I’m unashamedly stealing the title of the book which chronicles the Iridium bankruptcy, because not only did John Bloom give a talk at this week’s Satellite 2017 conference, but discussion of new LEO satellite systems dominated the conference itself. The proposed merger of OneWeb and Intelsat is only the most visible sign of this return to the 1990s, when Iridium and Globalstar’s satellite phones and Teledesic’s proposed broadband system fascinated both the satellite industry and the wider investing community.
But below the surface there is an even more radical shift going on, as most leading operators are cutting back on their investments in high throughput GEO satellites for data services, and many of them are focused instead on the potential of LEO and MEO systems. Intelsat has already indicated that it is cutting GEO capex, and the merger with OneWeb will mean most of its future capex will be devoted to LEO, in line with Masa Son’s vision of a huge new opportunity for LEO satellites.
However, SES, whose CEO stayed away from the conference, is also hinting at a reallocation of its priorities towards O3b’s MEO system, probably accompanied by a sizeable reduction in overall capex. Telesat is also focused on developing its Ka-band LEO constellation for next generation data services, leaving only Eutelsat (which has already announced that it will cut capex substantially) amongst the Big 4 focusing solely on GEO.
This is deeply worrying for satellite manufacturers, and even the indication by Boeing that GEO demand will “remain soft” at “between 13 and 17 satellites in 2017″ may prove to be overly optimistic. All satellite manufacturers now need to play in the LEO/MEO world, with Thales constructing O3b and Iridium, and Airbus taking the lead role on OneWeb, with SS/L as a major subcontractor.
That leaves Boeing, which is not part of any announced LEO satellite contract, but has its own proposal for a V-band LEO system, which is under consideration at the FCC, along with several rival filings. While Boeing has suggested in the past that it was open to partnerships to develop this concept, most people in the industry are convinced that it already has funding from a potential customer, given the amount of effort that Boeing is putting into developing V-band service rules at the ITU and FCC. Boeing has also indicated to these people that it does not need export credit funding for the project, which supports the idea that this project is backed by a deep pocketed US entity.
There aren’t many possibilities for such a backer, and of the four large technology companies Boeing mentioned two years ago, Google and Facebook have apparently lost interest in satellites (although Google did invest $900M in SpaceX and Facebook tried with Amos-6), and Amazon is pursuing its own efforts in the launch market through Blue Origin. That only leaves Apple as never having discussed publicly its potential interest in space.
This aligns with the chatter I heard from a number of sources at Satellite 2017 that Boeing’s V-band development work is being funded by Apple, which is clearly trying to find the next big thing and has been exploring cars, TVs and other large market opportunities. Its not hard to discern why Apple might want to consider a satellite constellation, when SpaceX came out with a business plan last year that suggested SpaceX alone could generate $30B in revenue from satellite internet by 2025.
Just as in the car market there’s no guarantee that Apple would take this project forward to full deployment, but with SpaceX, SoftBank and now apparently Apple becoming enthusiastic about non-geostationary satellite systems, in addition to most of the main satellite operators, it seems that a dramatic reshaping of industry priorities is underway.
It remains to be seen whether this enthusiasm will last, or whether, like at the end of the 1990s, the pendulum will eventually swing back towards geostationary orbit. However, over the next few years, until we find out whether the ambitions of these visionaries can be realized, non-GEO satellite systems are likely to be the most important contributor to driving satellite communications technology forward.
So now Trump has won the White House, the opportunity for Globalstar to secure approval for its Terrestrial Low Power Service (TLPS) that was first proposed four years ago has finally disappeared. Instead of a 22MHz WiFi Channel 14, that was supposed to have access to a “massive and immediate ecosystem” (an assertion that was challenged by opponents), Globalstar is now asking for a low power terrestrial authorization in only its 11.5MHz of licensed spectrum.
That takes us back essentially to the compromise that Jay Monroe rejected in summer 2015, apparently because he didn’t believe that it would be possible to monetize the spectrum for low power LTE. However, with the FCC still keen to allow Iridium to share more of the L-band MSS spectrum for NEXT, and even Google supporting the concept of Globalstar using only its licensed spectrum for terrestrial operations, an approval seems very plausible in the near term, albeit with a further comment period required on the proposed license modification, as Globalstar acknowledges in its ex parte letter.
UPDATE (11/11): This email, produced earlier in the year by the FCC in response to a FOIA request, gives some further insight into the key June 2015 meeting with Globalstar that I referred to in my post. With its reference to “the conditions for operation in Channels 12 and 13″ and changes to “out-of-band emission levels in the MSS licensed spectrum” it seems clear that FCC staff were contemplating operation by unlicensed users right up to the 2483.5MHz boundary at least, presumably in conjunction with some reciprocity for Globalstar to operate below 2483.5MHz. Thus the deal proposed by FCC staff (although not necessarily validated with Commissioners’ offices) and rejected by Globalstar appears to have been somewhat different to this latest proposal from Globalstar (and perhaps more similar to the Public Knowledge proposals of shared use that came to the fore later in 2015). However, it seems hard to argue that the deal on the table in summer 2015 wouldn’t have been more favorable to Globalstar (due to the ability to actually offer a full 22MHz TLPS WiFi channel), if approved by Commissioners, than Globalstar’s latest proposal.
So the question now becomes, is there value in a non-standard 10MHz TDLTE channel, which is restricted to operate only at low power? Back in June 2015, I noted that there clearly would be some value for standard high power operation, but the question is a very different one for a low power license. After all, even Jay didn’t believe this type of authorization would have meaningful value last year.
Of course, its only to be expected that lazy analysts will cite the Sprint leaseback deal, which supposedly represented a huge increase in the value of 2.5GHz spectrum (though in practice this deal included cherry picked licenses for owned spectrum in top markets, and the increase in value was actually quite modest). And they will also presumably overlook the impact of the power restrictions and lack of ecosystem.
What is really critical is whether Globalstar could use such an approval to raise further funds before it runs out of money next year. Globalstar’s most recent Q3 10-Q admitted that “we will draw all or substantially all of the remaining amounts available under the August 2015 Terrapin Agreement to achieve compliance with certain financial covenants in our Facility Agreement for the measurement period ending December 31, 2016 and to pay our debt service obligations.”
In other words, Globalstar does not have the money to pay its interest and debt payments in June 2017. And with an imminent Terrapin drawdown of over $30M in December, Globalstar really needs an immediate approval to get its share price up to a level where Terrapin won’t be swamping the market with share sales next month. So how will the market react to the prospects of a limited authorization, and will investors be willing to put up $100M+ just to meet Globalstar’s obligations under the COFACE agreement in 2017?
Its important to note that the biannual debt repayments jump further in December 2017 and Globalstar will not be able to extend the period in which it makes cure payments beyond December 2017 unless “the 8% New Notes have been irrevocably redeemed in full (and no obligations or amounts are outstanding in connection therewith) on or prior to 30 June 2017″. Thus its critical that the financing situation is resolved through a major cash injection in the first half of 2017. As a result, it looks like we should find out pretty soon whether this compromise is sufficient for Thermo (or more likely others) to continue funding Globalstar.
As I pointed out in a tweet a couple of months ago, Iridium’s SBD service is being used for command and control of Google’s Project Loon. So it was interesting to see just how much Google has been spending on Iridium airtime, when Iridium’s CFO mentioned in their July 30 results call that:
“…our network provides the connectivity to remotely command and control the assets of the large and unique project by a major company who doesn’t let us reference their involvement in the program. We saw significant airtime usage in last year’s third quarter during the testing phase for this project. We now understand from our customer that this high level of activity will decline in the second half of 2015 as the service moves into another, more mature development phase, which will culminate in commercialization in 2016. We expect a full-year decline of $500,000 in M2M service revenue from this customer as a result of this evolution, with much of that coming in the third quarter.”
Its been reported that the Loon balloons have flown for “more than three million kilometers” at speeds of up to 300km/hour, though an average speed of say 40-50km/hour seems more plausible (which would mean it takes 50-60 minutes for the 40km diameter coverage area to traverse a given location if directly overhead, or somewhat less if the balloon path is more distant).
So that would suggest Project Loon has achieved something like 60,000-80,000 flight hours in total over the three years of the project, with a significant fraction of that during the 2014 testing phase. Much of the spending on command and control was likely incurred in 2014, because Google reportedly moved to sending new orders to the balloons “as frequently as every 15 minutes” (and presumably receiving data from them even more often).
But if Google spent something over $500K on wholesale Iridium airtime (and even more with retail markups included) in 2014, then that would suggest the cost of airtime command and control is something like $8-$10 per hour (before retail markup). As a benchmark, the spending level of about $140K per month in Q3 of last year suggested by Iridium would then equate to an average of 20-25 balloons operating continuously during the quarter (which is consistent with Google’s suggestion that it would step up to “more than 100″ balloons in the next phase of testing).
Google has indicated that the operating costs of each balloon are “just hundreds of dollars per day” but it is still surprising to consider that the company would be spending $200+ per balloon per day just on satellite connectivity. Moreover, it seems that Google’s “hundred of dollars per day” quoted cost could potentially exclude all the other costs involved in manufacturing and deploying the balloons and backhauling the traffic carried by them. That seems pretty expensive compared to the costs of a new fixed cellsite and highlights the perhaps questionable economics of the Loon architecture.
Now that Google has announced an MOU to potentially bring internet to remote areas of Sri Lanka next year, it is also interesting to contemplate just what that might mean in terms of Iridium airtime if the deal comes to fruition. Google has said it needs “more than 100 Loon balloons circling the globe” just to provide “‘quasi-continuous’ service along a thin ribbon around the Southern Hemisphere”. So it seems implausible to think that all of the rural areas of Sri Lanka would be served with less than say 300 balloons operating continuously. Assuming Google could get a somewhat better deal for high volume usage of say $5 per flight hour (of wholesale revenue to Iridium), then that would equate to annual wholesale airtime revenues of perhaps $13M for Iridium. And revenues could be even higher if more balloons are used to ensure continuous reliable coverage.
Perhaps Google can afford to spend a few tens of millions of dollars a year for a demonstration project in Sri Lanka (although the funding sources for this project remain uncertain). However, the scalability of Loon to a global deployment must be in much greater question. For continuous global coverage there would need to be as many as 100,000+ balloons in operation simultaneously. Even ignoring capital costs, if the operating costs of the network (for all aspects, not just satellite connectivity) are of order $300 per balloon per day, then that would amount to $11B per year in operating costs (for comparison US wireless carriers are projected to spend $56B in opex between them in 2017 to serve well over 300M customers). Its therefore unsurprising that Google intends to rely on wireless operators (and perhaps governments) to support these costs, rather than taking on the burden of commercial deployment itself.
In recent months Globalstar has vented its frustration with the slow progress of the TLPS NPRM, telling the Commission in April that “it is time for the Commission to move forward with an order in this proceeding and realize the substantial public interest benefits of TLPS.” Nevertheless Globalstar has previously been unwilling to compromise, indicating that it would only accept approval of the rules proposed in the November 2013 TLPS NPRM and that it would not relinquish spectrum to Iridium.
However, in the face of overwhelming pressure from Microsoft, Google, Sprint and others, it seems Globalstar has now decided it will have to accept a compromise as an interim measure to avoid being stuck in limbo for many more months. In a meeting with the FCC International Bureau last Friday, Globalstar struck a much different tone, urging the FCC “to grant Globalstar the proposed ATC authority,” a term which Globalstar has always declined to use, preferring instead to refer to the Commission’s “regulatory framework for low power wireless broadband.”
Moreover, Globalstar “expressed support for the Commission’s 2013 proposal” apparently hinting at the existence of a new 2015 proposal. Looking at the elements that Globalstar “urged” the Commission to adopt (apparently Globalstar’s bottom line) compared to those that it “encouraged” or “asked” the Commission to consider (those elements that are not essential), it is clear that Globalstar now wants a grant of “ATC authority” under “proposed rules” which no longer necessarily comport with the 2013 NPRM. Globalstar also “asked” (but didn’t “urge”) the Commission to “reject the unsubstantiated technical and policy requests by [its] opponents,” suggesting that any decision on TLPS OOBE limits can be deferred.
In contrast, back in May, Globalstar “urged the Commission to adopt its proposed rules expeditiously to add 22 megahertz to the nation’s wireless broadband spectrum inventory and ease the congestion that is diminishing the quality of Wi-Fi service at high-traffic 802.11 hotspots and other locations,” i.e. to approve TLPS specifically.
This move now points the way to a near term order written by the International Bureau on the narrower matter of ATC authority for Globalstar within its existing 11.5MHz of licensed S-band spectrum from 2483.5-2495MHz, in exchange for granting Iridium’s request to share more of the L-band. That would be a close parallel to the FCC’s ruling in November 2007, when it issued an NPRM on extension of Globalstar’s ATC authority in conjunction with the last reallocation of L-band Big LEO spectrum.
I would expect the FCC to defer any potential approval of the wider 22MHz TLPS channel to a further proceeding, with more testing and analysis of interference concerns to be undertaken. The main uncertainty relates to whether the approval of ATC authority would be for full power use, along the lines of the Open Range approval (but adapted to LTE), in conjunction with protection measures for BAS, or whether the approval will be limited to the much lower power levels contemplated in the TLPS NPRM.
I would assume that high power ATC usage is likely to be approved (as it is hard to see a limited low power channel being acceptable to Globalstar), with Globalstar welcoming this ruling as offering it more flexibility to either lease a single 10MHz LTE channel to a wireless operator in the near term or to later gain approval for TLPS at the end of the further rulemaking process.
Of course the debate would then move to appropriate valuation benchmarks, which are much easier to assess for standard licensed spectrum, albeit with upwards adjustments for lack of a buildout requirement and downwards adjustments for maintaining an MSS network and creating an ecosystem for a non-standard band. In addition the potential timeline and cost must be considered for the rebanding needed to avoid interference with grandfathered BAS users.
I’m sure that some will emphasize AWS-3 benchmarks of $2+/MHzPOP as a baseline, while others will highlight the MoffettNathanson assessment that spectrum around 2.5GHz, like that owned by Sprint, is only worth around $0.40/MHzPOP, and this enormous discrepancy means that the debate about what Globalstar’s spectrum is actually worth will certainly continue. Nevertheless, approval of a high power licensed spectrum block, even if limited to only a single 10MHz LTE channel, will make it harder to argue that Globalstar’s spectrum is completely worthless.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
« Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »