last approximately half a year depending on system performance.”

But what has actually happened? Both satellites have remained around the launch altitude of 514km, with TinTin A not showing any meaningful evidence of propulsion since at least early March, and TinTin B not experiencing any significant change in altitude after attempting a few orbital maneuvers. So it seems all but certain that there has been a major issue with the propulsion system onboard both of the Starlink satellites.

When confronted with the rumors of a satellite failure by SpaceIntelReport, SpaceX stated that the satellites “were delivered to their intended orbit, communicated with ground stations, continue to communicate with ground stations, and remain in operation today.” That may all be true, but says nothing about whether the propulsion system has failed.

Unsurprisingly such a failure would put SpaceX in a very awkward position, when there were already many questions about whether Starlink would go forward, not least because the satellites may not reach the correct orbit to bring SpaceX’s ITU filing into use, and the FCC’s experimental authorization was based on the assumption that mission operations would be conducted at 1125km. And if SpaceX cannot build satellites with a reliable propulsion system, that would reinforce concerns expressed by FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel in SpaceX’s license grant that “the FCC has to tackle the growing challenge posed by orbital debris.”

09.18.18

420,000 km. Funding secured!

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 7:32 am by timfarrar

Yes I know it’s only 384,000 km to the Moon, but just like Elon, I decided to round up. After all, it’s apparently “better karma”!

Last night’s SpaceX event raised a lot of questions for many observers, not least because it “caught some SpaceX employees off guard” and was rushed out so fast that some of the promotional imagery was incorrect. However, I suspect that the reason for this surprise announcement was to distract from impending bad news about the Starlink project, namely that the project has for all intents and purposes been put on hold.

We already knew that there was a significant reduction in hiring in early July, but I’m told the cutbacks went much deeper, with a significant fraction of the Starlink team departing. SpaceX was also looking to develop a more concrete business plan for the project in Q2, but I believe it proved impossible to come up with anything remotely close to the ludicrous forecasts from 2016 reported by the Wall St Journal that suggested the project would have over 40M subscribers and $30B in annual revenues by 2025.

Ironically enough, the principal mention of Starlink last night was as a source of funding for the BFR development. It makes no sense whatsoever to think that Starlink will generate profits to fund a $5B+ BFR development between now and 2023, so the only logical conclusion is that money raised for Starlink will now be diverted to the BFR. Another hint that Starlink is going away was the statement that BFR is expected to consume the majority of engineering resources after the commercial crew development has been completed for NASA next year, despite Starlink supposedly costing more to develop than BFR ($10B+ compared to ~$5B) over the next 5 years.

However, without Starlink to support the business plan, SpaceX will face significant challenges in sustaining its reported $27B valuation, as it grapples with an expected reduction from 28 to 18 launches next year, which will very likely cause overall revenues to decline in 2019. It’s also notable that when Viasat decided to contract with ULA (seeking a US launch provider so as to support its upcoming expected request for Ex-Im Bank funding), it reportedly did not even invite SpaceX to bid, presumably because of a lack of confidence in the future of Falcon Heavy (since the upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5 will now suffice for most GEO satellites).

It’s only natural that SpaceX would look for a replacement market that can be projected to generate billions of dollars of profitable revenue, and the company now appears to have settled on space tourism, as previewed by Gwynne Shotwell last week, when she suggested that it “will probably be the majority of our business in the future, flying people” with “7 billion potential payloads“.

However, the critical question is whether investors will remain sanguine about such a dramatic transformation in where over 80% of SpaceX’s future revenues are supposed to come from. Do investors that thought they were investing in the future of connectivity, really want to invest in taking rich people to space? And does the checkered track record of space tourism give them confidence that Elon’s promises will actually be realized, especially as it will take 5+ years and $5B+ of additional investment (even by Elon’s optimistic estimates) before the BFR is ready to transport passengers to the Moon?

01.09.18

Viasat’s curious antenna issues

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Services, ViaSat at 1:54 pm by timfarrar

Last fall, I found Harris’s announcement on its 2017Q3 results call that “we received our largest order for a single commercial satellite covering four reflectors, bringing total orders to eight over the past two years” to be particularly odd because the only commercial satellites on order with four unfurlable reflectors are ViaSat-3.

Viasat then effectively confirmed that they had made this order in their 10-Q, which showed that Viasat’s total satellite purchase commitments increased from $1037.5M to $1106.6M during the quarter and that the size of Viasat’s contract with Boeing had increased by $11.2M in the same quarter (presumably to cover integration of the Harris antennas).

Not only was Viasat’s order quite late in the game (some knowledgeable observers assumed that it would have been ordered back in 2016), but it is also just for one satellite, not for both of the ViaSat-3 satellites that are under contract with Boeing. Viasat may well have another purchase option (which it can exclude from its purchase commitments for the time being), but it is still surprising that it took so long to reach an agreement with Harris. And it may suggest that the construction schedule for Boeing’s second ViaSat-3 satellite will be longer than originally thought.

Another curious issue was Viasat’s decision to use a fake image of ViaSat-2, which Viasat’s President Richard Baldridge later admitted “in fact is not the actual ViaSat-2″ satellite, because “we obscured the sensitive parts”. It is hard to understand why Harris’s antennas are deemed so sensitive by Viasat when Harris themselves were happy to publish a mockup image back in 2016 (which has since been removed from their website) and the size of the antenna can easily be worked out from Viasat’s own FCC submissions.

Although I have no evidence to suggest this is actually the case, one possible reason for these two apparent coincidences would be if Viasat had sought to patent some features relating to deployment of the Harris antenna on ViaSat-2 in order to try and prevent rivals from making use of Harris’s unfurlable Ka-band antennas (in particular Hughes and SS/L will likely use them for Jupiter-3). That would certainly explain Harris’s decision to highlight during the Q3 results call that the commercial reflector business is “a commercial model driven business where we invest our own R&D to develop that offering. We sell it into the marketplace.”

Now we have Viasat revealing today that Boeing “has identified an in-orbit antenna issue, which has caused some spot beams to perform differently than they did during ground testing.” It seems very likely that the issue is related to the unfurlable 5m Harris antennas, since “Viasat believes the issue will not affect the coverage area of the satellite” and the smaller solid antennas will provide most of the geographic coverage, while the larger unfurlable antennas will provide the high capacity coverage within the continental US.

It also seems somewhat more likely that this is a deployment problem (i.e. an issue primarily for Boeing/Viasat) rather a problem with the antenna itself (i.e. an issue primarily for Harris), since the antenna performed “differently” (and presumably correctly) during ground testing. If this problem relates to a new feature that Viasat or Boeing introduced, then that would clearly be particularly contentious, especially if it was related to any patent issues that might have been in play previously. So now we need to wait and see how the blame game develops and what this means for the future relationship between Harris and Viasat.

04.27.17

Hello Charlie!

Posted in DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile at 6:58 am by timfarrar

“Goodbye Seattle…next stop Denver, Colorado!” as John Legere wrote yesterday, perhaps in preparation for a meeting when the incentive auction quiet period ends at 4pm MT this afternoon. That could seem like just more speculation about the supposed M&A negotiations frenzy that many expect now the incentive auction is over. However, it is possible that the outlines of a deal might already have been formulated a year ago, which led to DISH’s perplexing decision to bid for 20MHz of spectrum in the auction.

What is certain is that DISH didn’t accidentally end up with 20MHz of spectrum, but instead went into the auction with a bidding strategy which virtually guaranteed DISH would end up with that much spectrum, unless AT&T and Verizon both wanted a large national block. So Ergen must have had a plan for what to do with that spectrum, and that plan couldn’t be that he simply expected Verizon to turn up and buy DISH, because his position is now more stretched financially and he owns a block of spectrum that neither Verizon nor AT&T appear to want. However, this national block of low band spectrum would be ideal for a new entrant buildout.

So I think the only plausible conclusion is that Ergen already has (at least in outline) a deal in his back pocket to provide spectrum for a new competitive national network. There’s a lot of history here that has never been in public view before, and I only know about 60% of what happened, so there may be some errors below, but I believe that the overall big picture storyline of what happened in 2015 and 2016 is broadly correct.

Back in second half of 2015, DISH, T-Mobile and Google discussed a huge three way deal to build out a national LTE Advanced network that would have used DISH’s spectrum, Google’s money (plus technology developed by ATAP) and T-Mobile’s network as host. Each of the three parties would have received wholesale capacity in exchange for their contribution, similar to the LightSquared-Sprint agreement back in 2011, allowing T-Mobile to augment its network capacity and DISH and Google to offer MVNO services, such as streaming Sling TV.

Ergen made a lot of trips to Silicon Valley that fall (I was told his jet was a regular visitor at Moffett Field) but he ultimately declined to do a deal because he considered the valuation being put on his spectrum ($15B was the number mentioned to me) was insufficient. By spring 2016 Ergen had changed his mind, but Google then decided against it, after hiring Rick Osterloh and deciding to focus on the Pixel phone (which required partnerships with existing wireless operators such as Verizon).

Google has now pretty much given up on its Access projects, including Google Fiber, and no longer seems plausible as a provider of funds for the new network. That leaves two possible players with the balance sheet and potential interest to fund the plan, namely Amazon and Apple, and its pretty remarkable that John Legere mentioned Amazon twice (but not Apple) in connection with deals like this during his Q1 results call on Monday:

“…we should be clear that there are strategic possibilities between wireless companies, cable players, adjacent industries, Amazon, Internet players, that should be thought about, because they drive great value for shareholders and also new opportunities for customers.”

“Now I do feel that the old lore of the four wireless player market, it’s dead. It’s gone. So did Comcast enter or not? How long are we going to play that game? Is Google in or not? Will Amazon come in at some point in the day?”

A three way partnership between DISH, Amazon and T-Mobile therefore seems to me to be the single most likely deal to emerge in the next few weeks. T-Mobile has emphasized its desire for a rapid build out of its large block of new spectrum, and it could easily include a buildout of DISH’s incentive auction spectrum at the same time. Amazon could use the capacity not only for in-home services such as Echo, but also to support other activities such as drone deliveries, while DISH could provide wireless service built around Sling TV, as well as fixed wireless broadband if desired.

In contrast, Verizon and AT&T have their sights set on mmWave spectrum and 5G, so neither seems like a potential buyer of DISH’s spectrum, while Comcast appears determined to rely on its MVNO deal with Verizon after only buying 5x5MHz of spectrum in the incentive auction. Most importantly, attempting a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, would still carry significant regulatory risk and would be far less attractive for T-Mobile than an agreement to host a differentiated new entrant (as Legere points out that can “drive great value for shareholders”). And as far as DISH is concerned, I’m simply amazed that no one appears to be writing about this as one of Ergen’s “options“.

04.05.17

Et tu, Robert?

Posted in Financials, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 9:48 am by timfarrar

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.

03.10.17

Eccentric orbits…

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Intelsat, Iridium, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SES, Spectrum at 3:40 pm by timfarrar

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.

02.28.17

Groundhog day…

Posted in DISH, Echostar, Financials, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint, VSAT at 10:17 am by timfarrar

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?

12.08.16

Chinese checkers, Indonesian intrigue…

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Handheld, Inmarsat, Operators, Regulatory, Services, Spectrum at 9:18 am by timfarrar

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.

11.02.16

The turning point?

Posted in Aeronautical, Financials, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Operators, SES, VSAT at 8:42 am by timfarrar

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.

08.01.16

Going global…

Posted in Broadband, Echostar, Financials, Inmarsat, Operators, Services, ViaSat at 10:50 am by timfarrar

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.

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