Its been interesting to see Inmarsat’s stock price rising recently based on excitement about the prospects for its inflight connectivity business, as well as the fourth GX satellite (which Inmarsat hopes to lease to the Chinese government as the Financial Times also reported in October).
We published our new Inmarsat profile in December which highlights the company’s prospects for strong revenue growth from GX over the next few years, although since then Inmarsat has faced a few setbacks, with the Intelsat appeal of Inmarsat’s US Navy contract win being sustained and Apax finally emerging as the purchaser of Airbus’s Vizada division, despite Inmarsat telling people before Christmas it expected to buy this business in early 2016.
However, there is the potential for an even more worrying development in the near future, with ViaSat expected to give more details of its ViaSat-3 project in early February. This seems to represent something of an acceleration in ViaSat’s plans since last November, and it now looks possible that this announcement could include deals with some large new airline customers to provide advanced passenger connectivity services.
If it can be realized, ViaSat’s proposed 1Tbps capacity for ViaSat-3 would have a dramatic impact on bandwidth expectations and more importantly the low cost of capacity would make it feasible to offer low cost or free Internet connectivity, including streaming video, to airline passengers, even as data consumption continues to grow rapidly in the future. ViaSat could potentially do deals with Southwest and/or American, the first of these sounding the long awaited death knell for GEE/Row44′s connectivity business and the second proving disastrous for Gogo, which currently gets about 40% of its passenger connectivity revenues from American Airlines (though any fleetwide migration to ViaSat wouldn’t happen until after the current 10 year contract expires in 2018, just as seems likely for Virgin America).
That really would represent an explosion in the inflight connectivity market, though not one which would be welcomed by other satellite operators and service providers, many of whom have a difficult relationship with ViaSat. Indeed its notable how ViaSat is now also throwing its one-time partner Thales LiveTV under the bus, claiming that they mounted “a campaign of whispers…alleging that Exede did not meet its advertised performance.”
The implications of deals that could ultimately bring ViaSat’s number of served aircraft in North America up to as many as 2000 planes (i.e. half the equipped fleet) would be wide ranging, not least for inflight connectivity service providers, who’ve become used to seeing Gogo and Panasonic as the market leaders, and passengers, who’ve become accustomed to a market where “Inflight Wi-Fi Is Expensive, and No One Uses It.”
Even amongst satellite operators there could be some upheaval, with Inmarsat having just ordered $600M of I6 satellites (actually $900M+ including launch, insurance and ground segment costs) carrying what looks, in comparison, like a puny ~30Gbps per satellite, SES having signed a ten year $290M bandwidth contract with GEE in November 2014, and Intelsat potentially set to lose some of its claimed “73% share of today’s aeronautical satellite communications market.” Most importantly, if passenger expectations of free or low cost inflight WiFi start to spread beyond North America, then Inmarsat’s estimate that its European Air-To-Ground network will generate $300K per plane per year (more than double Gogo’s current run rate) would look even more questionable.
Widespread angst about the effects of new HTS satellites and slowing revenue growth is already weighing on the outlook for the satellite industry, but if ViaSat really does have one or more big deals to announce next month, then it would take concerns over future capacity and pricing trends to a whole new level. In that case we’d better all buckle in and get prepared for a very bumpy ride.
I woke up this morning to read New Street Research’s latest 3Q2015 Wireless Trends Review, subtitled “Competition Gets Ugly: The Big Guys Have A Problem” and while I agree that competitive pressures in the US wireless market are getting ugly, I’m afraid it is the analysts rather the “Big Guys” that have a problem. In particular, New Street’s “network capacity framework” that suggests Verizon “have half the capacity they will need by 2020 to maintain current network quality” is based on a completely flawed premise, just like most other pronouncements of an imminent spectrum crisis.
This network capacity framework calculates the number of “MHz-sites” that Verizon has for LTE in the top 25 markets and assumes that data demand will grow at 30% from 2015 to 2020 (reaching 10GB/LTE sub per month by then). Ignoring the fact that New St doesn’t know its Petabytes (1 million Gbytes) from its Exabytes (1 billion Gbytes), Verizon’s “aggregate LTE data demand” is projected to increase five fold between 2015 and 2020, while Verizon is expected to increase its deployed LTE spectrum from 68 to 138MHz and its number of LTE macrosites in these markets from 21K to 27.2K over the period, which supposedly will result in 2.5 times growth in network capacity. Thus New St concludes that Verizon will have only half the capacity needed to meet demand, without buying more spectrum from DISH.
This thesis is even more flawed than the Brattle Group study for CTIA back in June, because it completely fails to consider the potential for improvements in network efficiency over the period as LTE-Advanced technologies are deployed. Even Brattle Group acknowledges that “LTE+” will carry over 70% more bps per Hz than 4G LTE, based on a move from 2×2 MIMO to 4×4 MIMO, and the original source for these estimates (Rysavy Research’s August 2014 paper on “Beyond LTE: Enabling the Mobile Broadband Explosion“) acknowledges that many additional improvements are feasible.
Correcting for this error alone, and assuming capacity constrained locations are upgraded to LTE-Advanced by 2020, New Street’s supposed capacity shortfall is reduced from 50% to 14%, and so the number of additional macro sites that Verizon would need to build is reduced from 26.7K to only 4.5K (which based on the FCC’s October 2010 estimate of $550K per cellsite would cost only $2.5B in incremental capex). That hardly seems to justify Verizon spending tens of billions of dollars to buy DISH’s spectrum.
New Street also ignore other sources of incremental capacity (such as LTE-U) and reject small cells as infeasible because they have supposedly only 1/3 the capacity of macro sites (Rysavy in fact points out in Figure 68 of his report that through careful placement to meet hotspot demand, four picocells per macrocell could produce roughly a 10x increase in capacity).
Its hardly surprising that New Street conclude Verizon’s behavior is “perplexing” and suggest that rather than “discounting to hang onto subs” Verizon “should be taking up price to shed subs faster in congested markets to preserve superior network performance for their most valuable subs.” But perhaps Verizon do actually understand network engineering and the potential for network capacity enhancements better than analysts with a simplistic, erroneous spreadsheet model?
In these circumstances Verizon would also feel happy to say no to Ergen’s blackmail and refuse to pay more than their previous offer for DISH’s spectrum (which I guess is around $1/MHzPOP). In fact, it would seem likely that Verizon don’t want a deal at any price ahead of the incentive auction, if that would enable Ergen to bid up the price of spectrum once again. On the other hand, Ergen is undoubtedly keen to find a partner to endorse the value of his spectrum holdings and force Verizon back to the table. As part of that effort, I’m told he has been visiting Google again recently, just as he did back in 2012 when he was trying to pressure AT&T to do a spectrum deal.
One possibility for such a partnership would be to reinvigorate DISH’s rooftop small cell deployment plan, and meet Ergen’s AWS-4 buildout requirements, using the AWS-4 uplinks (2000-2020MHz) as downlinks in conjunction with his 1695-1710MHz uplink spectrum. Remember that Google has backed similar efforts in the past, when it funded Clearwire (rather than LightSquared) in 2008, in order to get a competitive 4G network built out quickly, and push Verizon and AT&T to do the same. However, Ergen has little more than a month left to get a deal done before the auction restrictions kick in, so time is not on his side.
Inmarsat has certainly had a great deal of success in the last two months, winning key contracts with the US Navy, Lufthansa and most recently Singapore Airlines, as well as a strategic partnership with Deutsche Telekom to built out its S-band European Aviation Network. While some of these wins may be a direct result of what Inmarsat refers to as “success-based capex” (otherwise known as giving away free terminals), these deals certainly have the potential to provide a significant boost to the company’s revenue growth outlook.
Moreover, it seems that the biggest deal is yet to come, as Inmarsat hinted on its results call last week that “customers in different regions [are] vying to have the [fourth GX] satellite placed over their areas of interest” and the plan for this satellite is expected to be finalized before Inmarsat announces its Q4 results in early 2016. However, in practice there is one deal which is far and away the most likely outcome, and it appears these statements are simply a matter of Inmarsat trying to make sure that it still has some negotiating leverage.
That deal was clearly apparent during last month’s State Visit to the UK by Chinese President Xi Jinping, when the only British company he visited was Inmarsat. Inmarsat highlighted that one purpose was “to understand how Inmarsat is able to uniquely contribute to President Xi’s One Belt One Road (‘OBOR’) strategic vision through the provision of critical global mobile broadband connectivity services, including Inmarsat’s revolutionary new service, Global Xpress” and noted that “Inmarsat has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China Transport Telecommunication & Information Centre (CTTIC) to establish a strategic partnership to deliver Inmarsat’s revolutionary Inmarsat-5 Global Xpress mobile satellite broadband communications connectivity throughout China and OBOR.”
I’m told that the original intention of President Xi’s visit, accompanied by HRH The Duke of York and the UK Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was to have a signing ceremony for the agreement to formalize this “strategic partnership” and that would involve a full lease of the fourth GX satellite to China. Unfortunately the final agreement required certain changes and therefore could not be completed in time.
However, assuming this deal can be completed, Inmarsat is likely to receive a further significant boost to its revenues. Given Chinese expectations are typically that they will receive lower prices than other countries, I’d expect the payments to Inmarsat for capacity could potentially be on the order of $100M p.a. (assuming the agreement is for 10+ years), depending on who covers the capex and opex costs for the new GX gateways in China. And China could then be in a position to provide free or subsidized satellite broadband capacity to adjacent countries in support of its geopolitical OBOR ambitions, just as Google and Facebook have been working to bring Internet access to developing countries.
Once this deal is done, Inmarsat can move onto ordering I6 satellites with both L-band and Ka-band capacity, in order to supplement the (somewhat limited) capacity of the initial GX constellation. But with Eutelsat apparently looking for French government backing to buy a 3-4 satellite Ka-band system, and ViaSat (not coincidentally) announcing the intention to build its own even bigger 1Tbps satellites, the race to add lower cost Ka-band capacity is far from over. More importantly, despite all the attention given to Ku-band HTS in the last year or two, its hard to agree with the statement Gogo made on its Q3 results call (after its GX distribution deal with Inmarsat was terminated) that “there are simply not enough Ka satellites now or for the foreseeable future to meet the needs of global aviation”.
Charlie Ergen’s atypical absence from the Paris satellite conference this week was not the only pointer that something is happening at DISH which could lead to a spectrum spinoff being announced imminently. On Wednesday Northstar and SNR asked for and were granted a two week extension to the September 17 deadline to provide an irrevocable standby letter of credit for the $3.3B DE discount that the Commission has ordered to be repaid.
This move signals that DISH is close to a deal to restructure its spectrum holdings and presumably announce the spinoff of a spectrum leasing company before October 1. However, the question is who would be the anchor leasing tenant for that entity, which would enable it to raise tens of billions of dollars of debt in its own right, and allow the Spinco to pass the proceeds back to DISH and/or to fund a bid for additional spectrum in the upcoming incentive auction.
Back in August I speculated that Sprint was a potential wild card partner for DISH, but Verizon has always been the more attractive option, given its greater financial resources and that it bid against DISH in the AWS-3 auction earlier this year and will soon be deploying AWS-3 to supplement its existing AWS-1 network. Its therefore hardly a coincidence that Verizon was openly discussing on Thursday its interest in a deal with DISH, including that “we’ve had discussions about how we could provide [Dish Network Chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen] with megabytes and how he could pay for it with spectrum.”
It seems clear that Verizon would be interested in gaining access to both DISH’s AWS-3 winnings and the adjacent AWS-4 downlink through a leasing deal. However, by advertising its bottom line in public, and in particular that Verizon is not willing to pay DISH’s asking price in cash to lease this spectrum, it seems that Verizon has presented Ergen with a take it or leave it proposition, calculating that DISH has no other options.
If DISH really is serious about entering the wireless business, then it could use the “megabytes” offered by Verizon (which would presumably not be limited to being provided on the spectrum under lease) to set up an MVNO business, and the price established by Verizon could then serve as a benchmark for cash deals with other parties (i.e. a 700MHz E block deal with AT&T and an H-block/AWS-3 uplink deal with Sprint). Theoretically Verizon could offer quite a high price, especially if it calculated that DISH might not succeed in the MVNO business and would therefore leave most of the megabytes unused.
However, this outcome would leave DISH without the ability to raise substantial debt at the Spinco, unless and until further cash deals were struck. That’s likely a wise move for Verizon, since it would prevent DISH from bidding aggressively in the incentive auction, and potentially result in lower prices in that auction and a correspondingly lower benchmark for future spectrum transactions.
So now we’ll see if Ergen accepts Verizon’s offer or if he can come up with an alternative leasing partner in the next week and a half. Alternatively, and perhaps even more likely, is that no deal will be struck now. Then Ergen might have to wait for a long time for the next opening, as operators focus their attention on the incentive auction next spring and beyond that on the possibility that a change of administration in November 2016 could result in a different regulatory climate for deals that are impossible today (such as a Sprint/T-Mobile merger).
Paris is the place to be in September for satellite industry gossip (though not the weather), and this year is no different. There’s been plenty of chatter already about the MSS sector, as people look forward to Inmarsat’s upcoming investor day on October 8. The company has seen some good news recently, displacing Intelsat General to win a large US Navy contract last week. However, Inmarsat’s aggressiveness on price is highlighted by the reduction in the total ceiling price from $543M last time around to only $450M over 5 years (which is in turn perhaps double the US Navy’s most likely spending profile). Though this contract should help Inmarsat show top line revenue growth in 2016 and beyond, a significant proportion of the capacity (in C, Ku and X-band) will have to be bought in from other players, limiting Inmarsat’s ability to make a profit.
However, the other main news about Inmarsat is that the company is expected to order its first I6 L-band satellite before the end of 2015, and it will include substantial additional Ka-band capacity to supplement the rather limited amount of capacity available on GX, even after the fourth GX satellite is launched in 2016 or 2017. That will likely mean a total capital expenditure of $450M-$500M, plausibly repeated once or twice more in the next few years, just to keep Inmarsat in the bandwidth race.
There’s also been some chatter about the FCC regulatory situation as it affects Globalstar, where a source confirms that my suppositions in June about the purpose of Globalstar’s change in tone to the FCC were correct and that a deal was on the table to approve terrestrial use just for Globalstar’s own MSS spectrum and not the wider 22MHz TLPS channel. However, this approval was only going to be for low power use, and would therefore not be of much import, except as a demonstration of regulatory progress.
Then after Jay Monroe met with several FCC Commissioners in late July he withdrew this potential compromise and insisted instead on full TLPS approval, presumably believing that if permission either to use the unlicensed spectrum or high power terrestrial use or the MSS band was treated as a separate, second stage of the process, a conclusion would be delayed for years, making it impossible for Globalstar to deploy or monetize its spectrum anytime soon.
So now it seems we are back to an impasse, and though Globalstar has recently added some additional information into the docket on an experimental deployment in Chicago, this documentation doesn’t provide quantitative information on (for example) the exact rise in bit error rates seen by services like Bluetooth, merely observing that no observable performance impact was noted. As a result, I believe it is unlikely that the FCC will feel able to rule on full TLPS approval anytime soon (i.e. this year).
Ironically, Globalstar’s consultants are also acting for LightSquared, and have proposed a similar program of tests for GPS interference, again based on a “KPI” criteria of observable degradation in performance, rather than actual quantified impact on the signal to noise ratio. Most observers seem to believe that LightSquared is no more likely to gain FCC approval for its plans than before, and that after the recent publication of the DOT test plan for their Adjacent Band Compatibility study, the FCC will wait for those tests to be conducted, which could take a considerable period of time.
Predictably LightSquared is already criticizing the DOT test plan, very likely setting us off on exactly the same well trodden (and ultimately disastrous) path as before. As a result, I’m sure that those hedge funds who committing funding to the bankruptcy plan (especially those in the $3B+ second lien, which sits behind $1.5B of first lien debt) must now be feeling pretty nervous. I wonder if any of them will now be frantically searching to see if they have any way to avoid funding these commitments once the FCC approves the transfer of control?
Finally, in yet more FCC-related news, the consensus here seems to be that the 14GHz ATG proceeding may also fail to reach a conclusion in the near term, as I predicted earlier this month, due to the uncertainty over how to protect NGSO systems. Instead, ViaSat’s Ka-band solution seems to be going from strength to strength, with the hugely positive reactions to the performance on JetBlue contributing to their recent win at Virgin America and to other airlines taking another look at what will be the best future-proof solution. All this makes Gogo’s predictions that its US market share is secure and that its revenue potential is “like a gazillion dollars” seem just as foolish as it sounds.
Often I wonder whether some companies understand how the FCC works and what they really shouldn’t say in an FCC filing. Gogo has just provided a classic example in its August 26 ex parte filing that tries to counter SpaceX’s recent intervention in the 14GHz ATG proceeding, where Gogo has been trying to get 500MHz of spectrum auctioned for next generation ATG networks.
Unfortunately for Gogo, it has been left as virtually the sole active proponent of this auction, after Qualcomm laid off the team that developed the original proposal and stopped participating in the proceeding. While I’m sure Panasonic and Inmarsat would take part if an auction was held, undoubtedly they are relishing the prospect of Gogo struggling to improve its “infuriatingly expensive, slow internet” service with 2Ku capacity that Gogo itself admits is roughly the same cost per Mbyte as its existing ATG-4 network (at least until it can renegotiate its current bandwidth contracts).
So when Gogo makes submissions that directly contradict those it previously put into the record, it shouldn’t be surprised if the FCC regards these rather skeptically. In particular, in July 2014 Gogo told the FCC that it “supports the proposed §21.1120 requirement that interference from all air-ground mobile broadband aircraft and base stations not exceed a 1% rise over thermal” whereas now “Gogo concurs with Qualcomm in that a 6% RoT has a negligible impact on the cost and performance of an NGSO system while creating an additional and disproportionate level of complexity or loss of performance for the AG system” and “Gogo supports the 6% RoT aggregate interference levels initially proposed by Qualcomm”. So suddenly Gogo thinks that its a perfectly acceptable to have six times more interference than a year ago.
Even more of a hostage to fortune was Gogo’s September 2013 comment about the unacceptable problems that an ATG network (referred to as Air to Ground Mobile Broadband Service or AGMBS) would cause for NGSO systems like that proposed by SpaceX:
“In its initial comments, Gogo expressed its concern that Qualcomm’s assumptions regarding the operating parameters of the hypothetical NGSO satellite systems were not representative of typical or worst case system configurations, and that the interference between a future system and AGMBS systems could be far greater than indicated by Qualcomm’s estimates. Gogo is not alone in this view, as the Satellite Industry Association (“SIA”), ViaSat, EchoStar and Hughes all raised similar concerns in their comments. SIA included an analysis within the Technical Appendix attached to its comments which illustrates the potential for much greater interference than had previously been calculated by Qualcomm. In Gogo’s view, some aspects of the analysis are subject to challenge because it overstates the level of interference that may be expected. Nevertheless, the overall conclusion remains valid – an AGMBS system operating consistent with the proposed rules would cause unacceptable levels of interference to many, if not most, possible future Ku-band NGSO system configurations. The analysis of EchoStar and Hughes, provided in Annex B of their comments, provides additional support for this conclusion. Similarly, ViaSat’s comments indicated that the NGSO analysis presented by Qualcomm is not representative of the range of potential Ku-band NGSO systems which have been previously proposed.”
Yet now Gogo, having previously claimed that Qualcomm’s calculations were flawed, suddenly decides that after “incorporating [SpaceX's] stated parameters into the Qualcomm interference calculation methodology” everything is fine and “the resultant RoT from an AG system into the SpaceX NGSO system is far less than [its newly relaxed] 6%” interference criteria.
I can only conclude that Gogo must be truly desperate to get the 14GHz ATG proceeding completed, because it needs the capacity ASAP. However, making contradictory filings is certainly not going to help the company to get a favorable ruling from the FCC anytime soon (especially when politics is lurking in the background, in the form of the Association of Flight Attendants expressing concern about the FCC taking action on this matter).
It feels like an age since Ergen’s plan for fixed wireless broadband and hosted small cell deployment on rooftop satellite TV antennas was at the core of his bids for Sprint and Clearwire in 2013. And as I pointed out last year, the AT&T acquisition of DirecTV seemed to pre-empt DISH’s plan and threaten more competition if DISH did proceed with a rollout.
Now the prospects of DISH reaching agreement with T-Mobile seem as distant as ever, and Verizon and AT&T appears eager to dismiss any prospect of them buying DISH’s spectrum. In addition, DISH’s stock has fallen after the FCC ruled against it last week over the Designated Entity discounts in the AWS-3 auction and Ergen has hinted that as a result he might now seek to dispose of his spectrum rather than entering the wireless market.
However, in recent weeks, Sprint has been playing up its small cell plan, but has not yet named its partners, except to hint that it will look towards off-balance sheet financing for the buildout. So I wonder if Charlie’s next angle to put his spectrum to use could be through a partnership with Sprint to make use of DISH’s rooftop sites in the small cell buildout, and perhaps host some of DISH’s spectrum at the same time. After all, the time when Ergen claims he is definitely leaning one way is usually the point at which he moves decisively in the opposite direction.
Such a deal could include an exchange of equity, with Softbank investing in DISH and DISH investing in Sprint. That would be a logical explanation for Softbank’s otherwise incomprehensible recent moves to buy additional Sprint equity in the public markets, rather than injecting much needed incremental cash into Sprint.
DISH could even participate in the network equipment leasing company (perhaps reframed as a JV) if it can use the cellsites for its own fixed wireless broadband (and perhaps mobile broadband) offerings. And none of this would prevent DISH from entering into a spinoff of its spectrum holdings, perhaps even with Sprint agreeing to act as an anchor tenant, leasing spectrum such as the PCS H-block and the adjacent AWS-4 uplink, which could be repurposed as a supplementary downlink and might provide Sprint with an alternative to bidding in the incentive auction next year.
A spectrum spinoff (or other transaction) by DISH still seems a likely outcome, and the FCC appears to have helped DISH on its way, by stating it will accept an “an irrevocable, standby letter of credit” instead of immediate payment, which will only be drawn if DISH has failed to make the $3.3B repayment of the DE discount by 120 days after the release of the Order (i.e. mid December), instead of the 30 days available to make a cash payment. That concession (which doesn’t have any obvious precedents that I’m aware of) will save DISH 90 days interest (over $40M at a 5% interest rate) and gives Ergen much more time to sort out a deal to reorganize his spectrum interests.
It feels like DISH will now finally have to pull the trigger on something, though I’m surprised no analysts appear to have even contemplated the scenario I’ve described above. The current uncertainty in the financial markets may not be helpful to the prospects of a deal being reached, especially if it proves difficult to get financing for a spectrum spinoff. Nevertheless, that need not prevent a small cell hosting deal, and with Charlie you simply have to expect him to have an angle most people haven’t thought of.
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.
Two people have now told me that with 99% certainty, the leak about the DISH/T-Mobile talks came from T-Mobile itself, not from DISH, based on the authorship of the WSJ report. Although it might be tempting to conclude that T-Mobile is trying to prompt a cable operator to consider an alternative bid, Charter has indicated that it will focus on TWC’s MVNO agreement with Verizon to provide wireless services if its TWC bid is successful and Comcast could presumably do likewise if desired.
Moreover, it seems this was not some sort of “official” leak, but instead simply reflects general conversations which got blown out of proportion, because Bloomberg has reported that the talks, which have been going on since last summer, have not advanced significantly in recent weeks.
That still leaves the perplexing analyst event that DISH held on Tuesday, and there’s been no convincing explanation of why that event was scheduled at short notice. Nevertheless, there’s now a frenzy of speculation leaving some convinced about the “inevitability” of a merger. What none of the reports deal with at all is how T-Mobile would actually make use of DISH’s spectrum without AWS-3/4 interoperability, and even then half of DISH’s spectrum in PCS H-block and 2000-2020MHz would still have no ecosystem available.
Instead analysts simply assume that interoperability doesn’t even need to be considered, and that the FCC “buildout requirements of its spectrum are so far in the future it’s not even worth starting the discussion about the weak enforceability of those deadlines.”
Of course a merger makes all the sense in the world if you assume DISH’s spectrum is just as usable as any other spectrum and that the FCC won’t enforce its buildout deadlines (in March 2020) so DISH has all the time in the world to strike a deal at a full price. Unfortunately that simply isn’t the case, and both Verizon and AT&T know that only too well.
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