09.12.13

Give me a place to stand…

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 3:39 am by timfarrar

DISH’s submission to the FCC earlier this week, offering concessions on 700MHz E block power limits (thereby securing support from AT&T), and the prospects of a bid of up to $0.50/MHzPOP ($1.5B) for the PCS H block, in exchange for the option to use the 2000-2020MHz AWS-4 uplink band for downlink operation, confirms that DISH’s plan is to use LightSquared’s L-band spectrum for uplink operations. That would presumably be paired with the 2180-2200MHZ AWS-4 downlink, which would give DISH the opportunity to offer the 2000-2020MHz band as supplementary downlink for PCS operators. It also confirms that DISH’s two targets for a potential partnership are now AT&T and Sprint, since they will be the two main LTE operators in the PCS band, and strongly suggests that DISH no longer has any interest in buying T-Mobile (though a deal with DirecTV remains plausible in 2014).

Its important to remember that now it hasn’t got access to the Clearwire spectrum, DISH is essentially offering a partnership under which it would host AT&T or Sprint’s mobile spectrum (most likely in the WCS and BRS/EBS bands respectively) on its planned fixed broadband wireless network (which would use the AWS-4 downlink and L-band uplink for backhaul). In other words, DISH becomes a tower company, offering small cell hosting for as little as $100-$200 per cell per month, because DISH’s wireless broadband subscribers will be providing the site (on their rooftop satellite TV antenna) and the power for free.

If DISH secures auxiliary PCS downlink spectrum then it will also have an even more attractive set of additional spectrum to lease to AT&T or Sprint for their macrocell rollouts. That’s in addition to the 700MHz E block spectrum which AT&T desperately wants (and will feel even more pressure to secure, now it will be able to move forward with the rollout of the Qualcomm D/E block spectrum). Stating that DISH will bid for the H block also puts additional pressure on Sprint to come to a deal, which would substantially reduce the cost of SoftBank’s planned small cell rollout in the 2.5GHz BRS/EBS band in suburban and rural areas.

UPDATE (9/13): With the FCC confirming plans for a Jan 2014 H-block auction this afternoon, with DISH’s proposed reserve price of $0.50/MHzPOP, it seems near certain that DISH’s deal is on a fairly smooth path to being approved by mid December (30 days before the auction starts), so DISH should have clarity in time for the LightSquared auction. It is possible that this could lead to other subordinated debt/preferred holders attempting to push up the price DISH will have to pay, but it is also important to note that DISH will have other potential choices (such as the 1695-1710MHz block) for uplink spectrum and will have the option but not the obligation to switch the AWS-4 uplink band to downlinks. Thus the timetable this time around is likely to be highly favorable for DISH: it will know about the FCC before the LightSquared auction wraps up, which comes before the H block auction, which comes before the 1695-1710MHz auction.

However, one key consideration for DISH is whether it will be forced to pay lease fees to Inmarsat for the LightSquared spectrum, starting next April, which would be around $90M-$100M p.a. if LightSquared’s application for 20MHz of terrestrial uplink authorization is ultimately approved. (Note that DISH is certain to drop LightSquared’s request for a purported “swap” of downlink spectrum in the 1675-80MHz band, as it only wants the L-band uplink in the near term, and this is an obvious concession to offer to the FCC).

I believe that DISH is unwilling to pay Inmarsat anything material in cash while it is waiting for a terrestrial deal, and therefore needs to gain leverage over Inmarsat in the run up to the April 2014 deadline for payments to resume. To do that I understand that EchoStar’s Hughes subsidiary is working on a dual mode L/S-band satellite phone, and Ergen is considering a roaming agreement/partnership with Thuraya, enabling Thuraya to gain access to the North American market via the TerreStar and/or LightSquared satellites. Alternatively, in order to entice Inmarsat into a deal, DISH is prepared to enter into a European S-band joint venture, using the TerreStar-2 satellite to secure Inmarsat’s S-band license (of course if Inmarsat refuses then DISH could instead partner with Solaris Mobile, the Eutelsat/SES joint venture).

So it now looks like we are set for a tense few months of dealmaking in the MSS industry, and investors will have to wait and see whether Inmarsat is prepared to compromise over the LightSquared Cooperation Agreement. Of course, if Inmarsat refuses, and the Cooperation Agreement lapses, then Inmarsat could prevent any terrestrial use of the L-band spectrum by DISH. However, that might not go down too well with the FCC, if it is relying on DISH to bring the additional spectrum into use soon (and provide rural broadband competition to boot), so it is far from clear who has the most leverage here.

In addition, I’m told that Inmarsat signed the contract with Boeing on Tuesday for the fourth GX (backup) satellite, so it now will incur an extra $150M+ of capex in the next few years (assuming that this satellite remains a ground spare, which is not a foregone conclusion in the medium term).

UPDATE (9/13): Inmarsat also told potential customers this week not to expect global GX coverage until Q1 or Q2 of 2015.

That could be an awkward message for Inmarsat’s investors, who have bid up the company’s shares substantially in recent months, if Inmarsat not only has to spend more money on satellites, but is also facing the prospect of no more cash from the L-band spectrum, the possibility of investment to exploit the European S-band license (if it does partner with DISH) and perhaps even additional competition for its core MSS services (if Inmarsat rejects DISH’s offer).

09.09.13

The best of times, the worst of times…

Posted in Aeronautical, DISH, Financials, Globalstar, Inmarsat, Iridium, LightSquared, Operators, Orbcomm, Regulatory, Spectrum at 3:12 am by timfarrar

That seems an appropriate title, as I head off to London and Paris this week, to hear MSS and other satellite operators talk about their future opportunities. I found it interesting to note that Euroconsult released their updated MSS market assessment a couple of weeks ago, cutting their projection of future wholesale revenue growth from 7% p.a. (in the previous version of their analysis) to 5% p.a. over the next 10 years, getting back much closer to my forecasts from a couple of years ago.

However, by my estimate, MSS wholesale service revenues only grew at 2% in 2011 and 3% in 2012 (not 5% as Euroconsult estimates, perhaps due to double counting of Orbcomm’s revenue growth from resale of Inmarsat and now Globalstar services) and the majority of this growth in 2012 came from Inmarsat’s price rises. While it originally looked like 2013 was shaping up to see a bit better growth, Iridium has reduced its guidance, Globalstar’s second quarter results were nothing to write home about and Inmarsat is again seeing a significant part of its modest revenue growth being driven by maritime price rises. So its now far from clear that we will get even to Euroconsult’s lowered 5% growth projection in the near term.

While spectrum is a wildcard that could provide incremental revenues for Globalstar (through a potential deal with Amazon) and Inmarsat (through a resumption of lease payments from LightSquared), progress here may not be as fast as expected. Globalstar’s hoped for NPRM is not on the tentative agenda for the FCC’s September Open Meeting, presumably meaning that although the NPRM has now been placed on circulation this issue may be left for incoming Chairman Wheeler to finalize. The recent application by Oceus Networks for an experimental license to test TLPS for DoD users also suggests that a partnership with Amazon is far from set in stone as the way Globalstar will be able to realize value from its spectrum assets.

In contrast, it looks increasingly like DISH will succeed in its bid to buy LightSquared’s satellite assets later this year, and DISH has agreed to assume the Inmarsat Cooperation Agreement as part of its stalking horse bid. But buying LightSquared is a sign that DISH is unlikely to move forward quickly with its entry into the wireless market, because it would take until late 2014 or beyond before the FCC could approve any change to downlink use for the 2000-2020MHz AWS-4 uplink band. At the moment it seems that interim FCC Chairman Clyburn doesn’t want to take a decision even on LightSquared’s uplink band (let alone address the purported “swap” of downlink spectrum, which Ergen doesn’t want or need – leaving MAST Capital Management stuck holding a largely worthless lease of the 1670-75MHz spectrum band), because the FCC will not receive reply comments until September 23 (shortly before Clyburn relinquishes the chairmanship). So even if DISH buys the satellite assets, and drops the request to get hold of the 1675-80MHz band, reaching any resolution of the current regulatory issues in the L-band will undoubtedly be a lengthy process.

Charlie Ergen hinted on DISH’s Q2 call that he doesn’t anticipate simply continuing the Cooperation Agreement in its current form, so it would not be at all surprising to see a fight between DISH and Inmarsat over renegotiation of the Cooperation Agreement in the early part of 2014. One possible compromise could be in the form of a partnership between DISH and Inmarsat to use the TerreStar-2 satellite to preserve Inmarsat’s S-band license in Europe, in exchange for further postponement of any cash payments under the Cooperation Agreement.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the challenges that the MSS market faces, M&A continues apace. Recent agreements include Inmarsat’s sale of its energy sector assets to RigNet and Rockwell Collins’ acquisition of ARINC. I understand a number of additional notable transactions are in the works. Rumors persist that SITA has put OnAir up for sale (only six months after buying Airbus’s stake in the business) and Honeywell appears to be the most likely buyer, while Orbcomm continues its acquisition of satellite M2M service providers and may now be in negotiations to buy Comtech Mobile Datacom.

UPDATE: According to an OnAir spokesperson “SITA has no intention to sell OnAir to Honeywell or to anyone else and remains OnAir’s sole shareholder.”

It will be particularly interesting to see the valuation put on OnAir, given the recent disastrous public offerings of Gogo and Global Eagle/Row44, because if OnAir attracts a much lower valuation than Gogo and Row44 it could be a sign that SITA is pretty pessimistic about the future of the inflight connectivity market. That would be a surprise to many, because after all inflight connectivity is seen as one of the major areas for growth in the MSS market going forward, but at present making an operating profit, let alone a return on investment, is a pretty distant prospect for most if not all of the service providers. So if now is the time for SITA to get out, will this turn out be the age of wisdom for the sellers and the age of foolishness for the buyers, or the reverse?

07.01.13

Its the ecosystem, stupid…

Posted in DISH, Financials, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 3:12 pm by timfarrar

Today Charlie Ergen’s next battle has officially begun, with the filing of LightSquared’s motion to extend exclusivity and potentially reject Ergen’s purchases (through Sound Point Special Opportunities Fund or SPSO) of LightSquared’s debt. Its important to note that Ergen personally (not DISH) owns SPSO, and Ergen (through an entity named L-Band Acquisition Corp or LBAC) made the $2B offer to acquire LightSquared back in May.

LightSquared wants to extend exclusivity to give it more time to secure approvals from the FCC, because Jefferies is currently trying to get commitments for a $3B exit financing loan (which should be confirmed one way or the other this week). That loan, which carries an 8% interest rate plus substantial warrants for LightSquared equity, would pay off all of LightSquared debts and give Harbinger another year or more to find a buyer for LightSquared’s spectrum, while allowing the company to meet all of its obligations (including a resumption of lease payments to Inmarsat in April 2014).

However, LightSquared would not be permitted to draw down the loan unless and until the FCC has granted LightSquared rights to use the 1675-80MHz spectrum band. LightSquared has assured potential investors that it expects approval from the FCC this fall, shortly after Tom Wheeler takes over the chairmanship of the FCC, and that there will be no auction of the 1675-80MHz band (instead LightSquared will pay $80M for weather balloon relocation plus a further $170M “fee” in 2017). LightSquared also believes that it will be free to use its L-band uplinks without any GPS problems, as soon as the ruling is issued, and has told potential investors that the lower L-band downlinks will be available for use in 2015.

That sounds a lot like fantasyland (for example the FCC’s proposed FY2014 budget indicates that the 1675-80MHz spectrum will not be available until 2017 after weather balloons have been relocated), and some investors are apparently considering making a commitment in the expectation that no approvals will be received, because then they will get their commitment fees (in cash), but never have to put their money at risk.

A plausible best case for LightSquared is that the FCC defines a way forward later this year (i.e. more GPS testing and work to define interference standards), but it seems inconceivable that the FCC could simply hand over the 1675-80MHz spectrum band without at the very least defining service rules and an allocation framework through an NPRM and then conducting a 9-12 month comment cycle before any ruling is issued. More likely is that Wheeler has other things on his plate (like the incentive auctions), and a giveaway to LightSquared (along with alienating the DoD through more GPS testing) is not worth the political battle.

LightSquared is suggesting that a $3B loan would be well covered by the spectrum value, because it considers its spectrum to be worth the same as AWS-1 spectrum ($0.69/MHzPOP based on the Verizon-SpectrumCo transaction) and that there will be strong demand for its spectrum from AT&T and Sprint, who LightSquared believes would want to pair L-band uplink spectrum with WCS or BRS/EBS downlink spectrum respectively. While AT&T has the power to create a new ecosystem and has permission from the FCC to use WCS in an all downlink configuration, its hard to see why AT&T wouldn’t instead just buy the 1695-1710MHz uplink band which will be auctioned (very likely as unpaired spectrum) next year, with little competition from other carriers (except possibly DISH).

Sprint on the other hand has certainly learned its lesson from paying Apple $15.5B to ensure its own non-standard LTE spectrum was included in iPhones, and it would be crazy to try and make another unique band pairing when it will be far more straightforward to simply make use of the globally allocated BRS/EBS band in SoftBank’s small cell vision. Remember that Ergen wanted to buy Clearwire spectrum to take advantage of the emerging handset ecosystem in this band (as a mobile small cell play), and was going to use the AWS-4 spectrum for fixed wireless broadband (backhauling the mobile small cell traffic), so it wasn’t necessary to force the creation of a handset ecosystem in AWS-4. There’s no way that LightSquared’s spectrum will get an ecosystem outside North America (because international regulators won’t rush to address GPS issues and the 1670-80MHz band will still be allocated for meteorological systems elsewhere in the world), and without AT&T or Verizon, no-one will create an ecosystem in the US either.

So why is Ergen interested in buying LightSquared? If he’s now stuck without a wireless partner (and I don’t expect him to bid for T-Mobile now he won’t control any Clearwire spectrum), then he won’t be able to sell the AWS-4 spectrum to AT&T or Verizon (the two carriers who can force the creation of a new ecosystem at little cost to themselves) until after the next Presidential election, so it would be possible to take this time to reband AWS-4 spectrum to downlink and use LightSquared as uplink. More importantly, LightSquared’s spectrum is part of Ergen’s leverage in a battle with DirecTV (due to the upcoming Mexican coordination), which in my view is a far more plausible near term merger target for DISH, especially if the promise of a fixed wireless broadband network is sufficient enticement for the FCC to approve a DISH-DirecTV merger.

Of course, prospective lenders to LightSquared are therefore also betting that they will ultimately be backstopped by DISH’s interest in the spectrum band. Indeed some even think that Ergen will be prepared to bid $3B+ for the spectrum (despite the fact that this is far higher than DISH offered for Clearwire’s spectrum). Lenders might instead want to consider that by next year, a DISH-DirecTV merger will either have happened or not, and LightSquared’s spectrum will then offer little in the way of leverage to DISH.

In addition, the forthcoming FCC auctions of 75MHz of spectrum (H block, 1695-1710MHz uplink and AWS-3 likely paired with 1755-80MHz) may reset some expectations with regard to spectrum pricing, especially in unpaired uplink bands. Given that the new $3B loan will all have been spent within 12-18 months of emergence, it therefore seems there would be little reason for anyone interested in this spectrum not to wait until LightSquared once again runs out of money, and the price of the debt falls.

The one piece of good news, for Falcone, if not for the new lenders, is that as part of any exit financing deal, it seems that Harbinger will be released from any liability for misleading investors during the sale of LightSquared debt in 2010 and 2011 (when lenders were assured that GPS interference was no problem). So even if Phil ultimately does lose all of his investment in LightSquared, at least he will then only have to account to Harbinger’s investors and not to LightSquared’s investors as well.

04.22.13

Inmarsat throws its weight around…

Posted in Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, KVH, Maritime, Operators, Services, VSAT at 9:22 am by timfarrar

Its interesting to note that Inmarsat has been competing much more aggressively against key competitors in the last few months. First, I’m told that Inmarsat offered a bounty to Telemar to capture Anglo Eastern, a key Iridium Open Port customer with 350 ships, from Globe Wireless, in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Then Inmarsat announced in March that Nordic Tankers, one of KVH’s earliest headline customers, was migrating to XpressLink “for enhanced reliability”. Apparently the pricing on that deal is well below the standard list price for XpressLink, but Inmarsat was very keen to demonstrate its ability to take customers away from KVH.

Now (perhaps showing a little pique at losing the recent tender for the AT&T Genus replacement contract) Inmarsat is going after Globalstar, with new North American ISatPhone Pro regional voice plans which will start on May 1, and match Globalstar’s recently announced Orbit and Galaxy plans (though without Globalstar’s “double time minutes” promotional offer). Inmarsat is once again offering a huge bounty to service providers for these new signups, equivalent to multiple months of service revenue.

All of these developments suggest that Inmarsat is determined to seek topline growth in its L-band business and is no longer reluctant (as in the past) to explicitly target its competitors with selective pricing, even though this runs counter to Inmarsat’s recent tendency to increase list prices. Of course, it is less clear whether the new deals will be profitable for Inmarsat, given the incentives needed to achieve these sales.

But with Inmarsat’s investors focused intently on whether the wholesale L-band Inmarsat Global business has returned to growth, and apparently willing to overlook the recent significant contraction in margins within Inmarsat’s Solutions business unit (blamed on a transfer of margin from retail to wholesale operations), that might not matter for now. However, if Inmarsat wants to make more acquisitions (and it is hard to see in the long term who else might end up operating LightSquared’s satellites), then regulators might wonder whether industry consolidation could give Inmarsat even more market power.

02.21.13

I did it my way…

Posted in Aeronautical, Financials, Government, Inmarsat, Iridium, Maritime, Operators, Services, VSAT at 1:57 pm by timfarrar

As Inmarsat approaches its end of year results presentation, scheduled for March 7, the company’s stock price has been surging in the expectation of continued strong progress in the maritime market, which is likely to lead to full year wholesale MSS revenue growth for 2012 (excluding LightSquared payments) somewhat above Inmarsat’s 0%-2% target. This has been driven primarily by Inmarsat’s 2012 price rises, which have been so successful that Inmarsat announced further price rises of around 10% for E&E services last month.

I estimate that these new price rises could boost wholesale maritime revenues by a further $10M (roughly 3%) in 2013, on top of the pull-through from the mid year price rises in 2012, and as a result, it is plausible to imagine that Inmarsat’s wholesale MSS maritime revenues might rise by as much as 10% in 2013. Thus, unless there are severe cutbacks in government usage this year, overall revenue growth for 2013 may again come in quite a bit above the 0%-2% target. Our updated profile of Inmarsat provides full details of our forecasts by product, and will be released shortly.

That revenue upside perhaps explains why Inmarsat has become notably more aggressive in recent weeks, for example telling its sales team that commission will no longer be paid for selling Iridium products and services (historically Stratos has sold over $10M of Iridium equipment each year). In addition, the IS-27 launch failure appears to have given Inmarsat more confidence that potential partners will need GX for maritime and aeronautical services, rather than continuing to rely on Ku-band services in what may now become a capacity-constrained North Atlantic Ocean Region over the next couple of years.

One intriguing issue to watch in terms of Inmarsat’s relationships with its distributors is the ongoing dispute in Russia, where I’m told Morsviazsputnik has refused to pay for Inmarsat capacity for a substantial period of time (note that Inmarsat’s trade receivables have been increasing by about $10M per quarter during 2012, excluding LightSquared payments), unless all Inmarsat-equipped vessels going into Russian waters use a Russian SIM. This dispute has apparently extended to the Russians modifying their call routing gateway (which sends all traffic within 200 miles of Russian territory to an intercept point in Russia) to give them the ability to cut off the communications on foreign vessels. I’m told that in response Inmarsat has considered terminating the routing of traffic to the Russian intercept point, which would of course escalate the dispute even further and make it even more difficult to recover the withheld revenues.

Beyond this year, Inmarsat is guiding that its 8%-12% revenue growth in 2014-16 will be backend loaded, and so growth in 2014 will not need to increase sharply (which would be difficult prior to achieving global GX coverage). Indeed, a combination of continued price rises on L-band services and a release of some of the cash previously received from LightSquared (and never spent on installing filters) could help to meet expectations in the next few years, even if GX does not live up to Inmarsat’s projected $500M in wholesale revenue by 2019.

With respect to GX, I have been cautious about the $500M target because I have always assumed that maritime would account for the largest share of the GX business and it is very hard to see how Inmarsat could hope to generate $200M-$300M of wholesale maritime GX revenues by 2019, when Inmarsat itself estimates that only $145M was spent on maritime FSS space segment capacity in 2010.

However, I understand that Inmarsat is now suggesting that the GX government business will generate more revenue than the maritime market. Of course that is much harder to prove or disprove, especially as Inmarsat gave very little insight in the October 2012 investor day into whether the government business is expected to rely mainly on the dedicated HCO beams in military Ka-band frequencies or on the standard wide area coverage beams which only use civil Ka-band frequencies.

An additional GX question that may soon be answered is the potential for a fourth backup satellite to be ordered. Inmarsat certainly has ample justification for placing a near term order, given its reliance on Proton launchers for all three GX satellites, and the run of problems that Russian rockets have had in recent months. Although Inmarsat would presumably portray an order as a sign of increased confidence in the market for GX, this would also add up to $200M of additional capex to the $1.2B GX program, even if no commitment was made to a fourth satellite launch at this stage.

Given Inmarsat’s more assertive stance in the market, it will now be particularly interesting to see whether Inmarsat can persuade distributors to share its positive view of the overall GX opportunity, and make revenue commitments similar to the $500M that Intelsat has achieved from Caprock, MTN and Panasonic for its EPIC system. Time will tell, but at least so far, my assertion last October that we had reached a turning point in MSS history has come only partly true: while it certainly appears that the next few years will bring regular price rises, an improvement in Inmarsat’s relationships with its distributors still seems like a distant prospect.

12.03.12

Let me count the ways…

Posted in Globalstar, Handheld, Inmarsat, Iridium, LDR, Operators, Services at 3:26 pm by timfarrar

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks – I’ve been buried in writing my latest MSS industry report, which is bigger and better than ever, and includes not only all the latest MSS industry developments such as an analysis of Inmarsat’s investor day, but 30 pages on everything you want to know about the current spectrum issues involving DISH, LightSquared, etc. I’ll be writing blog posts about that plus some of the latest inflight connectivity developments over the next few days, but I’ll start with a little noticed fact that emerged while I was analyzing MSS subscriber growth: surprisingly enough, the various MSS operators use very different definitions for what they count as a subscriber.

Now you might think that a subscriber is simply someone who is paying the operator for service (perhaps indirectly via a distributor) and if the customer is paying for x terminals, then the MSS operator will report that they have x subscribers. That is basically what Iridium do, now that there is a charge each month even for suspended terminals. However, until recently Inmarsat didn’t have a monthly access charge for most terminals, and only got paid for airtime. As a result, Inmarsat has always defined its subscriber count as terminals that have accessed the network in the last 12 months. Now that Inmarsat is charging monthly fees for most services, this leads to anomalies such as in its 2012Q2 results, where Inmarsat noted that:

“At the time of our consolidated financial results for the three months ended 31 March 2012, we announced having reached over 55,000 IsatPhone Pro subscribers. However, in our reported active terminals for land mobile, we included a lower number of approximately 49,800 terminals, the difference being the elimination of subscribers who had not used their IsatPhone Pro terminal in the preceding twelve months…”

Even more significantly the number of Satellite Low Date Rate (M2M) terminals reported by Inmarsat has declined quite noticeably over the last year, but as far as Inmarsat’s distributors like SkyWave are concerned, the number of subscribers is actually going up. However, once you realize that a key application for ISatM2M is stolen vehicle recovery, its pretty obvious that only a small proportion of terminals (i.e. those cars that are actually stolen) will need to access the Inmarsat network each year.

That’s a positive for Inmarsat, because their market share in the SLDR/M2M sector is actually quite a bit higher than many assume. However, Globalstar’s counting methodology goes the other way: SPOT customers are included in the published subscriber count even if their terminal is “suspended” for non-payment, because those terminals still have access to the network and Globalstar is attempting to collect payment for the service (although of course no revenue is actually being recognized for those subscribers unless and until collection occurs). The number of suspended SPOT subscribers has increased consistently since this statistic was first reported in early 2010, and by 2012Q3 amounted to 29% of SPOT subscribers. I’ve generally been pretty optimistic about the long term potential of the personal tracking market, but worringly, in the third quarter of this year the number of paying (i.e. non-suspended) SPOT subscribers actually fell from the previous quarter for the first time ever.

10.07.12

MSS: The end of history?

Posted in Financials, Inmarsat, Maritime, Operators, Services at 12:29 pm by timfarrar

The history of the MSS industry, like most other parts of the telecom and technology sectors, has revolved around a theme of “faster, better, cheaper” as technological advances have dramatically improved satellite throughput and enabled significant reductions in the price per minute and per bit of voice and data communications. However, it seems that at least in L-band, we may have reached the limit of economically justifiable technological advances, and the future for the traditional MSS market could now be one of slower development cycles, simpler satellite systems and more expensive services.

Some of those technological dead ends are obvious, like the huge satellite antennas built for LightSquared and TerreStar, which did nothing whatsoever to make their satellite services more viable. However, more importantly, Inmarsat sets the tone for the entire MSS sector and could now make it much clearer that we have reached the end of the historical development pattern for this industry.

We’ve already seen Inmarsat pushing up prices this year, and with its new focus on the Ka-band Global Xpress system, Inmarsat has also indicated that it expects to delay capital expenditures on a next generation L-band (I6) satellite system and that the system itself will be cheaper and simpler than the I4 satellites. After feeling a backlash from distributors and customers, Inmarsat has been at pains to suggest that this year’s price rises represented a one-off adjustment, rather than the start of regular yearly price rises. Nevertheless, Inmarsat has seen little if any impact in terms of maritime customer losses because Inmarsat holds such a dominant position in the market and Inmarsat’s 2012 wholesale revenues are likely to be boosted by at least 2%-3% as a result of the price rises.

Looking forward, the outlook in most parts of the MSS market is fairly depressed, with M2M services providing the main source of growth, and overall wholesale L-band revenues are only likely to grow by perhaps 4% p.a. in the next few years. Although we’ll find our more specifics on Tuesday about Inmarsat’s expectations for Global Xpress, it also remains hard to see how GX will meet the original target of $500M in incremental wholesale revenues within 5 years, suggesting that Inmarsat’s move to Ka-band will not move the needle on overall MSS market growth very far. Reasons for this include the apparent lack of military Ka-band frequencies (which were supposed to be secured by Boeing and would be needed to allow GX to operate as a seamless supplement to WGS), the fact that XpressLink customers are being given the option but not the obligation to upgrade to GX when it is launched and, most importantly, the threat posed by Intelsat’s new Epic satellites, which have secured some key anchor customers (Panasonic, MTN and Harris Caprock) and caused many distributors and end customers to reconsider the “inevitability” of a move to Ka-band.

As a result, it seems there is now a fairly clear case for Inmarsat (as the price leader in the MSS sector) to push through regular annual price rises on the 50% or so of its wholesale L-band revenue base that is least likely to move to alternative solutions and has the lowest price elasticity. This would mean price rises for low and mid range maritime customers plus many land customers, while leaving aeronautical and high end maritime customers (who are more at risk from VSAT competition) largely untouched. Today there is an essentially flat outlook for L-band revenues, as modest growth in M2M and handheld is being offset by the migration of high end maritime and aeronautical customers to XpressLink (and other VSAT solutions), together with reductions in defense spending/event revenues. However, a price rise of 5%-10% p.a. would potentially allow Inmarsat to grow its L-band business at 2%-4% p.a. for the next several years.

Other MSS operators would also benefit through (modest) gains in market share and more pricing freedom, and the overall MSS sector could perhaps then return to something closer to the 7% p.a. revenue growth rate seen before the downturn of the last couple of years. Even distributors, who have seen their margins pressured over the last decade, would appreciate some ability to increase their overall revenues (given that demand elasticity is quite low), if margins can be sustained or even increased.

However, in order to execute such a change in strategy, Inmarsat would also need to repair its relationship with independent distributors, which has taken a significant knock from Inmarsat’s acquisitions of Segovia and Ship Equip and its decision not to pass on some wholesale price increases through its own direct distribution channels. There have also been several instances where Inmarsat has made its own bids for key contracts which massively undercut the bids from the incumbent independent distributors providing the same services. Indeed it often appears that Inmarsat has the explicit intention of driving its leading independent distributor, Vizada (now owned by Astrium Services) into the arms of other satellite operators such as Intelsat and Iridium. It seems to me that only with the cooperation of independent distributors can Inmarsat present a united front to end customers, and explain that price rises are necessary for a healthy market, as opposed to having their assertions undermined not only by (the expected) sniping from competitors, but by distributor dissatisfaction (and potential defections due to increased margin pressures) as well.

Is Inmarsat willing to change this dynamic and restrain its direct distribution arm, or will it resort to a “bunker mentality” and either miss the chance to boost revenues or push further price rises onto its independent distributors, amidst a rising tide of opposition? Time will tell, but its perhaps worth remembering that the full title of the book was “The End of History and the Last Man”, the last man being someone who “is tired of life, takes no risks, and seeks only comfort and security“.

09.05.12

So much to do, so much to see…

Posted in Financials, Globalstar, ICO/DBSD, Inmarsat, LightSquared, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, TerreStar at 9:55 am by timfarrar

It looks like the next month or so may be filled with interesting developments in the US spectrum market. Last week, it was reported that the FCC is preparing to launch of review of its “spectrum screen” at the September Commission meeting. Of course if the FCC suggests a preference for distinguishing between low frequency (sub 1GHz) and higher frequency spectrum, in response to concerns that AT&T and Verizon have been accumulating too much of the most valuable spectrum, then that might not only put a damper on the prospects for broadcast TV incentive auctions (recall that AT&T and Verizon contributed over 85% of the 700MHz auction proceeds back in 2008), but could be taken as a clear signal that the FCC would approve of AT&T buying DISH for its higher frequency spectrum.

In that context, it seems increasingly likely that the release of a LightSquared ruling (almost certainly confirming the FCC’s February proposal to withdraw LightSquared’s ATC license) will also come this month, along with approval of DISH’s terrestrial network in the 2GHz MSS band. This week DISH has been continuing its campaign to avoid its uplink allocation being shifted up by 5MHz to 2005-2025MHz, which is an option being considered very seriously by the Commission, as it would satisfy Sprint’s desire to access the H-block (which Sprint probably considered to be a done deal last November when it settled with DBSD and TerreStar), and mitigate both windfall and timeline concerns. However, it is notable that the Public Interest organizations who have been most vocal in raising the windfall issue actually oppose a relocation of the uplink due to the delay it would could in the standardization process.

Intriguingly, if we do see a ruling (at least partly) in DISH’s favor in the next month or two, it may make it even more difficult for Clearwire to pull off any potential spectrum sale. Then we may be faced with exactly the same situation in December as at the end of last year, namely does Clearwire pay the large interest payment due in December, or use the threat of a bankruptcy filing as leverage to raise more money from Sprint and others to fund it through next year.

LightSquared is also wheeling out the big guns in its lobbying campaign right now, with former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin lobbying the Commission on LightSquared’s behalf last week, and the company is once again ramping up attempts to get its side of the story across. This may raise a few eyebrows, given that Martin was key to approving ATC back in 2005 and then requiring Inmarsat to cooperate with LightSquared via their Dec 2007 agreement. However, it seems unlikely to change many minds at the Commission, especially in advance of the November election. Apparently the best that LightSquared could hope for is for the initial decision to be taken by the full Commission, rather than by the International Bureau on delegated authority, which would give LightSquared an earlier opportunity to challenge the decision in court (because an IB decision must first be appealed to the full Commission before any legal action is initiated).

After LightSquared’s attempts to insert consideration of its own situation into the DISH proceeding, it would seem natural for both rulings to emerge at about the same time. The FCC will also need to indicate in the DISH ruling how it plans to take forward any similar flexibility proceedings in other MSS bands, notably the Big LEO band, where Globalstar has emphasized that “Greater flexibility for mobile broadband in Big LEO spectrum [is] necessary to enhance financial viability of Globalstar and its mission-critical MSS offerings” (emphasis mine). With Globalstar looking to raise substantial financing (perhaps as much as US$250M to $300M if Globalstar aims to fund both the remaining satellites and the ground segment buildout) by the end of the year in order to move forward with the final phase of its second generation constellation buildout, it is plausible to conclude that a positive signal from the FCC in this regard within the next month or two may be a pre-requisite for completion of that financing (which would presumably involve a combination of additional Export Credit Agency funding and further investment from Thermo).

Finally, and separately, TerreStar Corporation appears to have basically resolved its bankruptcy, and the existing preferred shareholders will convert their holdings to equity and keep control of the company. It is interesting to note that the valuation put on the 8MHz of national 1.4GHz spectrum in the event of a liquidation was only $80M to $100M (or $0.03-$0.04/MHzPOP) for an M2M smart grid type network (which is gratifyingly close to my estimate of $60M to $100M two years ago at the beginning of this process). It is hoped that FCC waivers can be secured, which would make the spectrum more valuable and usable for LTE, but that is a long term process, and there is no guarantee that it will be attractive to manufacturers to include this small, isolated band in future LTE chipsets. As a result, although there is a proforma offer for sale of the spectrum, it is inconceivable that any bid would be higher than the $400M+ that the existing preferred holders could credit bid in any auction. Of course its also another example of how just assuming spectrum is always a valuable asset, without consideration of the limitations applicable to that spectrum, is a quick way to lose a lot of money.

So going back to my title above, the next few months should reveal a lot more about who’s going to show that they’re an “All Star” and who will prove to have “the shape of an L on [their] forehead”. However, one thing seems pretty clear: when the FCC announces its decisions, not everyone is going to be a winner.

07.25.12

Moving target?

Posted in Inmarsat, Maritime, Operators, Services at 10:25 am by timfarrar

Its been a little hard to make sense of some of the data emerging from Inmarsat recently. For example, a recent factsheet from OnAir indicates that the first Global Xpress launch will be in October 2013, followed by subsequent launches in April and November 2014. Perhaps OnAir is confusing the launch date and the availability of the satellite for commercial service, but if these are indeed the launch dates, then they are later than the timeline that Inmarsat’s partners were given back in January this year of a first launch in June 2013 followed by subsequent launches in Q1 and Q3 of 2014 (and they don’t correspond to the “availability” dates given then either), even though Inmarsat stated on the Q1 results call in May that GX was “on schedule and on budget”.

We’ve also seen Inmarsat defending its price rises in a briefing paper to the International Chamber of Shipping by stating that their Standard Plan for FleetBB only costs $130 for the subscription charge, or $13/Mbyte for the bundled data. However, Stratos’s website indicates that the subscription fee for the Standard Plan was increasing to $208 per month from May 1, and Inmarsat has indicated separately that the wholesale price alone was being increased by $3 per day or $90 per month (to what I estimate is something very close to $130). So is Inmarsat assuming that distributors will now sell at zero margin, or is it simply quoting a wholesale price when a retail price would be more relevant?

Hopefully we’ll hear a explanation of these apparent inconsistencies on Inmarsat’s upcoming results call, or at least at Inmarsat’s investor day in October. But (mixing my literary references) as Inmarsat continues to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, amid predictions of its imminent “downfall”, it might be worth taking a lesson from William Tell’s son, and standing still!

06.19.12

Safe, legal and (exceedingly) rare…

Posted in Aeronautical, Inmarsat, Operators, Services at 8:19 pm by timfarrar

That pretty much sums up the situation with inflight cellphone calls in the rest of the world, after OnAir’s CEO indicated that only 10% of OnAir’s inflight GSM traffic is now coming from voice calls. Just how disastrous a statistic that is can be discerned from the fact that Inmarsat’s total wholesale aero passenger connectivity revenue is only around $2M per year, from 160 planes equipped with cellular connectivity, or around $12K per plane per year (in fact the number might even be lower if Inmarsat is including the far larger number of long haul planes equipped with traditional seatback phones in its $2M total).

Grossing up to retail revenues, that means passengers are spending perhaps $30K to $40K per plane per year on cellular services, and so if only 10% of OnAir’s “traffic” (which I assume is measured in revenue terms) is derived from voice calls, then that is about $10 per plane per day in voice usage. Put another way, I estimate that on average there may be as few as 2 voice calls per plane per day!

For (a truly scary) comparison, take a look at OnAir’s estimates back in 2007, that Ryanair passengers would spend EUR300K per plane per year on voice calling, or 100 times more than the current level of usage.

Of course that shouldn’t really be a surprise, because the original providers of inflight phones in the US (Verizon Airfone and Claircom) both went out of business and Inmarsat’s revenues from seatback phones were about 2% of their original projection in the early 1990s. More recently, Ryanair also stopped providing inflight cellular services. Obviously the lack of privacy and the level of background noise make it pretty hard to conduct business on a cellphone call inflight, while the cost has generally been prohibitive for leisure users, and neither of those factors has changed in any meaningful way with the introduction of cellphone instead of seatback connectivity. As a result, its no wonder that business travelers much prefer email and SMS to voice calls, and some airlines have even decided to ban voice calling themselves, despite it being legal outside the US.

It therefore seems pretty ironic that we’ve had letterwriting campaigns to the FAA and FCC, a ban proposed in Congress and even a lobbying group set up by OnAir and AeroMobile, trying to argue that voice calls on planes are a bad or a good thing (depending on your point of view), when the reality is that almost no-one actually wants to do it anyway. However, just as with the title of this article, once people become convinced that there is no middle ground to the debate, logic tends to fly out of the window. In those circumstances, its no wonder that members of Congress are eager to get involved.

UPDATE (9/5): The FAA’s own consultation document on legalizing cellphone use onboard aircraft has now been published and gives some interesting specifics on the usage levels seen in other countries. In particular, the Brazilian regulator indicated that TAM was only seeing about 0.3 voice calls per flight leg, and the consensus of most respondent countries was “that there was relatively low use of cell phone voice communication on airplanes”.

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