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.
Incredible…it’s even worse than I thought
That’s been the reaction to my 57 page Globalstar profile, released on Friday (you can see the contents list here and get an order form here), because of the history of challenges that the MSS industry has faced in the past and more particularly the difficulties that the industry is seeing this year.
After discussions with a number of people in the industry over the last few weeks, it looks like Q3 has been pretty disastrous for MSS sales across the board, with none of the usual surge in demand expected in the summer months, as customers stock up to prepare for outdoor adventures or potential hurricanes. Part of that relates to slow government orders, as a result of the sequester (predating the current shutdown), but commercial demand has also been poor, and that’s much harder to explain.
In the handheld segment, one suggestion is that Hurricane Sandy proved that terrestrial cellphone networks are now considerably more reliable during disasters (and far more data capable than MSS phones), so companies are no longer giving as high a priority to MSS equipment in their disaster planning. In the M2M segment, a fairly convincing explanation is that service providers who formerly specialized in MSS are now focusing more and more on selling cellular-based solutions to customers who find they don’t need MSS as a backup.
As a result, I’m now convinced that subscriber growth (and equipment sales) will fall short of expectations this year, particularly in the handheld and M2M segments, for almost all of the major MSS players, with knock-on effects for subscriber revenues in Q4 and more particularly next year. The defense business also looks poor (as shown by Intelsat’s recent profit warning): the word on the street is that Inmarsat may dispose of its Segovia government FSS business, as revenues in Inmarsat’s US Government business unit fell by 11% year-on-year in the first half of 2013 and appear to have eroded further in recent months, particularly in Segovia’s VSAT business. The sale price would be a fraction of what Inmarsat paid for Segovia, but in exchange Inmarsat would hope to secure a GX airtime contract, similar to its RigNet deal in the energy sector.
In the case of Globalstar, the implications of the MSS downturn are that while Globalstar should be able to meet the new bank case revenue forecasts, it won’t be easy to beat them. However, unlike some other players, Globalstar is fortunate in having the potential upside from monetizing its spectrum, if it can complete a deal with Amazon or another company. The report looks at spectrum valuation for both LTE and TLPS and concludes that there could be substantial value for Globalstar, although realizing this will require both rapid approval from the FCC and for a deal to be struck fairly quickly, before new spectrum bands such as 3550-3650MHz develop an alternative ecosystem at what will likely be much lower prices. If you are interested in getting a copy, please contact me for more details.
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?
As I remarked in an interview for the Satellite 2012 downlink newsletter yesterday, 2011 has seen a dramatic deceleration in MSS revenue growth, with wholesale service revenues now expected to grow by less than 3% in 2011, compared to the 7%-8% growth seen in each of 2008, 2009 and 2010. Yesterday we also released our latest industry report which gives ten year forecasts for MSS industry growth. In the L-band market (including Inmarsat L-band, LightSquared, Thuraya, Iridium, Globalstar and Orbcomm) we project cumulative revenue growth from 2010 to 2020 of only 4% p.a. and even when Global Xpress is added to Inmarsat’s revenues in the latter part of the decade, the overall cumulative growth rate is only increased to around 6% p.a.
This represents a striking contrast with widely quoted forecasts from Euroconsult and NSR, that the MSS market (excluding GX) will grow at 7% p.a. over the decade (Euroconsult) or 10% p.a. from 2010-15 (NSR). These optimistic forecasts seem to have achieved wide currency with analysts and bankers, who have argued (for example at the Satcon conference in October) that the MSS industry is more attractive than the FSS industry because of its much faster growth profile. One example that stands out is a JP Morgan analyst report on Inmarsat, published last Thursday, which gives an upbeat assessment of Inmarsat’s prospects and projects a target price of 800p per share (roughly double the current level). Not only does JPM expect LightSquared’s spectrum lease payments to be continued indefinitely after they file for bankruptcy (which is ludicrously unrealistic once you understand that LightSquared’s political backing has evaporated and even the FCC has basically given up on them, but may reflect the fact that JPM co-led (with UBS) the sale of LightSquared’s first lien debt earlier this year), but they expect Inmarsat’s core L-band business to resume growth at 2.5% p.a. from 2012 and Global Xpress to achieve Inmarsat’s target of $500M in annual revenues after 5 years.
Where do we differ with Euroconsult and NSR? It appears the primary source of the discrepancy is in our expectations for the maritime and aeronautical L-band markets. According to the JPM report, NSR is projecting 11% p.a. and 13% p.a. growth respectively for the maritime and aeronautical segments between 2010 and 2015. We are told that Euroconsult also takes a relatively optimistic view of the outlook for the maritime and aeronautical L-band markets. However, our expectations are that wholesale maritime and aeronautical L-band service revenues will actually decline between 2010 and 2020, as customers move to Global Xpress and other VSAT solutions. As a result, future L-band growth will have to come from land-based services, particularly low speed data and (to a much lesser extent) handheld satellite phones. That’s relatively good news for Iridium and Globalstar (as well as Orbcomm, if they can continue to gain momentum), but its still unclear whether ~8% p.a. growth in land MSS revenues will be sufficient for all of these companies to thrive in the face of what will inevitably be an ever-increasing focus by Inmarsat on this part of the MSS market.
If you are interested in our latest report, which also includes a detailed analysis of Inmarsat’s maritime market outlook and forecasts for in-flight passenger communications services, as well as discussion of the current prospects for terrestrial use of MSS spectrum, please contact us for more details about our MSS information service.
Inmarsat revealed in its 2009Q3 results that it is in negotiations to acquire a satellite services provider that generated more than $50 million in revenue in 2008, is currently profitable and will have no material indebtedness at closing, in a purchase that would cost less than $150M. There are very few companies in the MSS space that fit the profile given by Inmarsat, but one that does is SkyBitz, which Inmarsat noted in its June 2009 investor day presentation was one of the “key competitors” in the satellite Low Data Rate (LDR) market. Inmarsat also noted that one of its objectives in investing in SkyWave was to “stimulate consolidation in the [satellite LDR] market”.
Indeed, back in July we speculated that a possible resolution to the fight between Inmarsat and SkyBitz over what SkyBitz characterized as “restrictive trade covenants included by Inmarsat” in its SkyWave investment would be for Inmarsat to facilitate a buyout of SkyBitz. An Inmarsat acquisition of SkyBitz would have the added benefit (for Inmarsat) of taking out another of SkyTerra’s key LDR customers, in addition to the 50K GlobalWave customers who were moved from SkyTerra’s satellites to Inmarsat’s I4 satellite network in October 2009.
***We’ve now been reliably informed that Inmarsat’s current acquisition target isn’t SkyBitz. We understand it is most likely a system integrator focused on government business. We don’t have a name at this point, but one company in this area that would fit the disclosed parameters is Segovia. There are likely several other similar possibilities as well.***
We’ve lamented previously that no-one ever seems to leave the MSS industry, but if Inmarsat does eventually follow through on its stated ambitions to stimulate consolidation in the LDR market, then perhaps that sector could be one place where much needed MSS industry consolidation finally begins.
In that context, with Orbcomm having yet another disappointing quarter, we wonder if now is the time for a competitor to make a bid for Orbcomm. After all, the company expects to settle the $50M insurance claim for the failure of all of its QuickLaunch satellites “imminently”, at which point Orbcomm will not have spent too much on its second generation constellation and will still have a reasonable amount of cash on its balance sheet. That might be particularly attractive to Globalstar or Iridium, either of which would benefit greatly from moving Orbcomm’s subscribers over to their own networks (albeit with significant costs for terminal upgrades), and could allay investor concerns about whether Orbcomm can fund the rest of its second generation satellite constellation (which would be exacerbated if the company fails to receive something close to $50M from its insurance claim in the near future). With its partners postponing some new service offerings until messaging delays are resolved, Orbcomm will need these new satellites sooner rather than later if it to build a sustainable business and generate the rapid growth that has been promised ever since the company’s IPO in 2006, but to date has failed to materialize.