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?
Back in December, I suggested that AT&T could end up being the winner of the FCC’s incentive auction, by “dropping the licenses it held at the end of Stage 1 until broadcasters are forced to accept a tiny fraction of their originally expected receipts, leave T-Mobile (plus a bunch of spectrum speculators in various DEs) holding most of the spectrum…and screw DISH by setting a new national benchmark of ~$0.90/MHzPOP for low band spectrum.”
Broadcasters were certainly forced to accept a tiny fraction of their originally expected receipts, when the reverse auction ended Stage 4 with a total clearing cost of only $12B, and the auction has concluded with a national average price of just over $0.90/MHzPOP. However, by the beginning of this month, the clues to the incentive auction outcome derived from the splitting of reserved and unreserved licenses also suggested that T-Mobile might not have bid as aggressively as expected on licenses such as Los Angeles and San Diego, because only 1 license in these areas was classified as reserved.
Despite this, AT&T’s recently filed 10-K confirms that:
“In February 2017, aggregate bids exceeded the level required to clear Auction 1000. This auction, including the assignment phase, is expected to conclude in the first half of 2017. Our commitment to purchase 600 MHz spectrum licenses for which we submitted bids is expected to be more than satisfied by the deposits made to the FCC in the third quarter of 2016.”
The deposits made by AT&T totaled $2.4B, and commitments below this level indicate that AT&T has purchased no more than 5x5MHz on average across the US. That also suggests that AT&T very likely was responsible for dropping bids in Stages 2, 3 and 4, as I guessed back in December. But if both AT&T and T-Mobile did not bid as aggressively as expected in the auction, Verizon did not put down any material deposit and Sprint did not show up at all, that certainly raises the question of who is left standing as a winning bidder for over $19B of spectrum?
T-Mobile could well have bid somewhat more aggressively outside the southwestern US, and therefore may still be holding $5B-$8B of bids in total. It was also clear from the auction results that one or more designated entities are holding just over $2B of spectrum. But Comcast must certainly have winning bids for upwards of $5B, likely in the form of a national 10x10MHz license (and perhaps more in some markets), and it is even conceivable that DISH is still holding some licenses, despite the bidding patterns suggesting that DISH most likely dropped out in Stage 1.
But taken as a whole, the limited participation by AT&T and the lack of interest shown by Verizon could well have serious implications for the prospects of a rapid standardization and transition in this band. As I noted in December, AT&T could strand T-Mobile, Comcast and the various spectrum speculators by supporting the broadcasters in their efforts to delay the transition and ensuring that this spectrum remains non-standard because AT&T and Verizon won’t bother supporting the band any time soon.
Moreover, this outcome once again raises the question of how much AT&T and Verizon really need spectrum in the near term, or if they can instead make do with their current holdings until small cell networks based on 3.5GHz, 5GHz LTE-U and eventually mmWave spectrum create a new era of spectrum abundance and support vast increases in network capacity. Thus its somewhat ironic to see analysts speculating that Verizon is now more likely to buy DISH.
In fact, Charlie Ergen seemed to be hinting on DISH’s Q4 results call that Verizon and AT&T are no longer the most plausible partner when he stated that “I’m sure there will be discussions among any number of parties that are in the wireless business today and people who maybe are not in the wireless business today. And, I would imagine that – we’re not the biggest company, we’re not going to drive that process, but obviously, many of the assets that we hold could be involved in that mix.” However, it remains to be seen if any Silicon Valley companies are still interested in getting into the wireless business (most plausibly via the renewal of DISH’s previously mooted tie-up with Google and T-Mobile) or if something even more surprising like a reconciliation with Sprint and Softbank could be a possibility.
As we get closer to Satellite 2017, where major new deals and partnerships are often announced, it looks like a number of players may be getting cold feet about their future satellite plans. This may be partly attributable to fears that OneWeb will contribute to a eventual glut of capacity, now it has secured SoftBank as a lead investor and raised another $1.2B. Even though capacity pricing may have stabilized somewhat for now, its certainly the case that a satellite ordered now is likely to enter the market at a point when pricing is set to decline much further.
We’ve already seen a delay in Panasonic’s XTS satellite order, which was supposed to happen before the end of 2016. Ironically enough, Leo Mondale of Inmarsat said at the Capital Markets Day last October that he believed “Panasonic in Yokohama are a little wary of getting into the satellite business” and in the wake of the recent FCPA probe, Panasonic Avionics now has a new Japanese CEO.
Moreover, one way of viewing the recent announcement that Eutelsat will take its ViaSat JV forward (and include aero mobility, which was not part of the original agreement) is that Eutelsat no longer believes it will strike a deal to operate Panasonic’s XTS satellites. That’s a much better explanation than bizarre speculation that ViaSat is going to buy Eutelsat, especially when ViaSat is still struggling to fund its third satellite for Asia and is openly hinting that it will need US government contracts to close the business case. Eutelsat also seems to be cutting back elsewhere, with some speculation that the Ka-band broadband satellite previously ordered for Africa may now be repurposed for other (non-broadband) applications.
But the biggest news appears to be a pull back on SES’s part from the long rumored global Ka-band GEO system that I noted last summer. SES announced only a single satellite (SES-17) for the Americas in partnership with Thales last September, but had plans for two additional satellites, and it seemed increasingly likely that a partnership with EchoStar would be announced soon to fund this development. Now it seems that effort is on hold, leaving EchoStar without an obvious way forward to achieving global coverage (as it seems EchoStar considered but rejected the idea of buying Inmarsat last fall).
There are also other more speculative projects that need to show some progress to remain credible. When it was disclosed by the WSJ last month, SpaceX’s business plan for its satellite internet service was widely dismissed as laughably unrealistic. However, I believe that in fact this is not the business plan that corresponds to the current system design, and instead SpaceX will be seeking a large amount of US government money to fund its constellation. Compared to SpaceX and OneWeb, Telesat’s constellation ambitions have largely been ignored by commentators, despite Telesat’s priority claim to the Ka-band NGSO spectrum band. So Telesat therefore also faces pressure to secure external investors in the near term so that it can keep pace with OneWeb.
Now the question is whether caution amongst major existing players will make it harder for new entrants to move forward. Will it signal to investors that they should be cautious about investing in any satellite businesses? Or will it be perceived that new opportunities will face less competition from existing operators? The NewSpace community certainly seems to still be living in a bubble, despite the deeply negative implications of Google’s decision to abandon its efforts in satellite and hand over Terra Bella to Planet (not least because a sale to Google or other internet companies was seen as the most plausible exit for VC investors). So I look forward to seeing how much reality intrudes on the discussions at Satellite 2017.
As the FCC’s incentive auction draws to a close, some further clues emerged about the bidding when the FCC split licenses between reserved and unreserved spectrum. What stood out was that in Los Angeles, San Diego and another 10 smaller licenses (incidentally all located in the southwestern US), only 1 license is classified as reserved. That means there is only 1 bidder that has designated itself as reserve-eligible when bidding for these licenses and that bidder only wants a single 5x5MHz block of spectrum. In contrast, in LA there are five 5x5MHz blocks going to non-reserved bidders (and 1 block spare).
This leads me to believe that T-Mobile may not be holding quite as much spectrum as anticipated, at least in that part of the country, while some potentially reserve-eligible bidders (i.e. entities other than Verizon and AT&T) have not designated themselves as reserve-eligible. That election can be made on a PEA-by-PEA basis, but it would be very odd for a major bidder like Comcast not to designate itself as reserve-eligible. On the other hand, speculators whose intention is to sell their spectrum to Verizon or AT&T, very likely would not want to be reserve-eligible, since that could cause additional problems in a future sale transaction.
A plausible conclusion is that if T-Mobile’s bidding is more constrained, then Comcast may be bidding more aggressively than expected, but is primarily focused on areas where it already has cable infrastructure (i.e. not Los Angeles, San Diego, etc.), and T-Mobile, AT&T and Comcast may all end up with an average of roughly 10x10MHz of spectrum on a near-national basis. We already know that one or more speculators are bidding aggressively, due to the gap between gross and net bids (note that the FCC reports this gap without regard to the $150M cap on DE discounts so it could be a single aggressive player with $2B+ in exposure) and thus the balance of the 70MHz of spectrum being sold would then be held by other players (but with these holdings likely skewed towards more saleable larger markets, including Los Angeles).
Its interesting to note that speculation is now revving up about the transactions to come after the auction is complete, with most attention focused on whether Verizon is serious about a bid for Charter, or if this is a head fake to bring DISH to the table for a spectrum-focused deal, after Verizon apparently sat out the incentive auction. Incidentally, Verizon’s expressed interest in Charter would also tend to support the notion that Verizon believes Comcast may want to play a bigger role in the wireless market, by acquiring a significant amount of spectrum in the incentive auction and perhaps even buying a wireless operator at a later date.
However, when you look at Sprint’s recent spectrum sale-leaseback deal, which was widely highlighted for the extraordinarily high valuation that it put on the 2.5GHz spectrum band, Verizon’s need for a near term spectrum transaction is far from compelling. I’m told that the appraisal analysis estimated the cost of new cellsites that Verizon would need to build with and without additional 2.5GHz spectrum, but that either way, there is no need for Verizon to engage in an effort to add substantial numbers of macrocells until 2020 or beyond, given its current spectrum holdings and the efficiency benefits accruing from the latest LTE technology. And if mmWave spectrum and massive MIMO are successful, then Verizon’s need for spectrum declines considerably.
So it seems there is little reason for Verizon to cave now, and pay Ergen’s (presumably high) asking price, when it does not need to start building until after the March 2020 buildout deadline for DISH’s AWS-4 licenses. It would not be a surprise if Verizon were willing to pay the same price as is achieved in the incentive auction (i.e. less than $1/MHzPOP), but the question is whether Ergen will be prepared to accept that.
Of course, DISH bulls suggest that the FCC will be happy to simply extend this deadline indefinitely, even if DISH makes little or no effort to offer a commercial service before 2020. The most important data point on that issue will come in early March 2017, when DISH passes its initial 4 year buildout deadline without making any effort to build out a network. Will the FCC take this opportunity to highlight the need for a large scale buildout that DISH promised in 2012 and the FCC noted in its AWS-4 order? Certainly that would appear to be good politics at this point in time.
“…we observe that the incumbent 2 GHz MSS licensees generally support our seven year end-of-term build-out benchmark and have committed to “aggressively build-out a broadband network” if they receives terrestrial authority to operate in the AWS-4 band. We expect this commitment to be met and, to ensure that it is, adopt performance requirements and associated penalties for failure to build-out, specifically designed to result in the spectrum being put to use for the benefit of the public interest.”
“In the event a licensee fails to meet the AWS-4 Final Build-out Requirement in any EA, we adopt the proposal in the AWS-4 NPRM that the licensee’s terrestrial authority for each such area shall terminate automatically without Commission action…We believe these penalties are necessary to ensure that licensees utilize the spectrum in the public interest. As explained above, the Nation needs additional spectrum supply. Failure by licensees to meet the build-out requirements would not address this need.”
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.
So now Trump has won the White House, the opportunity for Globalstar to secure approval for its Terrestrial Low Power Service (TLPS) that was first proposed four years ago has finally disappeared. Instead of a 22MHz WiFi Channel 14, that was supposed to have access to a “massive and immediate ecosystem” (an assertion that was challenged by opponents), Globalstar is now asking for a low power terrestrial authorization in only its 11.5MHz of licensed spectrum.
That takes us back essentially to the compromise that Jay Monroe rejected in summer 2015, apparently because he didn’t believe that it would be possible to monetize the spectrum for low power LTE. However, with the FCC still keen to allow Iridium to share more of the L-band MSS spectrum for NEXT, and even Google supporting the concept of Globalstar using only its licensed spectrum for terrestrial operations, an approval seems very plausible in the near term, albeit with a further comment period required on the proposed license modification, as Globalstar acknowledges in its ex parte letter.
UPDATE (11/11): This email, produced earlier in the year by the FCC in response to a FOIA request, gives some further insight into the key June 2015 meeting with Globalstar that I referred to in my post. With its reference to “the conditions for operation in Channels 12 and 13″ and changes to “out-of-band emission levels in the MSS licensed spectrum” it seems clear that FCC staff were contemplating operation by unlicensed users right up to the 2483.5MHz boundary at least, presumably in conjunction with some reciprocity for Globalstar to operate below 2483.5MHz. Thus the deal proposed by FCC staff (although not necessarily validated with Commissioners’ offices) and rejected by Globalstar appears to have been somewhat different to this latest proposal from Globalstar (and perhaps more similar to the Public Knowledge proposals of shared use that came to the fore later in 2015). However, it seems hard to argue that the deal on the table in summer 2015 wouldn’t have been more favorable to Globalstar (due to the ability to actually offer a full 22MHz TLPS WiFi channel), if approved by Commissioners, than Globalstar’s latest proposal.
So the question now becomes, is there value in a non-standard 10MHz TDLTE channel, which is restricted to operate only at low power? Back in June 2015, I noted that there clearly would be some value for standard high power operation, but the question is a very different one for a low power license. After all, even Jay didn’t believe this type of authorization would have meaningful value last year.
Of course, its only to be expected that lazy analysts will cite the Sprint leaseback deal, which supposedly represented a huge increase in the value of 2.5GHz spectrum (though in practice this deal included cherry picked licenses for owned spectrum in top markets, and the increase in value was actually quite modest). And they will also presumably overlook the impact of the power restrictions and lack of ecosystem.
What is really critical is whether Globalstar could use such an approval to raise further funds before it runs out of money next year. Globalstar’s most recent Q3 10-Q admitted that “we will draw all or substantially all of the remaining amounts available under the August 2015 Terrapin Agreement to achieve compliance with certain financial covenants in our Facility Agreement for the measurement period ending December 31, 2016 and to pay our debt service obligations.”
In other words, Globalstar does not have the money to pay its interest and debt payments in June 2017. And with an imminent Terrapin drawdown of over $30M in December, Globalstar really needs an immediate approval to get its share price up to a level where Terrapin won’t be swamping the market with share sales next month. So how will the market react to the prospects of a limited authorization, and will investors be willing to put up $100M+ just to meet Globalstar’s obligations under the COFACE agreement in 2017?
Its important to note that the biannual debt repayments jump further in December 2017 and Globalstar will not be able to extend the period in which it makes cure payments beyond December 2017 unless “the 8% New Notes have been irrevocably redeemed in full (and no obligations or amounts are outstanding in connection therewith) on or prior to 30 June 2017″. Thus its critical that the financing situation is resolved through a major cash injection in the first half of 2017. As a result, it looks like we should find out pretty soon whether this compromise is sufficient for Thermo (or more likely others) to continue funding Globalstar.
Yesterday was an eventful day, not only for the US as a whole, but also for the inflight connectivity sector when both ViaSat and GEE announced their quarterly results at the same time. We’ve all been waiting for Southwest Airlines to make a decision about their future connectivity choices, so when ViaSat announced that “Subsequent to the end of the second quarter of fiscal year 2017 (i.e. since September 30), ViaSat was selected by a North American airline to retrofit more than 500 aircraft from its existing, mainline domestic fleet with ViaSat’s highly advanced in-flight internet system” it was natural to assume that this was Southwest.
Coming after Inmarsat and Rockwell Collins’ recent win of Norwegian Airlines for GX, which is GEE’s second biggest connectivity customer, this would also have helped to explain GEE’s announcement of a Chinese investment and joint venture which will serve over 320 planes in China.
However, GEE has now denied that the ViaSat’s new customer is Southwest and when asked about the progress of the Southwest RFP on their results call, GEE stated that investors should “stay tuned” for an announcement but that GEE “expect[s] to continue to enhance the product and services that we provide at Southwest. And our expectation that we will remain a major customer of our connectivity business well beyond the current commitments.”
What this doesn’t say is that GEE is likely to retain anything like its current business with Southwest, indeed this statement is eerily reminiscent of Gogo’s assertion in February that it hoped to “retain a strong and lasting relationship” with American, when American ultimately split its orders between Gogo and ViaSat. And a conclusion to the Southwest competition appears imminent, with either Panasonic or ViaSat expected to capture a major share of Southwest’s fleet. Panasonic certainly think they are still in the game, but others (not just ViaSat itself) appear to believe ViaSat is now in the lead on the back of aggressive terminal pricing.
So what did ViaSat actually announce? Most have assumed that if it wasn’t Southwest, it must be the outstanding mainline aircraft at American Airlines, which American has the option to move away from Gogo’s ATG service. But those orders were expected to be decided in two separate batches and not necessarily in the immediate future, since American has still not even received the first installations for either of the existing contracts with Gogo 2Ku and ViaSat.
UPDATE: So its a big surprise that American has now confirmed that it will be moving essentially all of its mainline fleet to ViaSat (other than the pending 2Ku installations). I had wondered if the order might instead be for upgrades at United (where ViaSat already serves 360 planes) combined with United’s rumored pending order for 100-120 new planes. And that might very well still be another win for ViaSat in the next month or two.
FURTHER UPDATE: Back in late May, Gogo signed a term sheet with American Airlines which specified that its “terms will form the basis for transition to a new unified agreement to be negotiated in an effort to sign no later than October 1st, 2016.” Curiously, Gogo’s Q3 10-Q filed on November 3, makes no mention of a new agreement being signed with American Airlines either before or after the end of the quarter, which raises the question of exactly what is the status of this relationship right now, and whether the companies were unable to finalize the agreement because American decided to move the remaining mainline aircraft off Gogo’s ATG network without making any further commitment to 2Ku. However, we may not get much clarity on this issue for some time, perhaps not until Gogo’s Q4 report at the end of February.
Sorry I jumped the gun on Southwest, but things still look bad for GEE, and may in fact be even better for ViaSat than I expected if they win both American and much of Southwest’s fleet, not to mention another possible win for 100+ new planes and 360 upgrades at United.
In the meantime, we face more intrigue with respect to SmartSky and Gogo’s unlicensed ATG plans, with Microsoft filing with the FCC for tests to “develop channel models for air-to-ground operations in the 2.4 GHz ISM band” and to “examine various techniques that might minimize the potential for the air-to-ground link to disrupt Wi-Fi communications on the ground in the area surrounding the ground station.”
After Microsoft tested Globalstar’s proposed TLPS solution (which incidentally may have been administered the coup de grace by Trump’s win last night) and claimed a “profound negative impact,” it would not be in the least surprising if they now propose that the FCC should commence a rulemaking on where these ATG ground stations should be located (presumably not in the vicinity of Xboxes!), similar to the work on LTE-U (which also complies with existing FCC rules for unlicensed spectrum).
While those rules would not necessarily prevent deployment (ATG ground stations would simply be located in rural areas away from other buildings), any rulemaking could result in delays of 1-2 years before the network can be deployed. The consequence of that would potentially be to accelerate the migration of mainline commercial aircraft away from ATG and towards satellite solutions, in order to free up more capacity on Gogo’s network for smaller aircraft and business jets.
Overall, my concerns about continued ruinous competition in the inflight connectivity market have now been amplified further. Inmarsat has achieved key wins with Norwegian and IAG, which have put it firmly back in the game. ViaSat continues to grow its market share and now GEE’s refocusing on China and new investment from ShareCo could allow it to continue to compete in some international markets as well. Thales may be able to take JetBlue away from ViaSat (as Inmarsat suggested at its Capital Markets Day last month) and move these aircraft onto AMC-15/16 and ultimately SES-17. And Gogo and Panasonic still have a massive backlog of orders to work through. So despite all the talk of potential consolidation, it looks like airlines (and hopefully passengers) will continue to benefit from terminal subsidies, lower wholesale session costs and increasing bandwidth for some time to come.
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the failure of Google Fiber and if there are any wider lessons about whether Silicon Valley will ever be able to compete effectively as an owner and builder of telecom networks, or indeed in other large scale capex intensive businesses (such as cars).
One conclusion I’ve come to is that there may be a fundamental incompatibility between the planning horizon (and deployment capabilities) of Silicon Valley companies and what is needed to be a successful operator of national or multinational telecom networks (whether fiber, wireless or satellite). The image above is taken from Facebook’s so-called “Little Red Book” and summarizes pretty well what I’ve experienced living and working in Silicon Valley, namely that the prevailing attitude is “There is no point having a 5-year plan in this industry” and instead you should think just about what you will achieve in the next 6 months and where you want to be in 30 years.
In software that makes a lot of sense – you can iterate fast and solve problems incrementally, and scaling up (at least nowadays) is relatively easy if you can find and keep the customers. In contrast, building a telecom network (or a new car design) is at least two or three year effort, and by the time you are fully rolled out in the market, its four or five years since you started. So when you start, you need to have a pretty good plan for what you’ll be delivering (and how its going to be operated at scale) five years down the road.
For an existing wireless operator or car company that planning and implementation is obviously helped by years of experience in operating networks or manufacturing facilities at scale. But a new entrant has to learn all of that from scratch. And its not like technology is transforming the job of deploying celltowers, trenching fiber or running a vehicle manufacturing line. Software might change the service that the end customer is buying, but its crazy to think that “if tech companies build cars and car companies hire developers, the former will win.”
Of course self-driving cars will drastically change what people do with vehicles in the future. But those vehicles still have to be made on a production line, efficiently and with high quality. Mobile has changed the world dramatically over the last 30 years, but AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, BT, etc. are still around and absorbed some of the most successful wireless startups.
Moreover, Silicon Valley companies simply don’t spend capex on anything like the scale of telcos or car companies. In 2015 Alphabet/Google’s total capex for all of its activities worldwide was $9.9B and Facebook’s capex was only $2.5B (surprisingly, at least to me, Amazon only spent $4.6B, though Apple spent $11.2B and anticipated spending $15B in 2016).
But the US wireless industry alone invested $32B in capex in 2015, which is more than Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple put together, and that excludes the $40B+ spent on spectrum in the AWS-3 auction last year. In the car industry, GM and Ford each spent more than $7B on capex in 2015. So in round numbers, total wireless industry and car industry capex on a global basis are both of order $100B+ every year, a sum that simply can’t be matched by Silicon Valley.
So when Silicon Valley companies aren’t used to either planning for or spending tens of billions of dollars on multi-year infrastructure developments, why are people surprised when it turns out Google can’t support the investment needed to build a competitive national fiber network? (Indeed its not been widely reported, but I’m told that earlier this year Google’s board also turned down a $15B+ partnership with DISH to build a new national wireless network.) Or when it appears “The Apple dream car might not happen” and “Google’s Self-Driving Car Project Is Losing Out to Rivals“?
Instead it appears that we may be shifting towards a model where the leading Silicon Valley companies work on new technology development and “give away the blueprints…so that anyone from local governments to Internet service providers can construct a new way to get Internet signals into hard-to-reach places“. Similar Google could “enable [rather] than do” in the field of self-driving cars. Whether that will lead to these technologies being commercialized remains to be seen, but it does mean that Facebook and Google won’t have to change their existing ways of working or radically increase their capital expenditures.
Undoubtedly some other Silicon Valley companies will end up try to build their own self-driving cars. But after the (continuing) struggles of Tesla to ramp up, it seems more likely that most startups will end up partnering with or selling their technology to existing manufacturers instead. And similarly, in the telecom world, does anyone believe Google (or any other Silicon Valley company) is going to build a new national wireless broadband network that is competitive with AT&T, Verizon and Comcast?
It seems to me that about the best we could hope for is for Google to push forward the commercialization of new shared access/low cost frequency bands like 3.5GHz (e.g. as part of an MVNO deal with an existing operator) so that the wireless industry no longer has to spend as much on spectrum in the future and can deliver more data at lower cost.
However, that’s not necessarily all bad news. It seems almost quaint to look back a year or two at how wireless operators were reportedly “terrified” of Facebook and concerned about how Project Loon could “hand Google an effective monopoly over the Internet in developing countries.”
If Facebook and Google are now simply going to come up with clever technology to reduce network costs (rather than building rival networks) or even just act as a source of incremental demand for mobile data services, then that will be good for mobile operators. Those operators may just be “dumb pipes,” but realistically, despite Verizon’s (flailing) efforts, that’s pretty much all they could hope for anyway.
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