UPDATED Feb 5, 2017
There’s been a lot of recent news about Chinese investments in satellite companies, including the planned takeover of Spacecom, which is now being renegotiated (and probably abandoned) after the loss of Amos-6 in September’s Falcon 9 failure, and the Global Eagle joint venture for inflight connectivity.
There were also rumors that Avanti could be sold to a Chinese group, which again came to nothing, with Avanti’s existing bondholders ending up having to fund the company instead in December 2016. The latest of these vanishing offers was a purported $200M bid from a Chinese company, China Trends, for Thuraya in mid-January 2017, which Thuraya promptly dismissed, saying it had never had discussions of any kind with China Trends.
Back in July Inmarsat was also reported to have approached Avanti, but then Inmarsat declared it had “no intention to make an offer for Avanti.” I had guessed that Inmarsat appeared to have done some sort of deal with Avanti, when the Artemis L/S/Ka-band satellite was relocated to 123E, into a slot previously used by Inmarsat for the ACeS Garuda-1 L-band satellite (as Avanti’s presentation at an event in October 2016 confirmed).
However, I’m now told that the Indonesian government reclaimed the rights to this slot after Garuda-1 was de-orbited, and is attempting to use the Artemis satellite to improve its own claim to this vacant slot before these rights expire. I also understand that with Artemis almost out of fuel, various parties were very concerned that the relocation would not even work and the Artemis satellite could have been left to drift along the geostationary arc, an outcome which thankfully has been avoided.
The action by the Indonesian government seems to hint at a continued desire to control its own MSS satellite, which could come in the shape of the long rumored purchase of SkyTerra-2 L-band satellite for Indonesian government use, similar to the MEXSAT program in Mexico. If that is the case, then presumably the Indonesians would also need to procure a ground segment, similar to the recent $69M contract secured by EchoStar in Asia (although that deal is for S-band not L-band).
Meanwhile Inmarsat still appears to be hoping to secure a deal to lease the entire payload of the 4th GX satellite to the Chinese government, which was originally expected back in October 2015, when the Chinese president visited Inmarsat’s offices. That contract has still not been signed, apparently because the Chinese side tried to negotiate Inmarsat’s price down after the visit. Although Inmarsat now seems to be hinting to investors that the I5F4 satellite will be launched into the Atlantic Ocean Region for incremental aeronautical capacity, last fall Inmarsat was apparently still very confident that a deal could be completed in the first half of 2017 once the I5F4 satellite was launched.
So it remains to be seen whether Inmarsat will be any more successful than other satellite operators in securing a large deal with China or whether, just like many others, Inmarsat’s deal will vanish into thin air. China has already launched its own Tiantong-1 S-band satellite in August 2016, as part of the same One Belt One Road effort that Inmarsat was hoping to participate in with its GX satellite, and Tiantong-1 has a smartphone which “will retail from around 10,000 yuan ($1,480), with communication fees starting from around 1 yuan a minute — a tenth of the price charged by Inmarsat.” Thus Inmarsat potentially faces growing pressure on its L-band revenues in China, and must hope that it can secure some offsetting growth in Ka-band.
Earlier this year I warned that the satellite industry seemed to be stepping off the precipice, as a Ku HTS price war culminated in the very attractive pricing (of around $1000 per MHz per month) that Gogo and Panasonic secured from SES in February 2016. What has followed over the last six months or so has been rampant negativity in the press about overcapacity and price crashes. Even NSR, who in March were noting the “generally slow and stable downward pressure on pricing up to 2016″ are now asserting that “satellite capacity pricing [is] in a prolonged freefall for most applications.”
In reality, the last six months have seen the first signs of stabilization in satellite capacity pricing, as SES and Intelsat pull back somewhat from their price war which was the proximate cause of the dramatic price declines seen from late 2014 through early 2016. In particular, SES predicted a “strong growth outlook” at its June investor day and presented a slide at the GCA Summit earlier that month showing three Ka-band HTS GEO satellites for global coverage. One of the ways SES was expected to deliver on this strategy was by “focusing on value-added, end-to-end solutions” in each of its verticals.
However, since then, SES appears to have dramatically reduced its exposure to Ka-band GEO capacity, putting virtually all the risk of the single SES-17 Ka-band satellite onto Thales, and may also have pulled back on its plans to provide “end-to-end solutions” for mobility, letting Speedcast win the bidding for Harris Caprock and indicating that it will not go direct to airlines in the inflight connectivity market. Intelsat has also won a couple of key contracts for Epic, with TIM Brazil and Global Eagle.
Its therefore interesting to see the contrast between Gogo’s assertion at its investor day on September 29 that there will be an “ample and diverse supply” of Ku-band capacity (totaling nearly 1Tbps globally by 2019) with Inmarsat’s position a week later that “Ku-band supply could be limited,” especially in North America.
At this point in time, it looks like the “unexpected softness” of satellite orders in 2016, caused by fears about a price crash will mean very few new C- or Ku-band GEO satellites being ordered in the near future without an anchor tenant. Panasonic may well follow Thales’ lead with its XTS satellites, but that won’t result in any (let alone “ample”) incremental supply for Gogo. And Gogo is not in a position to order a dedicated Ku-band satellite of its own to provide more capacity on top of its existing commitments.
Operators may well be justified in fearing dramatic erosion in pricing from new Ka-band satellites with hundreds of Gbps of capacity, but outside North America, there simply won’t be any of that capacity available before 2020. As a result, stabilization of pricing (albeit at considerably lower levels than those in historic contracts, many of which still need to be rolled over) seems plausible for 2017-18.
Instead I’m much more worried about whether substantial growth in revenue really will be stimulated by these lower prices. TIM Brazil (which is one of Intelsat’s biggest customers for cellular backhaul) is a good example, with their move to Epic Ku-band capacity giving them three times the capacity (partly from improved bps/Hz efficiency) compared to their previous C-band solution, with no increase in spending. And at least part of the fall in enterprise revenues seen by Intelsat and SES in the last two years appears to be due to less bandwidth being used by these customers, rather than simply price declines on existing (let alone incremental) capacity.
Some of that reduction in capacity utilization may be due to more efficient modems, which could be a one-off effect, but I believe that the question of demand elasticity (in the face of competition from terrestrial alternatives) is going to be much more important challenge for the satellite market in 2017 and 2018 than a supposed “freefall” in bandwidth prices. If satellite operators can identify untapped opportunities where they can be competitive with terrestrial, as O3b has done in various Pacific islands, or where there is substantial demand elasticity as passengers create on commercial airplanes and cruise ships, then revenue growth will result.
But if spend is relatively inelastic, as seems plausible for many enterprise VSAT (and perhaps some government) customers, then terrestrial competition may lead to continued market erosion. The biggest wild card is cellular backhaul: huge amounts of capacity are needed as mobile operators move from 2G to 3G to 4G in developing countries, so if these terrestrial players commit to satellite, there could be substantial revenue upside. On the other hand, if mobile operators focus on microwave as their backhaul solution of choice in Africa and Asia, it will be much more difficult to achieve significant growth in the satellite business.
In late July, EchoStar raised $1.5B in debt, to add to its existing $1.5B in cash and marketable securities. Echostar’s lack of obvious need for these additional funds has led to considerable speculation about what the company’s intentions are, including the possibility of an Avanti acquisition.
As an aside, Avanti is clearly in serious trouble, having leaked the possibility of an Inmarsat acquisition on Friday, in order to try and drum up more interest in its sale process, only to be rebuffed by Inmarsat today, with Inmarsat stating that “it has withdrawn from Avanti’s announced process and it is not considering an offer for the shares of Avanti.”
It seems very likely that there is no potential buyer for the company (otherwise the leak would not have been needed) and therefore Avanti will be forced to file for bankruptcy on or around October 1 when its next bond interest payment is due. Inmarsat would clearly be interested in certain Avanti assets, including Ka-band orbital slots for its I6 and I7 satellites and possibly the Hylas-1 satellite for additional European capacity, but these can be picked up in bankruptcy, likely for no more than $100M. And it is hard to imagine other mooted potential buyers, such as Eutelsat and EchoStar being more generous: Eutelsat has made it clear it does not intend to invest more in Ka-band satellites until they reach terabit-class economics, while Charlie Ergen’s past adversarial relationship with Solus and Mast (in DBSD, TerreStar and LightSquared) makes him very unlikely to bail out Avanti’s investors. At this point, it is therefore probable that there will be no buyer for Hylas-4, forcing Avanti’s bondholders to continue to fund its construction, if they want to avoid a NewSat-like situation, where the nearly completed satellite is simply abandoned and handed over to its manufacturer.
Returning to the question of what EchoStar intends to do with its $3B of cash, it seems that a response to ViaSat’s global ViaSat-3 ambitions is likely to emerge in the very near future. After all, Hughes announced Jupiter-1 in 2008 in response to ViaSat-1, and then pre-empted ViaSat-2 with its own Jupiter-2 announcement in 2013. EchoStar could do this in one of three ways:
1) EchoStar could build its own global satellite system. This seems like the least plausible option, because there will already be at least three global Ka-band systems (from ViaSat, Inmarsat and SES). However, if EchoStar decides it does not believe the fully global opportunity is large enough, it could decide to just build a North America focused Jupiter-3 satellite (which would likely have a capacity of at least 500Gbps, and would have competitive economics to ViaSat-3).
2) EchoStar could partner with another operator. This is very plausible, especially as SES seems poised to announce its own GEO system soon, and would be keen to offload risk to an anchor tenant. Its even possible that EchoStar could build Jupiter-3 for North America, and partner in a separate global coverage effort with somewhat lower capacity.
3) EchoStar could buy another operator. This would be the most radical option, with Inmarsat the obvious candidate. There are many challenges here, not least that EchoStar might not be able to afford to buy Inmarsat, but the fit would be perfect, enabling EchoStar to leapfrog ViaSat to fully global coverage today, while being able to backfill Inmarsat’s limited GX capacity with its own HTS satellites. Moreover, Ergen would clearly attach significant value to Inmarsat’s L-band spectrum assets, not least in the leverage he could obtain over Ligado’s efforts to become a competing source of terrestrial spectrum to DISH in the US.
There remain other possibilities, but these seem less likely to emerge in the near future. EchoStar could build out a terrestrial network to meet the buildout deadline for DISH’s AWS spectrum holdings, and lease it to DISH, but it would be odd to announce that before the incentive auction has finished. EchoStar also changed the disclosure about new business opportunities in its SEC filings earlier this year, noting that:
Our industry is evolving with the increase in worldwide demand for broadband internet access for information, entertainment and commerce. In addition to fiber and wireless systems, other technologies such as geostationary high throughput satellites, low-earth orbit networks, balloons, and High Altitude Platform Systems (“HAPS”) will likely play significant roles in enabling global broadband access, networks and services…We may allocate significant resources for long-term initiatives that may not have a short or medium term or any positive impact on our revenue, results of operations, or cash flow.
However, this new language appears to have related to Ergen’s discussions about a partnership with Google, which I noted previously, and Google appears to have opted for an alternative path for its wireless broadband buildout, with its recent acquisition of Webpass.
As a result, I think EchoStar is likely to push forward with its satellite broadband efforts in the next month or two, presenting a serious challenge for ViaSat. That means its certainly not the case, as Jefferies wrote in its coverage initiation on ViaSat today, that “ViaSat-2/3 will give [ViaSat] the best bandwidth economics in the world (for now) and a de facto monopoly in residential broadband”. Indeed, I’d predict that although ViaSat will undoubtedly grow its satellite broadband business in North America very substantially (by as much as a factor of two) over the next 5 years, its extremely unlikely to pass EchoStar in the total number of subscribers, especially given the lead to market that Jupiter-2 will have over ViaSat-2 during 2017.
Back in March I noted that the Satellite 2016 industry conference “felt like 2000, as attendees peer over the edge of the precipice.” Yesterday, it seems the industry stepped off into the void, as Eutelsat’s profit warning proved to be the catalyst for a wholesale re-evaluation of the outlook for FSS/HTS data services.
Everyone is worrying about capacity pricing, where according to Eutelsat’s CEO “the outlook for data delivery is bad.” Just how bad hasn’t been obvious to many observers, not least Northern Sky Research, who in March dismissed suggestions that the sky is falling and instead claimed that so far there has only been “generally slow and stable downward pressure on pricing up to 2016″ though these drops were “expected to continue to gather steam.” Moody’s struck a similar positive note about European satellite operators in January, suggesting that “A Rebound in Revenue Growth, Stable Margins and Plateauing Capex to Support Credit Quality in 2016.”
In reality, a look at some of the largest deals shows just how much of a price decline has already taken place. Traditional wide beam transponders have been priced at $3000-$4000 per MHz per month, which made Intelsat’s offer to IS-29 anchor tenants in 2012 of about $2000 per MHz per month look like a bargain (Intelsat said it leased 20% of the capacity, i.e. about 2GHz, for $50M p.a.).
However, in February 2016, Gogo struck a deal with SES for “several GHz of both widebeam and spotbeam capacity in total” on its new SES-14 and 15 HTS satellites, followed by another agreement with Intelsat and OneWeb in early March. Gogo’s latest 10-Q has now revealed the impact of those agreements which represent commitments “to purchase transponder and teleport satellite services totaling approximately $29.5 million in 2016 (April 1 through December 31), $41.9 million in 2017, $40.4 million in 2018, $45.3 million in 2019, $58.6 million in 2020 and $309.2 million thereafter.”
Although the split between Intelsat and SES is not given, its a fairly good bet that they will be paid roughly equal amounts in 2020 and beyond. This is consistent with Intelsat renewing and extending its existing contract with more capacity being delivered at about the same revenue level (Intelsat claimed last September it had an 73% share of the aeronautical satellite communications market and Gogo had $37M of lease obligations in 2016 before these deals were struck) and also consistent with the Intelsat deal running through Dec 31, 2023 (as stated in the 8-K) and the SES deal running for “ten years from the applicable commencement of service date” for the SES-14/15 satellites (implying 7-8 years of the respective terms remaining in Jan 2021).
So if SES is leasing at least 2GHz of bandwidth to Gogo, which is the minimum amount consistent with the use of the word “several”, then the price of this capacity is no more than ~$1200 per MHz per month, and very plausibly the price may be as low as $1000 per MHz per month if Gogo is leasing say 2.5GHz. Given that the deal also represents a combination of wide beam and spot beam capacity, it certainly seems that SES’s HTS spot beam capacity is now being leased in (very!) large quantities for as little as $1000 per MHz per month, about 50% less than Intelsat’s original IS-29 deals.
That makes it pretty clear why Eutelsat has decided to step away from the HTS Ku table and limit its HTS investment “to providing broadband access to consumers and small businesses”, presumably via its European and African Ka-band satellites (and its partnership with ViaSat). Back in March I also suggested we could be in for a re-run of 2001 with “a sharp fall in satellite orders” and Eutelsat has confirmed there will now be a “downward review of our capital expenditures”.
So what comes next? Intelsat has just ordered a 9-series replacement satellite (a necessary step given that a large part of its C-band capacity reaches end of life in the next few years). But how much more Ku-band capacity is needed in the near term, given the looming threat of further price pressures from new Ka-band satellites like ViaSat-3? After all, despite large contracts with Gogo and Panasonic, there’s still a way to go just to fill up the HTS satellites that Intelsat and SES already have on order. And can Intelsat afford to match or beat SES’s price levels and still generate an adequate return on capital from the Epic satellites?
Most importantly, how much repricing is still to take place for existing Ku-band data services, and what will C-band users do if their C-band capacity becomes significantly more expensive than Ku (let alone Ka)? In addition, though Inmarsat believes (correctly) that its a very different company from Eutelsat, it has far more exposure to the data services business, and Inmarsat will now have to reconsider its pricing (and capacity provisioning) for GX services, as this low cost Ku HTS capacity impacts the aeronautical and maritime markets.
The Satellite 2016 conference this week has reminded me of years past. All the talk has been of ViaSat and their new ViaSat-3 1Tbps high throughput satellite (depicted above), just like in 2004 when Mark Dankberg used his Satellite Executive of the Year speech to describe his ambitions to build a 100Gbps satellite. Unlike back then (when most dismissed Dankberg’s plans as pie-in-the-sky), ViaSat’s announcement has already caused some large investment decisions by major operators to be postponed, and re-evaluated or perhaps even cancelled. Indeed the entire industry seems frozen like a deer in the headlights, trying to decide which way to run.
Some competitors, like Inmarsat, have chosen to portray ViaSat-3 as a “mythical beast” and ViaSat’s current offering of free streaming video on JetBlue as a “marketing stunt”. However, its far more serious than that. One perceptive observer suggested to me that its like competing for the presidency against Donald Trump: how do you respond to a competitor who is clearly intelligent and has a plan to win, but deliberately says things that fundamentally contradict your (supposedly rational) world view.
In the satellite industry the prevailing world view is that (at least in the foreseeable future) there is no need to build 1Tbps satellites offering capacity at $100/Mbps/mo, because satellite broadband will never compete directly with terrestrial and capture tens of millions of subscribers. But if ViaSat is determined to blow up the industry, most current business plans for two-way data applications (including essentially all Ku-band data services) are simply no longer viable. And if competitors remain frozen (or worse still dismissive) in response to ViaSat’s plans, then ViaSat will gain a head start on building these new higher capacity satellites.
In addition to this overarching theme, several other nuggets of information emerged: Inmarsat is acquiring a seventh “GX payload” by taking over Telenor’s Thor-7 Ka-band payload in Europe on a long term lease, presumably at a very attractive rate (perhaps even approaching the Eutelsat-Facebook-Spacecom deal price of ~$1M/Gbps/year, given Telenor’s lack of Ka-band customers). And Globalstar now appears to have a roughly 60%-70% chance of getting FCC approval for TLPS in the next couple of months, given the FCC’s desire to set a precedent of protection for existing unlicensed services that can be used in the upcoming LTE-U rulemaking. However, it appears that any deal would require a compromise of 200mW power limits (the maximum level demonstrated to date) and sharing of Globalstar’s L-band spectrum above 1616MHz with Iridium.
Going back to the title of this post, if last year’s conference felt like 1999, with exuberance about multiple new satellite projects, this year felt like 2000, as attendees peer over the edge of the precipice. Following on from that, next year could be like 2001, with pain to be shared all around the industry: a sharp fall in satellite orders, as operators re-evaluate the feasibility of their planned satellites, a continuing fall in prices, and the possibility of stranded capacity, either at operators, who are unable to sell their growing inventory of HTS capacity, or at distributors, who entered into contracts for capacity leases at prices far above current market rates.
Its been interesting to see Inmarsat’s stock price rising recently based on excitement about the prospects for its inflight connectivity business, as well as the fourth GX satellite (which Inmarsat hopes to lease to the Chinese government as the Financial Times also reported in October).
We published our new Inmarsat profile in December which highlights the company’s prospects for strong revenue growth from GX over the next few years, although since then Inmarsat has faced a few setbacks, with the Intelsat appeal of Inmarsat’s US Navy contract win being sustained and Apax finally emerging as the purchaser of Airbus’s Vizada division, despite Inmarsat telling people before Christmas it expected to buy this business in early 2016.
However, there is the potential for an even more worrying development in the near future, with ViaSat expected to give more details of its ViaSat-3 project in early February. This seems to represent something of an acceleration in ViaSat’s plans since last November, and it now looks possible that this announcement could include deals with some large new airline customers to provide advanced passenger connectivity services.
If it can be realized, ViaSat’s proposed 1Tbps capacity for ViaSat-3 would have a dramatic impact on bandwidth expectations and more importantly the low cost of capacity would make it feasible to offer low cost or free Internet connectivity, including streaming video, to airline passengers, even as data consumption continues to grow rapidly in the future. ViaSat could potentially do deals with Southwest and/or American, the first of these sounding the long awaited death knell for GEE/Row44′s connectivity business and the second proving disastrous for Gogo, which currently gets about 40% of its passenger connectivity revenues from American Airlines (though any fleetwide migration to ViaSat wouldn’t happen until after the current 10 year contract expires in 2018, just as seems likely for Virgin America).
That really would represent an explosion in the inflight connectivity market, though not one which would be welcomed by other satellite operators and service providers, many of whom have a difficult relationship with ViaSat. Indeed its notable how ViaSat is now also throwing its one-time partner Thales LiveTV under the bus, claiming that they mounted “a campaign of whispers…alleging that Exede did not meet its advertised performance.”
The implications of deals that could ultimately bring ViaSat’s number of served aircraft in North America up to as many as 2000 planes (i.e. half the equipped fleet) would be wide ranging, not least for inflight connectivity service providers, who’ve become used to seeing Gogo and Panasonic as the market leaders, and passengers, who’ve become accustomed to a market where “Inflight Wi-Fi Is Expensive, and No One Uses It.”
Even amongst satellite operators there could be some upheaval, with Inmarsat having just ordered $600M of I6 satellites (actually $900M+ including launch, insurance and ground segment costs) carrying what looks, in comparison, like a puny ~30Gbps per satellite, SES having signed a ten year $290M bandwidth contract with GEE in November 2014, and Intelsat potentially set to lose some of its claimed “73% share of today’s aeronautical satellite communications market.” Most importantly, if passenger expectations of free or low cost inflight WiFi start to spread beyond North America, then Inmarsat’s estimate that its European Air-To-Ground network will generate $300K per plane per year (more than double Gogo’s current run rate) would look even more questionable.
Widespread angst about the effects of new HTS satellites and slowing revenue growth is already weighing on the outlook for the satellite industry, but if ViaSat really does have one or more big deals to announce next month, then it would take concerns over future capacity and pricing trends to a whole new level. In that case we’d better all buckle in and get prepared for a very bumpy ride.
Inmarsat has certainly had a great deal of success in the last two months, winning key contracts with the US Navy, Lufthansa and most recently Singapore Airlines, as well as a strategic partnership with Deutsche Telekom to built out its S-band European Aviation Network. While some of these wins may be a direct result of what Inmarsat refers to as “success-based capex” (otherwise known as giving away free terminals), these deals certainly have the potential to provide a significant boost to the company’s revenue growth outlook.
Moreover, it seems that the biggest deal is yet to come, as Inmarsat hinted on its results call last week that “customers in different regions [are] vying to have the [fourth GX] satellite placed over their areas of interest” and the plan for this satellite is expected to be finalized before Inmarsat announces its Q4 results in early 2016. However, in practice there is one deal which is far and away the most likely outcome, and it appears these statements are simply a matter of Inmarsat trying to make sure that it still has some negotiating leverage.
That deal was clearly apparent during last month’s State Visit to the UK by Chinese President Xi Jinping, when the only British company he visited was Inmarsat. Inmarsat highlighted that one purpose was “to understand how Inmarsat is able to uniquely contribute to President Xi’s One Belt One Road (‘OBOR’) strategic vision through the provision of critical global mobile broadband connectivity services, including Inmarsat’s revolutionary new service, Global Xpress” and noted that “Inmarsat has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China Transport Telecommunication & Information Centre (CTTIC) to establish a strategic partnership to deliver Inmarsat’s revolutionary Inmarsat-5 Global Xpress mobile satellite broadband communications connectivity throughout China and OBOR.”
I’m told that the original intention of President Xi’s visit, accompanied by HRH The Duke of York and the UK Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was to have a signing ceremony for the agreement to formalize this “strategic partnership” and that would involve a full lease of the fourth GX satellite to China. Unfortunately the final agreement required certain changes and therefore could not be completed in time.
However, assuming this deal can be completed, Inmarsat is likely to receive a further significant boost to its revenues. Given Chinese expectations are typically that they will receive lower prices than other countries, I’d expect the payments to Inmarsat for capacity could potentially be on the order of $100M p.a. (assuming the agreement is for 10+ years), depending on who covers the capex and opex costs for the new GX gateways in China. And China could then be in a position to provide free or subsidized satellite broadband capacity to adjacent countries in support of its geopolitical OBOR ambitions, just as Google and Facebook have been working to bring Internet access to developing countries.
Once this deal is done, Inmarsat can move onto ordering I6 satellites with both L-band and Ka-band capacity, in order to supplement the (somewhat limited) capacity of the initial GX constellation. But with Eutelsat apparently looking for French government backing to buy a 3-4 satellite Ka-band system, and ViaSat (not coincidentally) announcing the intention to build its own even bigger 1Tbps satellites, the race to add lower cost Ka-band capacity is far from over. More importantly, despite all the attention given to Ku-band HTS in the last year or two, its hard to agree with the statement Gogo made on its Q3 results call (after its GX distribution deal with Inmarsat was terminated) that “there are simply not enough Ka satellites now or for the foreseeable future to meet the needs of global aviation”.
Paris is the place to be in September for satellite industry gossip (though not the weather), and this year is no different. There’s been plenty of chatter already about the MSS sector, as people look forward to Inmarsat’s upcoming investor day on October 8. The company has seen some good news recently, displacing Intelsat General to win a large US Navy contract last week. However, Inmarsat’s aggressiveness on price is highlighted by the reduction in the total ceiling price from $543M last time around to only $450M over 5 years (which is in turn perhaps double the US Navy’s most likely spending profile). Though this contract should help Inmarsat show top line revenue growth in 2016 and beyond, a significant proportion of the capacity (in C, Ku and X-band) will have to be bought in from other players, limiting Inmarsat’s ability to make a profit.
However, the other main news about Inmarsat is that the company is expected to order its first I6 L-band satellite before the end of 2015, and it will include substantial additional Ka-band capacity to supplement the rather limited amount of capacity available on GX, even after the fourth GX satellite is launched in 2016 or 2017. That will likely mean a total capital expenditure of $450M-$500M, plausibly repeated once or twice more in the next few years, just to keep Inmarsat in the bandwidth race.
There’s also been some chatter about the FCC regulatory situation as it affects Globalstar, where a source confirms that my suppositions in June about the purpose of Globalstar’s change in tone to the FCC were correct and that a deal was on the table to approve terrestrial use just for Globalstar’s own MSS spectrum and not the wider 22MHz TLPS channel. However, this approval was only going to be for low power use, and would therefore not be of much import, except as a demonstration of regulatory progress.
Then after Jay Monroe met with several FCC Commissioners in late July he withdrew this potential compromise and insisted instead on full TLPS approval, presumably believing that if permission either to use the unlicensed spectrum or high power terrestrial use or the MSS band was treated as a separate, second stage of the process, a conclusion would be delayed for years, making it impossible for Globalstar to deploy or monetize its spectrum anytime soon.
So now it seems we are back to an impasse, and though Globalstar has recently added some additional information into the docket on an experimental deployment in Chicago, this documentation doesn’t provide quantitative information on (for example) the exact rise in bit error rates seen by services like Bluetooth, merely observing that no observable performance impact was noted. As a result, I believe it is unlikely that the FCC will feel able to rule on full TLPS approval anytime soon (i.e. this year).
Ironically, Globalstar’s consultants are also acting for LightSquared, and have proposed a similar program of tests for GPS interference, again based on a “KPI” criteria of observable degradation in performance, rather than actual quantified impact on the signal to noise ratio. Most observers seem to believe that LightSquared is no more likely to gain FCC approval for its plans than before, and that after the recent publication of the DOT test plan for their Adjacent Band Compatibility study, the FCC will wait for those tests to be conducted, which could take a considerable period of time.
Predictably LightSquared is already criticizing the DOT test plan, very likely setting us off on exactly the same well trodden (and ultimately disastrous) path as before. As a result, I’m sure that those hedge funds who committing funding to the bankruptcy plan (especially those in the $3B+ second lien, which sits behind $1.5B of first lien debt) must now be feeling pretty nervous. I wonder if any of them will now be frantically searching to see if they have any way to avoid funding these commitments once the FCC approves the transfer of control?
Finally, in yet more FCC-related news, the consensus here seems to be that the 14GHz ATG proceeding may also fail to reach a conclusion in the near term, as I predicted earlier this month, due to the uncertainty over how to protect NGSO systems. Instead, ViaSat’s Ka-band solution seems to be going from strength to strength, with the hugely positive reactions to the performance on JetBlue contributing to their recent win at Virgin America and to other airlines taking another look at what will be the best future-proof solution. All this makes Gogo’s predictions that its US market share is secure and that its revenue potential is “like a gazillion dollars” seem just as foolish as it sounds.
Often I wonder whether some companies understand how the FCC works and what they really shouldn’t say in an FCC filing. Gogo has just provided a classic example in its August 26 ex parte filing that tries to counter SpaceX’s recent intervention in the 14GHz ATG proceeding, where Gogo has been trying to get 500MHz of spectrum auctioned for next generation ATG networks.
Unfortunately for Gogo, it has been left as virtually the sole active proponent of this auction, after Qualcomm laid off the team that developed the original proposal and stopped participating in the proceeding. While I’m sure Panasonic and Inmarsat would take part if an auction was held, undoubtedly they are relishing the prospect of Gogo struggling to improve its “infuriatingly expensive, slow internet” service with 2Ku capacity that Gogo itself admits is roughly the same cost per Mbyte as its existing ATG-4 network (at least until it can renegotiate its current bandwidth contracts).
So when Gogo makes submissions that directly contradict those it previously put into the record, it shouldn’t be surprised if the FCC regards these rather skeptically. In particular, in July 2014 Gogo told the FCC that it “supports the proposed §21.1120 requirement that interference from all air-ground mobile broadband aircraft and base stations not exceed a 1% rise over thermal” whereas now “Gogo concurs with Qualcomm in that a 6% RoT has a negligible impact on the cost and performance of an NGSO system while creating an additional and disproportionate level of complexity or loss of performance for the AG system” and “Gogo supports the 6% RoT aggregate interference levels initially proposed by Qualcomm”. So suddenly Gogo thinks that its a perfectly acceptable to have six times more interference than a year ago.
Even more of a hostage to fortune was Gogo’s September 2013 comment about the unacceptable problems that an ATG network (referred to as Air to Ground Mobile Broadband Service or AGMBS) would cause for NGSO systems like that proposed by SpaceX:
“In its initial comments, Gogo expressed its concern that Qualcomm’s assumptions regarding the operating parameters of the hypothetical NGSO satellite systems were not representative of typical or worst case system configurations, and that the interference between a future system and AGMBS systems could be far greater than indicated by Qualcomm’s estimates. Gogo is not alone in this view, as the Satellite Industry Association (“SIA”), ViaSat, EchoStar and Hughes all raised similar concerns in their comments. SIA included an analysis within the Technical Appendix attached to its comments which illustrates the potential for much greater interference than had previously been calculated by Qualcomm. In Gogo’s view, some aspects of the analysis are subject to challenge because it overstates the level of interference that may be expected. Nevertheless, the overall conclusion remains valid – an AGMBS system operating consistent with the proposed rules would cause unacceptable levels of interference to many, if not most, possible future Ku-band NGSO system configurations. The analysis of EchoStar and Hughes, provided in Annex B of their comments, provides additional support for this conclusion. Similarly, ViaSat’s comments indicated that the NGSO analysis presented by Qualcomm is not representative of the range of potential Ku-band NGSO systems which have been previously proposed.”
Yet now Gogo, having previously claimed that Qualcomm’s calculations were flawed, suddenly decides that after “incorporating [SpaceX's] stated parameters into the Qualcomm interference calculation methodology” everything is fine and “the resultant RoT from an AG system into the SpaceX NGSO system is far less than [its newly relaxed] 6%” interference criteria.
I can only conclude that Gogo must be truly desperate to get the 14GHz ATG proceeding completed, because it needs the capacity ASAP. However, making contradictory filings is certainly not going to help the company to get a favorable ruling from the FCC anytime soon (especially when politics is lurking in the background, in the form of the Association of Flight Attendants expressing concern about the FCC taking action on this matter).
Despite the delays in the launch of GX, it seems Inmarsat may be looking to stitch up an even larger share of the maritime market in the near term. Rumors are flying that Inmarsat may soon make a formal bid to acquire KVH, the largest maritime VSAT player in terms of vessels (though not in revenues), adding about 3500 more terminals to Inmarsat’s existing 2200 VSAT equipped ships.
KVH generated nearly $80M from its miniVSAT business in 2014 with an average service ARPU of $1500 per month, compared to Inmarsat’s $90M and ARPU of $4000 including equipment leases (this equates to $2500 per month after stripping out hardware, according to Inmarsat’s most recent results call, which is a more appropriate point of comparison with the KVH ARPU).
The difference in ARPUs between Inmarsat’s current VSAT business and KVH is striking, in fact KVH’s smaller V3 terminal (which has about 900 active terminals) is generating around $500 in monthly ARPU, below even Inmarsat’s FleetBB ARPU of $700 (note that the standard FleetBB package sold by KVH now only provides 20 Mbytes per month of data for $749, whereas KVH offers airtime at rates as low as $0.99 per Mbyte).
If Inmarsat does move ahead with a KVH bid, it would likely be seen as a counter to Airbus’s disposal of its Vizada business unit, because Inmarsat would then have by far the largest number of VSAT-equipped ships. Indeed it would not be surprising to see attempts by competitors to block the deal on antitrust grounds, not to mention the concerns that current KVH customers will have about potential future price increases.
However, it would also be something of an acknowledgement that GX is optimally positioned as a lower end off-the-shelf maritime VSAT service (like KVH’s miniVSAT), as a step up from FleetBB, rather than as a high end solution for cruise ships and oil rigs. KVH’s growth has slowed in the last year, with terminal shipments staying at close to 1000 per year in 2012, 2013 and 2014, but net adds and ARPUs declining. Pressure from Inmarsat will only intensify, once the low cost 60cm GX antenna is available with global coverage, so this looks like it would be a good time for KVH to sell out.
Inmarsat investors will presumably also welcome a deal, with a much clearer path established to a GX maritime business of $200M+ in annual service revenues over the next few years (though its important to note this represents a retail service business, not the wholesale spend on satellite capacity). However, the obvious question that customers will ask is whether low end price packages will still be offered for miniVSAT users, or whether Inmarsat will move them up to much higher price points, as it has done with FleetBB over the last few years.
And what will be the alternative for these users: will it be other VSAT solutions, or will it be the new broadband services (comparable in capability to FleetBB) offered by Iridium’s NEXT constellation? It will take some time for either of these options to emerge, with low cost small Ku-band VSAT antennas needed for the former, and completion of the NEXT constellation needed for the latter. That provides a further motivation for Inmarsat to move sooner rather than later, while its freedom of action in the low end of the maritime market remains relatively unconstrained by competitive alternatives.
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