Backing winners?

Posted in Broadband, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 3:13 pm by timfarrar

I noted a couple of weeks ago that SpaceX was putting the FCC under considerable pressure to approve its April 5 request for Special Temporary Authority to operate its initial tranche of Starlink satellites. However, rather than giving approval for this STA, on April 26 the FCC instead approved SpaceX’s November 2018 license modification.

Buried in this order is a key waiver sought by SpaceX, which is fundamentally different from the authorizations granted to other NGSO players (including Theia, whose license was approved at today’s FCC Open Meeting):

28. Waiver of ITU Finding Required Under Section 25.146(a). In the SpaceX Authorization, the Commission required that SpaceX receive a favorable or “qualified favorable” finding from the ITU with respect to compliance with applicable EPFD limits in Article 22 of the ITU Radio Regulations prior to commencing operations. SpaceX asserts that the ITU will not examine the modified filing in this respect anytime soon and in light of its expedited deployment schedule, requests a waiver of this condition prior to the initiation of service. OneWeb and the GSO Satellite Operators, request that the Commission deny SpaceX’s waiver request. SES and O3b, argue that any waiver grant addresses the timing of the ITU filing and is conferred at SpaceX’s own risk. Given the ITU’s timeframe for examining SpaceX’s modified filing and the fact that SpaceX presents EPFD calculations using the ITU software, we agree that this condition should not deter SpaceX start of operations. Thus, SpaceX’s request for waiver of the requirement to receive a favorable or “qualified favorable” finding prior to commencing operations is granted. We retain the requirement, however, that SpaceX receive the favorable or “qualified favorable” finding from the ITU, and in case of an unfavorable finding, adjust its operation to satisfy the ITU requirements. Accordingly, operations of SpaceX’s system, as modified prior to the ITU’s finding, are at SpaceX’s own risk.

While other systems like Theia are required to receive ITU approval “prior to the initiation of service”, SpaceX has now been given permission to provide service over the Starlink system unless and until a final ITU finding is published. This appears to reflect the FCC’s view of SpaceX as a potential winner in the NGSO race and a desire to enable operations to begin as soon as possible. In addition, SpaceX appears to be receiving strong backing from other agencies within the US government for the capabilities that Starlink is expected to make available.

So next week on May 15, SpaceX plans to launch “dozens of satellites” (perhaps as many as 40-50 from what I’ve heard in Washington DC this week), although it remains unclear what technologies are actually onboard these satellites. It seems that the satellites include a variety of different designs (launching everything “including the kitchen sink”) and there may even be some non-communications payloads onboard.

It appears that the launch will be accompanied by a publicity blitz to set the scene for a major fundraising effort immediately thereafter, with one feature of this PR campaign being SpaceX’s production line in Redmond, described to me as “more impressive” than OneWeb’s factory in Florida. But SpaceX clearly believes that numbers are important, and will be comparing the number of satellites it has launched to the 6 satellites launched by OneWeb in February. So I expect SpaceX’s fundraising target will also exceed the $1.25B raised by OneWeb in March and will include more of the wild predictions we’ve heard for Tesla in recent weeks as well as on the SpaceX fundraising call in early April.

That sets the scene for a race between OneWeb and SpaceX to launch as many satellites as possible in the next 6-12 months: OneWeb is claiming it will be launching 35 satellites per month starting in the fall, and SpaceX is suggesting it may also have 2-6 more launches by the end of the year (helpfully filling a hole in its Falcon 9 manifest as the demand for GEO launches continues to slow, but clearly requiring a substantial financial commitment).

In comparison, other proposed systems like Telesat and LeoSat will be far behind, and even though these systems may have designs which are more optimized for their target markets, it could become increasingly difficult for either system to attract the attention and funding they need to move forward, without backing from major strategic investors. Speculation is likely to focus on Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans, but unlike Elon Musk’s “build it and they will come” mentality, I expect Jeff Bezos is more likely to want to put together a solid plan before committing to spend many billions of dollars on such an effort.

But the most important thing of all is whether investors believe Elon Musk’s predictions and will now throw billions of dollars at his Starlink vision. A shortfall in the amount raised, as seems to have been the case in all of SpaceX’s various funding rounds over the last year, will keep the pressure on the company after a series of costly issues (most notably the loss of the Crew Dragon capsule). On the other hand, if he is able to raise a couple of billion dollars, SpaceX and OneWeb could make this into a two horse LEO constellation race over the next couple of years. So I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see the launch next week and what the subsequent fundraising effort reveals about investors’ confidence in both the project and (more importantly) in Elon himself.


High Times…

Posted in Broadband, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 9:43 am by timfarrar

Last week, on hearing the news of Amazon’s Project Kuiper LEO constellation plans, my immediate reaction was that it looked like “a good way to make it even harder for SpaceX to raise their next funding round”. Unsurprisingly, that turns out to be exactly the situation, because I’m told that Elon Musk held a lengthy conference call with SpaceX investors last week to seek additional funding for Starlink, ahead of the next launch (which has now been announced to be “no earlier than May”).

SpaceX is seeking to complete a near term equity raise (apparently limited to existing investors) at a valuation of $32B, and has made some outlandish claims about the potential for Starlink, similar to (if not even more exaggerated than) the widely ridiculed business plan published in the Wall St Journal back in January 2017, with many tens or even hundreds of millions of subscribers relying on the constellation. Jumping onboard with others, but exaggerating further, Starlink’s flat panel terminal is claimed to be capable of 100Mbps, but will cost only $500 at launch, falling to $150 over time. Moreover, the cost of the 4000+ satellites is said to be around half a million dollars each, including launch, implying total capex of less than $3B.

Meanwhile, Amazon continues to troll SpaceX, hiring the former leaders of Starlink, who Musk fired for wanting “more iterations of test satellites” rather than “cheaper and simpler satellites, sooner” and posting over 70 jobs in Bellevue, WA in an attempt to lure away additional engineers from Starlink facility in nearby Redmond.

So can Bezos derail SpaceX’s satellite internet plans, which may be the last avenue left to raise money for SpaceX, as the demand for launches continues to decline and its backlog nears exhaustion? Are people starting to doubt Elon Musk’s claims? Or does Musk still have enough believers amongst the existing SpaceX investors, including Google, which may have many reasons of its own to push back against Amazon?

UPDATE (4/19): The WSJ reported on SpaceX’s new funding round on April 15, noting that Gwynne Shotwell had expressed doubts over the prospects for Starlink in a February interview (although the outlandish claims I noted above were of course made by Elon Musk in the first week of April, not by Shotwell). It then emerged in an April 17 SEC filing that initial fundraising attempts had been largely unsuccessful, with only $44M out of $400M raised to date, suggesting that SpaceX’s approach, described to me as “you’ve got 24 hours to wire us the money or we’ll get it from someone else”, appears to have backfired.

So that makes me wonder quite how much financial pressure SpaceX is now under. Certainly SpaceX is putting considerable pressure on others, notably the FCC, where it filed on April 5 for Special Temporary Authority to operate its initial tranche of Starlink satellites. SpaceX claims these satellites will be launched in “early May”, despite it not having received approval for the revised constellation plan that was filed in November 2018 and not even specifying how many satellites will be in this “initial tranche”.

Given the complexities inherent in assessing SpaceX’s “iterative design” which will initially “use only Ku-band spectrum” and subsequently “phase the Ka-band antennas back into subsequent generations”, it is hardly surprising that it has taken the FCC some time to make a decision on whether to grant a license modification (indeed the FCC is only now proposing to grant a license for Theia’s NGSO system that was filed back in November 2016). Moreover, the mess that resulted from Swarm’s unapproved launch in 2018, led the FCC to caution satellite launch providers such as SpaceX that “a satellite integrated into a launch vehicle or deployment device without a current FCC authorization may need to be removed from that vehicle or deployment device if the satellite operator’s application for an FCC authorization is not acted upon favorably, or for various reasons cannot be granted within a time frame consistent with the launch schedule.”

So will the FCC bend under the pressure that SpaceX is exerting? Even then, would the launch of a few more demo satellites persuade investors that it’s now worth putting more money into SpaceX to fund a questionable (some would say non-existent) Starlink business plan? Or is this going to end badly, with SpaceX running out of cash to fund both Starlink and its new Starship development projects? Certainly the idea that “the decision to open a second $500M funding round just months after the first also bodes well for demand” (as opposed to indicating that SpaceX is experiencing a cash crunch) seems about as plausible as Musk’s recent suggestion that Starship should be fitted with “giant stainless steel dragon wings”. High times indeed!


The New New Space Thing…

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 5:32 pm by timfarrar

Michael Lewis’s book “The New New Thing” was published the same week as I moved to Silicon Valley in October 1999 and provided a great tour through the landscape at the high point of the Dotcom Bubble, just as his Liar’s Poker was a signature story of the 1980s Wall Street boom. Unfortunately we don’t have anything quite the same about New Space, although Tim Fernholz’s book comes close.

However, just as it was obvious back in 1999 quite how untethered Silicon Valley had become from real world business models, the New New Space industry seems intent on demonstrating the same about the space sector. In recent months I’ve heard about numerous planned nano-satellite constellations that are struggling to raise funding (beyond their $10M or so in proof of concept venture capital) and may run out of money soon, because they simply don’t have a credible business plan.

Looking elsewhere, it seems that 5G IoT and “Armani WiFi” are not really such convincing buzzwords after all (sorry Charlie and Jay), and Ligado’s lobbyists can’t outwit Brad Parkinson’s “fervent ally” in the White House, so some if not all of those multi-billion dollar investments will soon prove to be a complete debacle as well.

But the poster child for the bursting of the bubble can be seen in SpaceX’s increasing frantic attempts to raise money in the face of a rapid decline in launch demand, and increasing competition from Blue Origin, which doesn’t need to make a profit. Firing your bankers because they are nervous about how much additional debt you will take on in the future is a bad sign, and redesigning your constellation to hide its problems seems even more bizarre.

SpaceX’s launch tempo is already falling, with 10 launches now scheduled for the second half of 2018 compared to 12 in the first half, far short of the 50% increase in 2018 launches and medium term 30-40 launches per year that the company predicted only a year ago. So its an open question what the core business is worth, but with $270M in LTM adjusted EBITDA (which counts deposits and excludes some R&D) and a declining revenue outlook for 2019, the valuation of $28B achieved this spring is clearly ludicrous.

SpaceX’s attempts to find new sources of revenue are also proving deeply problematic because the broadband satellite constellation business now appears to be in even more dire straits than the launch business. Recently rumors have circulated that SoftBank is looking to exit from OneWeb (before the next tranche of its $1B equity commitment is due after the test satellites are launched in early 2019), as the system costs increase and questions abound over the size of the market opportunity for satellite broadband. Certainly Masa Son’s attitude to the project appears to have changed dramatically in the last year, from touting satellite as an alternative to fiber, to not even mentioning satellite in a recent lengthy feature on the Vision Fund.

And finally, given the lack of demand for launch services, the need for the BFR now seems highly questionable, except as a vehicle for space tourism. Since SpaceX is likely to have investment needs of $1B+ per year just for BFR and the debt capacity of the company is unlikely to be more than about $2B, it therefore wouldn’t be in the least surprising if the company’s next step in 2019 is to start taking more deposits from potential tourists who want to emulate Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. In the meantime, soliciting contracts from anyone who might offer a cash deposit seems like another avenue SpaceX will be exploring.

Looking back once again to 1999, it seems quite relevant to note that the first major meltdown (the Iridium bankruptcy) came in August 1999, well before the bursting of the wider tech bubble. And it now appears that there are several multi-billion dollar satellite projects that could suffer the same fate within the next year. What will that mean for investor perceptions? Will incumbents benefit? And which elements of this new technology will prove to be useful in the long run?


Fake it till you make it?

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 1:03 pm by timfarrar

As students of history and those who were there at the time (such as FCC International Bureau chief Jose Albuquerque) know only too well, sometimes a dud satellite can be just as good as a real one for promoters of a new broadband LEO system. Back in February 1998, the Teledesic BATSAT apparently never worked properly (some say not at all), but the launch was instrumental in causing Prince Alwaleed to invest $200M in the company in April and more importantly in persuading Motorola to abandon its own Celestri LEO system and join forces with Teledesic in May 1998, investing $750M for a 26% stake.

So the question now is whether SpaceX is in the same position with Starlink? After all, when basking in the glow of apparent back-to-back successes with Falcon Heavy and Starlink during February 2018, followed by receipt of its constellation license from the FCC, SpaceX raised $500M the following month at a reported valuation as high as $27B, supposedly to develop the Starlink constellation.

And subsequently, SpaceX has been positioning itself to play a role in DARPA’s Blackjack satellite constellation program, which will provide total funding of up to $117.5M to be split between several bidders. Notably, SpaceX filed a new experimental application with the FCC in August 2018 “to reflect additional test activities undertaken with the federal government” and add “two new types of earth stations, one of which will transmit uplink signals to the Microsat satellites first from the ground and later from a moving aircraft”. In that application, SpaceX told the FCC that:

“These experimental engineering verification vehicles are currently engaged in the test regimen as authorized, in order to enable the company to assess the satellite bus and related subsystems, as well as the operation of space-based and ground-based phased array technologies.”

As he looks to secure both DARPA funding (which should be announced in the next couple of weeks) and FCC approval of the new experimental license application, Elon Musk is certainly extraordinarily sensitive to any suggestion that there might be a problem with Starlink. Notably, within a few hours after my previous blog post appeared on September 18, it seems he planted a (rather bizarre) question on Twitter so that he could state that “Starlink should be active by then [2023]“. Indeed, he was so keen to get this assertion out there that the same question was posted twice.

And if we look back to Elon’s previous tweet about the status of Starlink, its hard to believe it was purely a coincidence that this information was released the day after DARPA’s Blackjack solicitation.

But the reality is that the Starlink satellites have not performed in accordance with the plan that SpaceX presented to the FCC as recently as February 1, 2018, when Patricia Cooper told the FCC that:

“As set out in the original application, after system checkouts are performed and the system is evaluated as ready to proceed, SpaceX will engage in orbit-raising maneuvers until the spacecraft reach a circular orbit at an altitude of 1,125km.”

And the original application stated that:

“After system checkouts are performed and the system is evaluated as ready to proceed, the orbit-raising phase of the mission will commence. This segment will last approximately half a year depending on system performance.”

But what has actually happened? Both satellites have remained around the launch altitude of 514km, with TinTin A not showing any meaningful evidence of propulsion since at least early March, and TinTin B not experiencing any significant change in altitude after attempting a few orbital maneuvers. So it seems all but certain that there has been a major issue with the propulsion system onboard both of the Starlink satellites.

When confronted with the rumors of a satellite failure by SpaceIntelReport, SpaceX stated that the satellites “were delivered to their intended orbit, communicated with ground stations, continue to communicate with ground stations, and remain in operation today.” That may all be true, but says nothing about whether the propulsion system has failed.

Unsurprisingly such a failure would put SpaceX in a very awkward position, when there were already many questions about whether Starlink would go forward, not least because the satellites may not reach the correct orbit to bring SpaceX’s ITU filing into use, and the FCC’s experimental authorization was based on the assumption that mission operations would be conducted at 1125km. And if SpaceX cannot build satellites with a reliable propulsion system, that would reinforce concerns expressed by FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel in SpaceX’s license grant that “the FCC has to tackle the growing challenge posed by orbital debris.”


420,000 km. Funding secured!

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 7:32 am by timfarrar

Yes I know it’s only 384,000 km to the Moon, but just like Elon, I decided to round up. After all, it’s apparently “better karma”!

Last night’s SpaceX event raised a lot of questions for many observers, not least because it “caught some SpaceX employees off guard” and was rushed out so fast that some of the promotional imagery was incorrect. However, I suspect that the reason for this surprise announcement was to distract from impending bad news about the Starlink project, namely that the project has for all intents and purposes been put on hold.

We already knew that there was a significant reduction in hiring in early July, but I’m told the cutbacks went much deeper, with a significant fraction of the Starlink team departing. SpaceX was also looking to develop a more concrete business plan for the project in Q2, but I believe it proved impossible to come up with anything remotely close to the ludicrous forecasts from 2016 reported by the Wall St Journal that suggested the project would have over 40M subscribers and $30B in annual revenues by 2025.

Ironically enough, the principal mention of Starlink last night was as a source of funding for the BFR development. It makes no sense whatsoever to think that Starlink will generate profits to fund a $5B+ BFR development between now and 2023, so the only logical conclusion is that money raised for Starlink will now be diverted to the BFR. Another hint that Starlink is going away was the statement that BFR is expected to consume the majority of engineering resources after the commercial crew development has been completed for NASA next year, despite Starlink supposedly costing more to develop than BFR ($10B+ compared to ~$5B) over the next 5 years.

However, without Starlink to support the business plan, SpaceX will face significant challenges in sustaining its reported $27B valuation, as it grapples with an expected reduction from 28 to 18 launches next year, which will very likely cause overall revenues to decline in 2019. It’s also notable that when Viasat decided to contract with ULA (seeking a US launch provider so as to support its upcoming expected request for Ex-Im Bank funding), it reportedly did not even invite SpaceX to bid, presumably because of a lack of confidence in the future of Falcon Heavy (since the upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5 will now suffice for most GEO satellites).

It’s only natural that SpaceX would look for a replacement market that can be projected to generate billions of dollars of profitable revenue, and the company now appears to have settled on space tourism, as previewed by Gwynne Shotwell last week, when she suggested that it “will probably be the majority of our business in the future, flying people” with “7 billion potential payloads“.

However, the critical question is whether investors will remain sanguine about such a dramatic transformation in where over 80% of SpaceX’s future revenues are supposed to come from. Do investors that thought they were investing in the future of connectivity, really want to invest in taking rich people to space? And does the checkered track record of space tourism give them confidence that Elon’s promises will actually be realized, especially as it will take 5+ years and $5B+ of additional investment (even by Elon’s optimistic estimates) before the BFR is ready to transport passengers to the Moon?


Lost in SpaceX…

Posted in General, SpaceX at 10:17 am by timfarrar

In the run up to Satellite 2018 on March 12 it became clear that Elon Musk was once again spending most of his time on SpaceX business rather than at Tesla (which has pre-occupied him for most of the last year), when SpaceX director of communications John Taylor unexpectedly left the company in early March. Musk confirmed as much in his SXSW conference appearance that weekend, which focused primarily on SpaceX and appeared to put SpaceX ahead of Tesla when talking about how he allocated his time.

So my joke to satellite operators and insurers at Satellite 2018 was that they’d better watch out for an increase in launch risk, if Elon is going to suck up the best talent at SpaceX for his BFR project. Or perhaps some of those people will simply decide to leave the company, like SpaceX’s director of software engineering.

Since then we’ve seen Musk burning absinthe in Israel, presumably as part of the dealmaking with Spacecom to launch the replacement for the Amos-6 satellite that blew up on a SpaceX rocket in September 2016. Then Musk was focused on deleting SpaceX’s Facebook page (with Tesla’s page only deleted as an afterthought). And last night, when controversy was swirling over the fatal Tesla crash in Silicon Valley, Musk was busy tweeting about SpaceX’s latest successful launch and some random music video, pausing only for an unfortunate remark about how “Everything’s better with fire”.

As Musk continues serenely on with his SpaceX focus, at Tesla things have been going from bad to worse this week, with Tesla’s heads of engineering and production writing a (conveniently leaked) memo on how they planned to free up workers for the Model 3 line this week in order achieve the “incredible victory” of producing 300 Model 3s in a day. No one seems to have remarked that back in September 2016, a near identical memo came from Elon Musk personally (and was even leaked to the same reporter), which seems to confirm that Musk has stepped back from direct involvement in Tesla’s production woes.

That’s all in sharp contrast to Musk’s camping expedition on the roof of the Gigafactory last fall, and raises the question as to how long Musk will be lost in SpaceX affairs, and how he will divide his time between the two businesses in future. Certainly he will be critical to Tesla’s upcoming fundraising efforts, and I’m sure Tesla’s investors thought they would be getting a lot more of Musk’s attention in exchange for his latest $2.6B pay package.


Which company is behind the “deadly falling satellites”?

Posted in Regulatory, SpaceX, Spectrum at 8:15 pm by timfarrar

That’s one question raised by a September 29 letter to the FCC from Senators Cory Booker and Dan Sullivan, expressing concern for the “growing challenge presented by low-Earth orbit (LEO) space debris” and asking Chairman Pai to coordinate with NASA and the FAA to “establish an interagency working group on space debris and to develop a comprehensive domestic policy on space debris mitigation”.

The letter focuses primarily on collisions between satellites and other in-orbit debris, such as the Iridium 33 incident in 2009, but the FCC also has concerns about debris falling to Earth as highlighted in the Dilbert cartoon. SpaceX has now submitted proposals for both a 4425 satellite LEO constellation and a 7518 satellite VLEO (very low Earth orbit) constellation, and when the FCC assessed SpaceX’s proposal, it calculated a worst case “aggregate casualty risk from components that survive atmospheric re-entry as roughly 1 in 4 for the 7,518 satellite deployment described in the application, assuming no replenishment” and a risk of “roughly 1 in 5 for the 4,425 satellite deployment“.

SpaceX’s application indicates that there will be five or six components on each VLEO satellite which would survive re-entry with a kinetic energy of at least 960 Joules (equivalent to a 5lb brick traveling at 65mph) and its response to the FCC’s query, stating that “individual vehicle risks rang[e] from 1:17,400 to 1:31,200″, is not exactly encouraging when there are intended to be 12,000 satellites in the constellation.

Indeed, although Elon apparently has only Non-GAAP “adjusted” hair rather than pointy hair, SpaceX’s proposed mitigation measure was similar to that in the Dilbert cartoon, suggesting that (rather than aiming for cities that have lots of swimming pools) the Commission take into account “the degree to which people would be located within structures that would provide shelter from potential impact”.

With concern now being expressed from Congress as well as within the FCC, it will therefore be interesting to see what happens next, and in particular whether this impacts the approval process, including the two draft orders that were circulated by Chairman Pai last week to “grant U.S. market access to two more NGSO systems in the Ku- and Ka- spectrum bands”. I had assumed these orders would be for SpaceX and Telesat, due to those companies’ intention to launch test satellites later this year, but according to Communications Daily, the orders are in fact to approve Space Norway and Telesat, leaving SpaceX out in the cold.