Back in 2009, only a year before it embarked on the original $1.2B and now $1.6B Global Xpress Ka-band project (this new figure implicitly includes the launch of the fourth I5 satellite), Inmarsat’s CEO was happy to tell investors that “We are going into a period of capex holiday”. So perhaps it was inevitable that earlier this month at Inmarsat’s Q4 results presentation, some analysts were worried about the “risk that CapEx in 2015 won’t come down by the $300M figure you’ve mentioned”.
It does seem they were right to be concerned, because its now being reported (and I’ve confirmed) that Inmarsat and Arabsat are negotiating the inclusion of an S-band payload on Hellas Sat 3, similar to the Solaris piggyback payload on Eutelsat W2A.
I’m told that Inmarsat is now actively applying for national licenses to preserve its rights to 2x15MHz of S-band spectrum in Europe, after turning down an offer from Charlie Ergen to buy the license from them (in fact Ergen met with Rupert Pearce, Inmarsat’s CEO, in Washington DC this week). Inmarsat was previously exploring the development of an Air-To-Ground (ATG) network using this spectrum in Europe, but that has been abandoned, because it proved impossible to resolve the regulatory issues in the short timeframe available before the license deadlines (for a satellite launch) expire.
The new S-band business plan is instead directed at “smaller, cheaper terminals” for traditional MSS services (an opportunity that Inmarsat’s CEO highlighted on the MSS CEO panel that I moderated at Satellite 2014) rather than terrestrial exploitation of the spectrum. Another potential reason for Inmarsat’s move is that Thuraya will be trying to secure backing for a replacement L-band satellite over the next year, and by teaming up with Arabsat, Inmarsat could look to undermine Thuraya’s pitch that having an MSS satellite from the Middle East is a matter of regional pride.
In fact, Inmarsat was very firm at the conference that MSS spectrum should not be reallocated for terrestrial use, and even described the LightSquared Cooperation Agreement as something they were “forced” into (implicitly by the FCC), with Inmarsat’s preoccupation being to protect their MSS users from interference. This was quite a striking signal that Inmarsat may not be very supportive of compromise with LightSquared, which is a condition of the current bankruptcy exit plan.
In particular, Inmarsat is sitting on about $260M of deferred revenues, which were paid by LightSquared prior to the bankruptcy, to pay Inmarsat for fitting filters to its existing terminals (as I’ve noted before Inmarsat concluded this wasn’t actually required, so they kept the money). If Global Xpress revenues don’t ramp-up as quickly as expected (and there is now a high likelihood that the third I5 satellite will not be launched this year, since its not even on the latest Russian schedule and the second satellite is currently listed as launching in September), then the easiest way for Inmarsat to meet the 8%-12% wholesale revenue CAGR from 2014-16 that it reiterated on the Q4 results (which requires an increase of $200M to $300M in absolute terms) would be to book most if not all of those deferred revenues in 2016.
Of course, that is actually supportive of Ergen’s original proposal to just use the LightSquared uplink spectrum, because filters would only be required if the downlink band is actually used for terrestrial services. On the other hand, because Inmarsat would want to book the deferred revenues in 2016, rather than 2014 or 2015 when the bankruptcy process is complete, it seems plausible that Inmarsat would agree to an additional two year deferral of most payments from April 2014 to early 2016, aligned with the assumptions in LightSquared’s latest plan that FCC approval would be received by the end of 2015 and that their new funding would last through the first quarter of 2016.
At that point, if LightSquared has made no progress with the downlink band and is forced to fall back on uplink only use of the MSS spectrum, Inmarsat could book the deferred revenues and potentially could even get some additional payments for leasing the uplink spectrum at a later date. Don’t forget that Ergen might still be on the scene as well, since the deadline for completion of what will now likely be two competing European S-band projects is also in the first half of 2016.
So now we move to the key hearings next week in the LightSquared bankruptcy case, which will address the adversary proceeding against Ergen and LightSquared’s plan for emergence. As I’ve noted previously, despite the evidence LightSquared has marshaled about Ergen’s strategic objectives for his investments, it would be a major step for the judge to allow LightSquared to put Ergen/SPSO in a class of his own, then designate his vote and give him a third lien note with no exit for 7 years (and potentially no value in the absence of FCC approval). However, no one seems clear about what the judge will do, and what any compromise ruling might entail.
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.
I noted back in November that the MSS industry was seeing a dramatic deceleration in revenue growth, but 2012 is already bringing even more challenges across the sector. As I predicted last month, Inmarsat’s price rises are causing a substantial backlash in the shipping industry, with the latest Digital Ship magazine including a devastating letter from AMMITEC (the Association for IT Managers in the Greek Maritime Industry), asserting that:
The handling of the pricing restructuring shows a blatant disregard for the long-term loyalty and trust that, up until a couple of years ago, the majority of the shipping world has had in Inmarsat and its maritime offerings.
Inmarsat’s (not terribly reassuring) response indicates that:
Inmarsat is listening to our customers. We recognise that some of these price changes will be difficult for smaller vessels, and so we will be introducing a small boat package to which they can transition.
However, to the best of my knowledge, this “Small Vessel Pricing Plan”, which Inmarsat told its distribution partners a couple of weeks ago was “in the final stages of development”, has not been announced before the pricing changes come into force tomorrow, and I’ve even heard suggestions that Inmarsat doesn’t actually intend to implement this plan unless it really does suffer from a significant number of customer defections.
Of course, Inmarsat is not alone in experiencing some self-inflicted wounds at the moment. Last Friday brought news that Iridium is implementing a “complete recall” of its new Iridium Extreme handset, while on March 30, Thuraya told its distributors that it had been unable to reach a manufacturing agreement with Comtech for its high speed MarineNet Pro maritime terminal (intended to compete with Inmarsat’s FleetBB) and so the terminal would not be in the market until “the end of the year”. As announced on its Q4 results call, Globalstar ran out of SPOT and simplex devices for a period of time in the first quarter after changing its manufacturer, and will shortly learn the results of its arbitration with Thales Alenia over its satellite contract.
Let’s just hope that all of this mess doesn’t harm the reputation of MSS providers for providing reliable service when its really needed, and in particular doesn’t make it even more difficult for the MSS sector to boost revenue growth in this challenging competitive environment.
Inmarsat has now launched its ISatPhone Pro, which I was lucky enough to try out the other week. Although the phone itself is not particularly attractive, the call performance was better than I expected – voice quality was good (with the other party easily recognizable), and the ability to ‘walk and talk’ was far superior to my experience with the TerreStar Genus phone. Latency was also somewhat better than on the Genus phone. The main limitation was that the phone only registers on the Inmarsat satellite when the antenna is extended and pointed in the direction of the satellite, which means there is a delay of 1-2 minutes before a call can be made, and calls will rarely, if ever, be received on the phone (assuming the user doesn’t want to carry it around with the antenna extended).
Though Inmarsat’s phone is not expected to perform well at high latitudes (particularly in Alaska), it should generally be a good alternative for those MSS voice users who aren’t worried about carrying such a large device. The phone itself has been priced very aggressively, with pricing currently around $599 and in some cases close to $500.
However, the most surprising development is the airtime pricing that Inmarsat has set. Postpaid wholesale pricing has been set very low, leading to retail offers of $150 per year with 60 free minutes of calls. Even more extraordinary is the prepaid pricing, where a user can buy a 25 minute card, valid for 2 years, for only $20.
In my view the fact that Inmarsat has selected a uniform 2 year expiry date on its prepaid cards is a huge mistake, which I can only assume is due to the limitations of Inmarsat’s prepaid billing system (note also that prepaid service is currently not available in the US, due to patent litigation over the prepaid platform that Inmarsat uses). Iridium has previously indicated that about half of handheld MSS users are “glovebox”-type customers, who only use the phone for emergencies (and rarely use any minutes). To date such users have been paying at least $30 per month for satellite phone service (apart from occasional dual mode roamers on Thuraya), but now they will be able to get service for less than $1 per month. Inmarsat has thus completely undermined the economics of a significant part of the handheld MSS market, making it impossible for its service providers to justify targeting these customers (especially as SPs are busy competing away the margins which Inmarsat expected would be available on its handsets). In addition to leaving large amounts of money on the table, this action may also create added costs for Inmarsat, as these users are the least likely to be familiar with the limitations of satellite communications and thus may well end up consuming disproportionate levels of customer support resources.
Inmarsat may well have had a reason to act in such a destructive manner a few months ago, when it thought it might have the opportunity to prevent Iridium gaining funding in the public markets to pay for its NEXT contract. However, now that Iridium can rely on more money than expected from COFACE, such a calculation looks less sensible.
Despite having an attractive proposition for low end users, Inmarsat may still prove less successful than it hopes amongst higher volume users. In particular, these users will gain less of an advantage from the low occasional use tariffs, and may be somewhat reluctant to churn after making a substantial investment in buying an Iridium or Globalstar handset in recent years. Inmarsat has stated that it believes the average lifetime of a satellite handset is around three years, but in reality Iridium and Globalstar handsets are used for up to 8 years (and there is a thriving market for secondhand phones). As a result, churn in the handheld MSS market is much lower than Inmarsat apparently expects (even for Globalstar users, who have had to cope with a lack of two-way service in recent years), which will make it difficult to persuade large numbers of existing users to switch over rapidly to Inmarsat’s new service. On the other hand, competition from Inmarsat will potentially force Globalstar to offer rather more aggressive pricing as it tries to rebuild its subscriber base in 2011 and 2012.
In the end therefore, Inmarsat may end up being able to trumpet a fairly large number of handheld subscribers (potentially up to 150K by 2014), but many of these will be less desirable customers and ARPUs may be rather lower than expected. Thus the overall impact for the handheld MSS market of Inmarsat’s new service (even when combined with Globalstar’s two-way relaunch in 2011) may remain subdued, and at best we expect wholesale revenue growth of no more than 10% p.a. in the next five years. Indeed a more pessimistic view, assuming significant erosion of ARPUs at the low end of the handheld market could put wholesale revenue growth at less than 5% p.a. over this period.
Unfortunately its not new services, but the prices of current and future satellite phones and airtime that seem to be headed upwards. The last year has seen Iridium introduce its new, improved 9555 handset at a higher price than the 9505A that it replaced, with phones now selling for about $1500, while Thuraya has “simplified” (i.e. increased) its airtime pricing and introduced the more expensive ruggedized XT phone. Inmarsat admitted in June that its new GSPS handset may sell for up to $750 at launch in 2010, compared to the $500 retail price point it suggested previously. Even TerreStar has now indicated that its new handset may cost up to $800, with airtime pricing at “less than $1 per minute”.
We’ve commented before on how satellite phone revenues have been falling since 2005, and competition has certainly diminished as Globalstar has experienced problems with its two-way services over the last couple of years. However, it seems the consensus amongst current participants in the handheld MSS market is that there is little if any growth potential still left in satellite phones, and the actions of Iridium and Thuraya appear to indicate that their remaining customers are relatively price insensitive.
Even more surprising is that so far, at least, the new entrants do not seem to be particularly keen on shaking up the existing “premium price” paradigm for satellite phones. In the case of TerreStar this is rather worrying, given that their objective is to greatly expand the satellite phone market, and bring satellite-cellular roaming to a mass market, which seems very unlikely to happen with an $800 phone. Is TerreStar simply trying not to give too much away about its future pricing plans, while it focuses on developing all the other elements needed for a commercial service, such as distribution channels, billing systems, etc.? Will TerreStar actually be able to convince a cellular operator to subsidize its phone (which would require a significantly greater commitment from a partner than its current roaming agreement with AT&T)? We should find out soon, as TerreStar intends to launch commercial services at the end of 2009.