05.05.15

All in…

Posted in Globalstar, Iridium, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 7:04 am by timfarrar

In the wake of Globalstar’s TLPS demonstration at the FCC in March, it seems that the company has gone all in to push for an order approving TLPS in line with the rules proposed in the November 2013 NPRM. Indeed, Globalstar now seems to be losing patience, telling the FCC last month that “it is time for the Commission to move forward with an order in this proceeding” and that “it would also be bad policy and bad precedent for the Commission to require additional test data for every potential deployment scenario that would be possible under the Commission’s proposed TLPS rules.” Globalstar has also taken the decision to ignore short sellers, such as Gerst Capital, who raised additional questions about potential interference with Bluetooth.

In contrast, it seems Iridium is trying to appear as more reasonable by scaling down its L-band spectrum proposal to only involve sharing of the band, while WiFi and Bluetooth interests are requesting more testing and hinting at a possible compromise where the operating parameters of TLPS are further restricted (though it is clear that both would like to delay any order on TLPS indefinitely).

Now that LTE-U/LAA has emerged as a major concern for users of unlicensed spectrum (and an issue for the FCC), due to the potential to crowd out existing applications, the freedom that the existing NPRM proposal would grant Globalstar to shift to a supplementary LTE downlink configuration (if that ultimately provided the best opportunity for monetization) brings additional complications to the FCC’s decision. And Google has also weighed in, presumably because it sees TLPS as a potential rival ecosystem to its work to open up additional small cell spectrum in the 3.5GHz band.

The FCC has not yet given much of an indication about how it will act, although it is notable that NPRMs which confer a substantial benefit on a private company often involve additional compromises to benefit the public interest (as happened with DISH’s AWS-4 order, which, over DISH’s vigorous objections, changed the uplink OOBE limits to ensure the PCS H-block could be auctioned). However, in late April an unnamed FCC official told Bloomberg that “The Commission will consider the results [of the demonstration] in determining what next steps may be appropriate in the pending rulemaking.” The mention of next steps in the plural is particularly intriguing, since issuing an Order to conclude the rulemaking at this point would only require a single step.

Globalstar continues to maintain in investor presentations that “process completion/TLPS authority” is “expected shortly”. That appears to assume that the FCC rejects the demands for more testing of TLPS and simply moves forward with the NPRM as written, since we have not yet seen any evidence of potential compromises (such as for example a response to Iridium’s latest proposal). As I noted at the beginning of this post, this looks to be a high risk approach: if Globalstar doesn’t get what it is asking for, and doesn’t proactively offer to move forward with additional testing and/or other compromises, then any resolution of this matter is going to be delayed for many months, possibly even beyond the end of 2015.

11.13.14

Assessing Globalstar…

Posted in Financials, Globalstar, Handheld, Operators, Regulatory, Services, Spectrum at 10:57 am by timfarrar

I’ve just released my new 69 page Globalstar profile, analyzing both Globalstar’s MSS business and their spectrum valuation and potential partnerships. Over the last month its been interesting to observe the rather hyperbolic comments from both supporters and opponents of the company, and unfortunately those on both sides appear poorly informed about the potential value of the TLPS spectrum and the growth of the MSS opportunity.

In the MSS business, its crystal clear that growth has fallen far short of expectations in the business plan presented to COFACE in summer 2013, and it is expected that Globalstar will need to make equity cures to address an EBITDA shortfall in 2015, and perhaps even at the end of this year. However, those amounts will be modest, nothing like the $200M raised by Iridium earlier this year, and so there is no need for concern that MSS challenges will disrupt Globalstar’s attempts to monetize its spectrum in the next year or two.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the new Hughes-based devices will dramatically change this picture: MSS terminals offering WiFi links to smartphones but no standalone functionality have generally been fairly unsuccessful in comparison to self-contained communications devices (compare SPOT Connect vs SPOT or the original inReach vs inReach SE/Explorer), and low price terminals/consumer distribution channels have not altered the dynamics of the handheld market very much (for example, the SPOT Global Phone has not changed Globalstar’s business prospects materially). Its also little use selling a new device for $100 if the customer still has to choose from the existing handheld airtime plans (which have a four times higher ARPU than SPOT). So overall, we don’t expect Globalstar’s MSS business to generate enough value to match the $1B invested, or even the current COFACE debt.

While the MSS picture may not be encouraging, I’m more positive about Globalstar’s TLPS opportunity. It’s clear that Globalstar’s spectrum does have potential value to partners, since Globalstar came close to a deal with Google in early 2013, and we suspect a deal with a different partner was almost reached earlier this year. I also expect the FCC to approve TLPS without material concerns, although it seems likely to come in Q1 not Q4, and may involve giving up some L-band spectrum to Iridium, as happened in the past when Globalstar was seeking ATC authority.

The key question is therefore whether a partner can now be secured who will pay a substantial sum for access to the spectrum, from a limited universe of possibilities in the service provider category. Equipment and infrastructure providers are more likely to want to make money from selling equipment to Globalstar (and its service provider partner), than to pay Globalstar for access to the spectrum. The second question is then what the appropriate valuation would be if a deal can be struck: based on comparable valuations for high band spectrum and the alternative sources of spectrum out there (including AWS-3) it is hard to believe that anyone could seriously envisage a $6B or $10B valuation for TLPS. However, the debate should be about what Globalstar’s spectrum is worth, not whether it is worthless.

All of these issues are discussed in more detail in the report: we give specific forecasts for the MSS business by product through 2018 and explain what we believe to be the most appropriate valuation benchmarks for TLPS and who is now the most likely partner. Contact us if you’re interested in more information.

10.06.14

Do you believe?

Posted in Financials, Globalstar, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 3:04 pm by timfarrar

Today hasn’t been a great day for the MSS industry, with Kerrisdale Capital mounting an attack on Globalstar, and LightSquared’s bankruptcy process descending further into chaos, with Judge Chapman ordering the stakeholders back to mediation after the standalone reorganization proposal for LightSquared LP was withdrawn and the Special Committee threw up its hands in despair.

Fundamentally this debate comes down to whether investors (and more importantly potential spectrum buyers such as cellular operators) believe there is a shortage of spectrum, which will justify a higher valuation for spectrum assets. An answer to that broader question should become a lot clearer after the AWS-3 auction next month, as Charlie Ergen has been at pains to point out. After all, DISH has declared its intent to bid, apparently in order to push up the final price that others pay.

Some clearly believe, like Macquarie who published a report last week claiming that the AWS-3 spectrum will sell for $1.30 to $1.50 per MHzPOP, and DISH’s spectrum could be worth more than their current estimate of $1.75 per MHzPOP. However, the FCC is less sanguine and has set a relatively high reserve price (sufficient to meet the $7B required to fund First Net) in the expectation that bidding may not be very aggressive. Chairman Wheeler is also clearly nervous about the incentive auction, warning cellular operators at CTIA last month that:

Many broadcasters have been led to believe that the demand for mobile spectrum really isn’t as your industry has claimed.
As a result, they believe that wireless carriers won’t fully participate in the auction. Whether or not wireless carriers show up with sufficient demand to incent broadcasters to participate is something only you control.
But, if that is the case, if mobile operators don’t put their money where their mouths have been, the future of spectrum policy will begin to look a lot different.

Remember that Greenhill has just estimated that bids in the incentive auction could total $45B (of which $33B would be paid to broadcasters), even at what some would consider the relatively modest price for low frequency spectrum of $1.50 per MHzPOP. The price for AWS-3 should be rather lower than that, and to me it would not be at all surprising to see the final auction receipts total less than $15B ($0.80-$0.90/MHzPOP).

Even that total, of up to $60B, may prove a significant burden for cellular operators now that AT&T and Verizon are loaded with debt after their purchases of DirecTV and the Vodafone stake respectively and have much less incentive to bid the price up aggressively (especially in the incentive auction, since spectrum will potentially be reserved for smaller players).

Perhaps there will be an external savior in the form of a new entrant? That’s what one Globalstar bull, Odeon Capital, apparently believes, suggesting today that “Today, carriers and cable companies provide access, you need them to use wifi. Ultimately, TLPS provides an end run around the traditional gatekeepers, and we think that’s a very compelling incentive.”

However, its important to note that Google looked at buying both Globalstar and Inmarsat in late 2012/early 2013 (at a time when Globalstar’s share price was a lot lower) for Project Loon, but that proposal was rejected by Larry Page (note that the companies are not named, but Astro Teller specifically stated that there were six months of negotiations with “large companies” to buy “a relatively thin piece of harmonized spectrum” and its been confirmed to me by multiple independent sources that the targets were Globalstar and Inmarsat).

Amazon is another mooted investor in wireless spectrum, and a prospective Globalstar partner, but now that its Fire phone has failed to set the world alight, it seems increasingly unlikely to spend billions of dollars on spectrum.

So if its hard to see a new entrant saving the day, what will happen to spectrum values? It certainly doesn’t mean that Globalstar or LightSquared’s spectrum is worth nothing, but does suggest that (as I’ve long predicted) the spectrum bubble may soon start to deflate. The bands that will likely feel the pressure first are those without an existing ecosystem (or that are not owned by large operators like Verizon and AT&T with the power to create one).

On the other hand, unless you can find someone to pay for and use your spectrum, how do you monetize it? Do you build out your own network, like Clearwire and LightSquared tried to do? Or do you just sit and wait for conditions to improve? It certainly seems plausible that a number of spectrum owners, including DISH, may now have to choose between these two, relatively unpalatable, options.

05.10.14

Google Loon: Into Thin Air…

Posted in DISH, Globalstar, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 10:43 am by timfarrar

Google’s Project Loon has been in the news again this week, with confirmation that Google will now look to partner with cellular operators to use their licensed spectrum rather than acquiring its own spectrum. Indeed yesterday the FCC issued an STA to permit continued testing in Nevada, using T-Mobile’s AWS-1 F-block LTE spectrum.

I’m particularly intrigued that Astro Teller of Google indicated that in late 2012/early 2013 the company spent “six months negotiating with ‘large companies’ to buy [a relatively thin piece of] harmonized spectrum,” but the plan was vetoed by Larry Page. Its pretty clear that the only “relatively thin” piece of “harmonized” (i.e. multi-country) spectrum out there is MSS spectrum and it was reported in November 2012 that Google had held discussions with DISH about their spectrum. Presumably similar discussions were held with other MSS operators like Globalstar as well (although at least as of late 2012 Google might not have considered Globalstar to be a “large” company on the scale of DISH or even Inmarsat).

However, the idea of partnering with individual wireless operators in different countries is completely incompatible with the concept of using balloons which can travel around the world in 22 days, because of course different spectrum would need to be used in each country. The obvious conclusion to draw is that Google will soon be moving on from balloons to its new Titan drones, which can stay in a defined area and be configured with a specific payload that would use the spectrum available there, just as Facebook predicted. Interestingly drones would operate at the same altitude of “up to 65000ft” and therefore might conceivably even be covered by Google’s current FCC STA. So how soon will we see this change happen?

02.10.14

GOing to FIght about it?

Posted in Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, Operators, Services, Thuraya at 4:20 pm by timfarrar

Last week, at its partner conference, Iridium announced the launch of its new GO! product, which will provide the ability to relay calls and data to and from a smartphone via WiFi, at a reported retail cost of $700-$800. Iridium is looking to boost its revenues from handheld data (i.e. email, texting, etc.) which to date have been fairly modest in the satellite phone market, and will offer lower cost bundles of data minutes, including unlimited packages for intensive users. Indeed, one of the likely use cases is on yachts and fishing boats, which don’t need a full blown high speed data solution. This is slightly different to Thuraya’s SatSleeve, which is more likely to stimulate incremental voice usage, because the SatSleeve is physically attached to an iPhone or Samsung S3/S4 phone and so is easier to use for voice communications.

Globalstar also threw its hat in the ring, pre-empting Iridium’s announcement with the Sat-Fi, which is “expected to receive final FCC certification…during the second quarter of 2014, with shipments starting shortly thereafter.” Globalstar has had a “puck-like” device on its roadmap for several years, but has always wrestled with whether it is worthwhile to invest in product development for a product based on its existing Qualcomm air interface, with a potentially limited lifespan, or if it is better to wait for the new Hughes chipsets in 2015, which will offer improved data capabilities and will be supported throughout the lifetime of the second generation constellation.

Its therefore interesting to note that (according to my sources) the Sat-Fi will be based on the Qualcomm GSP-1720 voice and data module rather than the Hughes chipset. This suggests that Globalstar either perceives a large near term opportunity, which would justify making the investment now, or was particularly focused on spoiling Iridium’s announcement. Iridium clearly thinks it was the latter, and doesn’t believe that the Sat-Fi is actually “real”.

Globalstar has kept details of the Sat-Fi pretty quiet (although it filed a patent application on some aspects of the concept two years ago), and none of the MSS distributors I’ve spoken to seems to know much about the size, price or market positioning of the Sat-Fi device. However, despite Globalstar’s greater focus on the consumer market, it does not appear likely that Sat-Fi would sell in significantly higher volumes than Globalstar’s existing satellite phones, assuming a comparable price point. Indeed estimates that there might be 150K hotspots in use by 2022 would represent only 10%-20% of the expected satellite phone market in that timeframe.

I’m sure this will be make for a fascinating discussion during the MSS CEO panel at Satellite 2014 and perhaps even a return to some of the contentious debates of prior years. Ironically, the barbs being thrown around over the GO! and Sat-Fi don’t fully reflect the competitive landscape in the MSS industry, with Iridium and Globalstar focusing to a significant degree on different distribution strategies, target customers, and (to some extent) geographies.

In that context, both could be successful in different parts of the market, which would make this much like prior arguments over Inmarsat’s ISatPhone Pro and its supposed advantages over Iridium (reflected in the Gabby Wonderland video produced by Inmarsat’s marketing agency in 2010). In that case Inmarsat’s initial belief was that the ISatPhone Pro would hurt Iridium’s satellite phone business significantly, but in reality Iridium continued to dominate the higher end of the MSS handheld market (and sold more satellite phones than Inmarsat at much higher equipment margins), while Inmarsat expanded the low end of market instead.

11.06.13

Be what you want to be…

Posted in Globalstar, Inmarsat, Iridium, LDR, Operators, Orbcomm, Services at 11:02 am by timfarrar

In my view the announcement of a partnership between Orbcomm and Inmarsat on Monday evening may represent a sea change for the MSS industry, as Orbcomm showed how its planned “multi-network operator strategy” could eventually lead to it getting out of the business of operating its own satellite fleet, allowing Orbcomm to be what it wants to be: a solutions provider rather than a satellite operator.

In the short term the deal means that Orbcomm will invest in developing a new low cost Inmarsat ISatDataPro (IDP) module, costing around $100 (i.e. aiming to be less expensive than Iridium’s SBD module) which OEMs and VARs can choose to drop into their terminals as a direct alternative to Orbcomm’s own OG2 module, using a common management interface provisioned by Orbcomm.

The choice of module will be up to the OEM, and will depend on their data needs (IDP has higher capacity and less latency, because there will sometimes be several minute gaps in coverage between the 17 OG2 satellites), the geographies they will serve (Inmarsat will provide access to Russia and China) and the price they are willing to pay (IDP service will be more expensive than the current Orbcomm $5-$6 OEM ARPUs). Note that this is somewhat different than Orbcomm’s arrangement with Globalstar, under which Orbcomm’s Solutions business offers a Globalstar tag to retail customers (and existing Comtech VARs), but Globalstar will not be a direct alternative for Orbcomm’s OEM customers (who buy from Orbcomm’s Devices and Products business).

In the longer term it seems to me that (although this is not part of the current agreement with Inmarsat) Orbcomm will very likely not build a third generation of LEO VHF satellites, as the nature of their network (where the LEO satellites search actively for channels that are free of interference as they orbit the Earth) would be very difficult to consolidate onto an Inmarsat GEO platform. Because Orbcomm will have access to Inmarsat capacity on an I6 constellation which will last into the 2030s, eventually (in a decade or more) Orbcomm could instead migrate its customer base onto Inmarsat’s L-band services, so that it will not have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on another round of fleet replenishment. In fact, if Orbcomm has any substantial launch problems with OG2 (remember that the satellites from its last two launches have been lost) it might not even make sense to reinvest the insurance proceeds in replacement satellites and conceivably such a migration could take place more quickly.

The significance of this announcement is that it appears to represent the first step towards a reduction in the amount of capex being invested in the rather slow growing MSS market. The next question will be whether, when Inmarsat orders its I6 L-band satellites (likely in late 2014 or early 2015), it opts for a copy (or even a simpler version) of the I4 constellation, and thus whether, as I suggested last year, we really have now reached the “end of history” in the MSS L-band industry. After all, with the sale of the Stratos energy business to RigNet (and a likely disposal of Segovia), Inmarsat is now backing away from its strategy of going direct, and is continuing to focus on maritime price rises to boost revenues, in accordance with the other part of my “end of history” thesis.

11.01.13

Style points….

Posted in DISH, Globalstar, Iridium, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 7:52 pm by timfarrar

So, as many expected, Globalstar’s NPRM finally emerged from the FCC tonight, before the new Chairman, Tom Wheeler, is sworn in on Monday. It appears that Wheeler has had a strong influence on the rather subdued language in this NPRM, which takes a much more equivocal stance than similar NPRMs (and has even been toned down compared to previous drafts, or so I’m led to believe).

As the language perhaps reflects Wheeler’s more cautious stance compared to former Chairman Genachowski’s “full speed ahead” approach, it is hard to predict what this will mean for Globalstar’s potential approval process. However, it is clear that it will take some time, because the FCC is seeking detailed technical studies from commenting parties, and has set a relatively long comment deadline of 75 days after publication in the Federal Register (i.e. January or February 2014).

Nevertheless, it is instructive to compare the language to DISH’s AWS-4 NPRM in March 2012, especially as that is the model that Globalstar sought in its petition, which stated that “the Commission’s rulemaking proposal on terrestrial use of Big LEO spectrum should incorporate a number of the basic reforms proposed by the Commission in the 2 GHz NPRM”. As a starting point, the DISH NPRM set a comment period of 30 days after publication, but more notable is how definitive the DISH NPRM was about its intentions:

DISH: “In this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, we propose to increase the Nation’s supply of spectrum for mobile broadband by removing unnecessary barriers to flexible use of spectrum currently assigned to the Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) in the 2 GHz band”
Globalstar: “By this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Notice), the Commission proposes modified rules for the operation of the Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC) of the single Mobile-Satellite Service (MSS) system operating in the Big LEO S band”

DISH: “With this proceeding we intend to fulfill the Commission’s previously stated plan to create a solid and lasting foundation for the provision of terrestrial services in 40 megahertz of spectrum in the 2 GHz band”
Globalstar: “For all the reasons stated herein, we believe that Globalstar’s proposal to deploy broadband access equipment should be further examined and a record developed to determine whether this proposal has the potential to enable more efficient use of Globalstar’s S-band spectrum and spectrum in the adjacent band. This action could potentially increase the amount of spectrum available for broadband access in the United States”

DISH: “According to Cisco Systems, North American mobile Internet traffic more than doubled in 2011 and is expected to grow over 15-fold in the next five years. This explosive growth is creating an urgent need for more network capacity and, in turn, for suitable spectrum”
Globalstar: “The rapid adoption of smartphones and tablet computers, combined with deployment of high-speed 3G and 4G technologies, is driving more intensive use of mobile networks. According to Cisco Systems, global mobile Internet traffic is expected to grow over 13-fold from 2012 to 2017″

DISH: “In this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (AWS-4 Notice), we build on the Commission’s recent actions to enable the provision of terrestrial mobile broadband service in up to 40 megahertz of spectrum in the 2000-2020 MHz and 2180-2200 MHz spectrum bands. We propose terrestrial service rules for these spectrum bands that would generally follow the Commission’s Part 27 rules, modified as necessary to account for issues unique to the 2000-2020 MHz and 2180-2200 MHz spectrum bands. Given the proximity of these spectrum bands to spectrum bands previously identified as AWS, in our proposal we refer to these spectrum bands as “AWS-4″ or “AWS-4 spectrum”
Globalstar: “We believe that Globalstar’s proposal to deploy a low-power terrestrial system in the 2473-2495 MHz band should be examined to determine whether it is possible to increase the use of this spectrum terrestrially in the near term, without causing harmful interference to users of this band and adjacent bands, and without compromising Globalstar’s ability to provide substantial service to the public under its existing MSS authorization. If supported by the record, this action could potentially increase the usefulness for terrestrial mobile broadband purposes of 11.5 megahertz of licensed spectrum. As a result, these changes may induce increased investment and innovation throughout the industry and ultimately improve competition and consumer choice. Therefore, we propose to make the changes to Part 25 of the rules necessary to provide for the operation of low-power ATC in the licensed MSS spectrum in the 2483.5-2495 MHz band”

(note that Globalstar also sought to operate under Part 27, which the Commission rejected, and I’m told that an earlier draft of the NPRM also contained a proposed new name for this band, although not the “AWS-5″ designation that Globalstar had sought)

As far as the specifics of the NPRM proposal goes, it appears that the FCC has gone along with Globalstar’s requested TLPS power and OOBE levels, while highlighting that “significant concerns have been raised about potential detrimental impact on unlicensed devices, such as Bluetooth, that are currently used extensively for various wireless broadband services and applications”. However, there are a number of lurking issues, such as the process to be used for approving any changes to devices to use the new service (which will fall under Part 25 so would normally require a new FCC ID to be granted for an existing Part 15 device operating in the WiFi band).

In addition, proposed use of Part 25 along with a simple modification to the existing ATC rules to require TLPS to be permitted (so long as Globalstar can “demonstrate the commercial availability of MSS, without regard to coverage requirements”), could make it harder to get LTE approval in the future, especially in the L-band, where the FCC warned Globalstar that “Should we find it to be appropriate, the Commission reserves the right to consolidate this proceeding with any proceeding addressing Globalstar’s L-band proposal and Iridium’s petition for rulemaking” (creating a risk that some L-band spectrum could be reallocated to Iridium if Globalstar pushes for LTE authorization: the FCC quietly issued a public notice seeking comment on Iridium’s petition for reallocation of L-band spectrum on Friday as well).

So now the question is whether Wheeler will be prepared to work through these issues, face down the interference concerns and push through a final order approving TLPS, or if he will instead prioritize the 3.5GHz band, where a public notice was also issued today (with a much shorter comment cycle), seeking further comment on how “Priority Access” licenses (which as I’ve remarked before could be somewhat similar to TLPS) might be allocated for exclusive use.

UPDATE (11/3): Globalstar’s press release noted that the release of the NPRM “represents a seminal development and yet another step forward in Globalstar’s renaissance”. However, unlike in September, when the NPRM was circulated, its notable that the company didn’t say that it was “very pleased” with the FCC’s action. Globalstar’s comment that “We look forward to receiving the public’s comments and working towards a final order over the next several months” is also a curious description of a process where reply comments won’t even be received for 3.5 months after publication of the NPRM in the Federal Register.

10.21.13

Gravity…

Posted in Financials, Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, LDR, Maritime, Operators, Services at 9:33 am by timfarrar

I won’t belabor the errors of physics in the movie, instead just noting that even though you might think that in space things can keep going in a straight line indefinitely, they are still subject to gravity and you can’t get to a higher orbit without some form of propulsion.

We’ve now seen confirmation from Iridium of what I pointed out last week, that Q3 was very bad for the MSS industry. Iridium missed its expectations for equipment revenues (i.e. handset sales) and subscriber growth (i.e. M2M net adds), although at least the government contract renewal is more favorable than expected – the unlimited nature of the contract removes the incentive for the DoD to scrub its user base to remove unused handsets, which has been a headwind for Iridium in the last couple of years.

Its far from clear that anyone else is doing better: it looks like Iridium’s competitors also saw pretty poor handset sales in Q3 and the SPOT 3 has been very slow to arrive in stores as well. Moreover, the government business is dire – Intelsat’s profit warning (which included its off-net business reselling MSS) is a bad sign for Inmarsat, as are the large scale layoffs in Astrium’s government business last week.

Inmarsat has now followed up its promise not to raise FleetBB prices in 2014 with an enormous 48% rise in maritime E&E prices from January, in an attempt to sustain maritime revenue growth next year. While the stated intention is to persuade the remaining pay as you go customers to move off the E&E network and choose FleetBB instead, the vast majority of higher spending B and Fleet customers have already migrated and many of the remaining users are mini-M voice-only users or really want the PAYG service because they are only occasional users, so FleetBB is not necessarily the ideal option.

Inmarsat is clearly calculating that these customers won’t want to risk moving to Iridium after the OpenPort problems earlier this year and has stepped up its efforts to portray Iridium’s network as “failing”. Despite all this, no-one believes that Inmarsat could possibly achieve its 8%-12% revenue growth target for 2014 and I expect this to be “softened” in the near future as well. Inmarsat is also likely to emphasize its opportunities for internal cost savings next year and move to dispose of some retail business units like Segovia.

Its interesting to speculate about implications for the wider satellite industry as well. Last time around (in 1999-2003), problems in the MSS industry were a harbinger of a downturn in the FSS industry a couple of years later. That came in the wake of a peak in satellite orders in the 1999-2001 timeframe and after the launch of these satellites, which resulted in a sharp decline in prices, the FSS industry took a big hit. We’ve seen a similar peak in orders in recent years (2009-10), and while the major operators are much more likely to retain pricing discipline (in a far more consolidated industry than a decade ago), the advent of High Throughput Satellites, especially those owned by smaller players like Avanti (who might become the most desperate for contracts), could pressure prices in certain market segments and geographies.

Just as an example, in recent years, underlying transponder demand has grown at roughly 4% p.a., but revenues have been boosted by around 2% p.a. by price rises. Even if demand growth continues (not a foregone conclusion in some sectors like government where WGS is an alternative), a reversal of the pricing trend would certainly make a big difference to the FSS revenue outlook. As I said at the beginning of this post, gravity clearly exerts a force, even in space.

10.14.13

Wretched, isn’t it?

Posted in Financials, Globalstar, Government, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, LDR, Operators, Orbcomm, Services at 10:03 am by timfarrar


Incredible…it’s even worse than I thought

That’s been the reaction to my 57 page Globalstar profile, released on Friday (you can see the contents list here and get an order form here), because of the history of challenges that the MSS industry has faced in the past and more particularly the difficulties that the industry is seeing this year.

After discussions with a number of people in the industry over the last few weeks, it looks like Q3 has been pretty disastrous for MSS sales across the board, with none of the usual surge in demand expected in the summer months, as customers stock up to prepare for outdoor adventures or potential hurricanes. Part of that relates to slow government orders, as a result of the sequester (predating the current shutdown), but commercial demand has also been poor, and that’s much harder to explain.

In the handheld segment, one suggestion is that Hurricane Sandy proved that terrestrial cellphone networks are now considerably more reliable during disasters (and far more data capable than MSS phones), so companies are no longer giving as high a priority to MSS equipment in their disaster planning. In the M2M segment, a fairly convincing explanation is that service providers who formerly specialized in MSS are now focusing more and more on selling cellular-based solutions to customers who find they don’t need MSS as a backup.

As a result, I’m now convinced that subscriber growth (and equipment sales) will fall short of expectations this year, particularly in the handheld and M2M segments, for almost all of the major MSS players, with knock-on effects for subscriber revenues in Q4 and more particularly next year. The defense business also looks poor (as shown by Intelsat’s recent profit warning): the word on the street is that Inmarsat may dispose of its Segovia government FSS business, as revenues in Inmarsat’s US Government business unit fell by 11% year-on-year in the first half of 2013 and appear to have eroded further in recent months, particularly in Segovia’s VSAT business. The sale price would be a fraction of what Inmarsat paid for Segovia, but in exchange Inmarsat would hope to secure a GX airtime contract, similar to its RigNet deal in the energy sector.

In the case of Globalstar, the implications of the MSS downturn are that while Globalstar should be able to meet the new bank case revenue forecasts, it won’t be easy to beat them. However, unlike some other players, Globalstar is fortunate in having the potential upside from monetizing its spectrum, if it can complete a deal with Amazon or another company. The report looks at spectrum valuation for both LTE and TLPS and concludes that there could be substantial value for Globalstar, although realizing this will require both rapid approval from the FCC and for a deal to be struck fairly quickly, before new spectrum bands such as 3550-3650MHz develop an alternative ecosystem at what will likely be much lower prices. If you are interested in getting a copy, please contact me for more details.

09.19.13

Oh puck!

Posted in Financials, Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, Operators, Regulatory, Services, Spectrum at 9:32 am by timfarrar


Why didn’t Phil think of this first?

With MSS revenues in a bit of a funk this year, its not surprising that MSS operators are pursuing opportunities to attract consumers and expand the voice market outside the traditional verticals. We saw this first of all with Thuraya’s SatSleeve, announced at the Satellite 2013 conference in March. The SatSleeve connects via Bluetooth (and in the latest version WiFi) to an iPhone allowing the customer to use their iPhone contacts and touch screen interface. However, a key limitation is the need for compatibility of the sleeve with a particular phone form factor, and Thuraya has just launched a new version of the SatSleeve compatible with the slightly larger iPhone 5 handset rather than the original iPhone 4.

One way to overcome this handset compatibility issue is to use an external puck-like device, similar to a SPOT Connect or DeLorme inReach product, but offering voice and data capability in addition to simple messaging. This concept has been around for many years, and indeed was part of Craig McCaw’s new business plan when he bought ICO out of bankruptcy back in 2000: ICO told the FCC in its original ATC application in March 2001 that

“The use of already-permitted wireless technology such as Bluetooth or IEEE 802.11 could allow a whole range of consumer devices – standard terrestrial phones, PDAs, or laptop computers – to communicate with a satellite transceiver that houses the antennas, amplifiers, and other electronics unique and specific to the satellite link”.

Subscribers to my MSS research service heard 6 weeks ago about Iridium’s new handheld product, scheduled for launch at the end of the year, which is apparently exactly this puck-like device. It will be positioned to compete at the low end of the handheld market with a broadly comparable price to Thuraya’s SatSleeve (which was originally announced at $499 but is now selling for $599 to $799) and the Inmarsat and Globalstar handheld phones. I’m now told that Inmarsat is working on a similar device for release towards the end of next year, and meanwhile Globalstar has announced that it is “aiming to bring a $100 satellite device to market in 18 months time…to enter into a totally different market”.

I understand that Globalstar’s new device is likely to be the long-awaited two-way SPOT product, and may not be voice-capable like Iridium and Inmarsat’s new devices. It remains unclear whether the form factor will be a smartphone-connected puck (like SPOT Connect) or a standalone device: certainly the standalone device has sold much better for Globalstar to date, but equally well this might make it harder to expand beyond the current market of techie-focused backpackers and outdoorsy people (the vast majority of SPOT users are like me: 40-something relatively high income males with an interest in technology). Given the 18 month timetable stated by Globalstar, its also unclear whether this would be based on the new Hughes chipset or the current SPOT uplink plus a similar downlink channel, as the second generation ground segment upgrades are supposed to take about two more years to complete.

As Globalstar moves to raise its profile with investors, it seems the next stage will be a new round of fundraising (Globalstar noted in its 2013Q2 10-Q that “In June 2013, the Company entered into an agreement with Ericsson which deferred to September 1, 2013 or the close of a financing approximately $2.4 million in milestone payments scheduled under the contract”), presumably helping to reduce some of Thermo’s $85M backstop commitment (of which $40M had been provided by the end of July and $4.4M had been offset by receipts from termination of the 2009 share lending agreement). Indeed, it would be plausible for fundraising to go beyond this ~$35M level given the rise in Globalstar’s share price in the expectation of a positive outcome from the FCC, though it appears unlikely Globalstar will order more satellites anytime soon, given that the legal disputes with Thales are apparently still ongoing (Thales has “alleged that Thermo had failed to pay Thales $12,500,000 by December 31, 2012 as required by the Settlement Agreement“).

It seems Globalstar is highly confident that its NPRM will be issued by the time Chairman Clyburn leaves office, so it would be reasonable to suspect that this new financing is intended to take place in the next month or so, helping to cover payments of $20M+ due to Hughes between August 2013 and January 2014). Last week’s grand bargain over the 700MHz A&E blocks, DISH’s AWS-4 downlink waiver request and the H block auction, certainly indicates that I was too pessimistic in believing that Clyburn didn’t want to address spectrum issues and would leave these for Wheeler, and it would therefore now not be in the least bit surprising to see the Globalstar NPRM released at or around the time of the September FCC Open Meeting (when Clyburn will have what might be the last chance to trumpet her accomplishments as Chairman). Clyburn also appears less likely than Wheeler to pursue the “harm claim threshold” approach favored by the FCC’s TAC, which is good news for Globalstar in terms of how long it would take to issue an FCC order, although given that the FCC highlighted the speed with which it had moved to complete the DISH ruling last December (within 9 months of issuing the NPRM), it is still hard to imagine a final ruling on TLPS before early summer 2014.

So the key issues for Globalstar are likely to be how successfully it can build up its MSS business (note that the revenue projections given for the bank case in the new COFACE agreement generate just enough cash to cover debt, interest and capex payments through 2022 but little else) and more importantly whether Globalstar can find a partner to exploit its spectrum assets. We know about Amazon, but will there be other interest either from the cellular industry or (perhaps more plausibly) from non-traditional players? What are the best comparisons for spectrum valuation for TLPS and/or LTE authorization? I’ll be publishing my updated profile of Globalstar shortly and all of these issues will be discussed along with my revenue projections for the MSS business.

« Previous Page« Previous entries « Previous Page · Next Page » Next entries »Next Page »