Gogo’s IPO roadshow is taking place this week (with completion apparently expected next Tuesday) after the company filed a revised S-1 on Monday June 10 indicating that it is seeking to sell 11M shares at between $15 and $17, giving the company an enterprise value (at the midpoint of this range) of approximately $1.3B (or even higher if you assume, as Gogo does, that the cash it raises needs to be spent on upgrading Gogo’s network to ATG-4, including doubling the number of cell sites by 2015). That seems pretty optimistic given the modest revenues that Gogo generates at present ($235M in 2012) and the losses that the company is making outside its well established Business Aviation segment.
I’ve not yet completed my forthcoming aeronautical communications market report, but I know a lot of people will be looking for some realistic numbers to value the company. So I decided to pull together my detailed estimates for Gogo through 2017, into a 21 page profile and analysis which I’ve published today. You can find a report summary and contents list here, and an order form here. And if you decide to buy my aeronautical market report when its available later this summer, you’ll receive a full credit for the price of the Gogo report.
Feel free to contact me for more details. As a taster, here’s the latest quarterly growth breakdown including 2013Q1. The last quarter is quite significantly short of my estimates, as despite the improving take rate trend line, Gogo took a significant hit on Average Revenue Per Session compared to 2012Q4.
UPDATE 6/13: And here is a comparison with the various analyst forecasts for Gogo which were given out at the roadshow. I’ve left off the names, to spare people’s blushes, but the bank that forecast this to be a $1.6B business in 2017 has clearly been drinking the same Kool Aid as Global Eagle.
Its interesting to note that Inmarsat has been competing much more aggressively against key competitors in the last few months. First, I’m told that Inmarsat offered a bounty to Telemar to capture Anglo Eastern, a key Iridium Open Port customer with 350 ships, from Globe Wireless, in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Then Inmarsat announced in March that Nordic Tankers, one of KVH’s earliest headline customers, was migrating to XpressLink “for enhanced reliability”. Apparently the pricing on that deal is well below the standard list price for XpressLink, but Inmarsat was very keen to demonstrate its ability to take customers away from KVH.
Now (perhaps showing a little pique at losing the recent tender for the AT&T Genus replacement contract) Inmarsat is going after Globalstar, with new North American ISatPhone Pro regional voice plans which will start on May 1, and match Globalstar’s recently announced Orbit and Galaxy plans (though without Globalstar’s “double time minutes” promotional offer). Inmarsat is once again offering a huge bounty to service providers for these new signups, equivalent to multiple months of service revenue.
All of these developments suggest that Inmarsat is determined to seek topline growth in its L-band business and is no longer reluctant (as in the past) to explicitly target its competitors with selective pricing, even though this runs counter to Inmarsat’s recent tendency to increase list prices. Of course, it is less clear whether the new deals will be profitable for Inmarsat, given the incentives needed to achieve these sales.
But with Inmarsat’s investors focused intently on whether the wholesale L-band Inmarsat Global business has returned to growth, and apparently willing to overlook the recent significant contraction in margins within Inmarsat’s Solutions business unit (blamed on a transfer of margin from retail to wholesale operations), that might not matter for now. However, if Inmarsat wants to make more acquisitions (and it is hard to see in the long term who else might end up operating LightSquared’s satellites), then regulators might wonder whether industry consolidation could give Inmarsat even more market power.
No I’m not talking about Intelsat’s current IPO! Although some might raise questions about the company’s debt levels, its also pretty clear that Intelsat’s mobility strategy and its high throughput Epic satellites are the envy of its FSS competitors. What I’m actually referring to is Row44, which went public at the end of January through a merger with Global Eagle, which had raised $190M in a blank check IPO. The end of year results from Row44 and Global Eagle have gone completed unreported, but were filed with the SEC last month, and highlighted just what a disastrous business Row44 really is.
In particular, as installations of the Southwest fleet neared completion, Row44′s revenues in Q4 dropped by 27% compared to Q3 (from $20.1M to $14.8M). Moreover, Row44 only generated total Internet connectivity revenues of $11.4M in 2012 while spending $19.6M on buying bandwidth from Hughes, and produced no revenues from its much ballyhooed content and portal services (despite spending $1.9M on video licensing fees).
In 2013, Row44′s satellite connectivity commitment to Hughes will go up to a minimum of $28M (and more likely well over $30M, because of additional commitments made in early 2013 to add coverage in Russia, and additional trans-Pacific coverage planned later this year). Row44 has also changed its deal with Southwest, so it now only receives fees for passengers using connectivity (between $5 and $6 per user, while Southwest charges $8 for the service), rather than Southwest paying for every boarded passenger under the original agreement, and as part of the new contract, Row44 is adding more capacity, apparently to counter passenger complaints about “slow or restricted services”.
At an investor conference on March 13, Global Eagle’s CFO suggested that paid take rates for other providers “range from high single digits to high teens” and that inferences could be drawn from that for Row44′s take rates on Southwest. Of course that is completely untrue: take rates for Gogo are around 5%, and Global Eagle itself said back in November that the targeted take rate on Southwest was 6.5% in 2014, so its hardly likely that the take rate is higher than that today. I therefore have to wonder if Global Eagle’s CFO actually understands this business at all.
Indeed, the company seems to have a hard time predicting the outlook for its business even in the very short term: this March 13 presentation indicated that the 2012 adjusted EBITDA from Row44 and AIA respectively was -$26M and +$18M respectively, whereas on November 27, 2012, with just one month left in the year, Global Eagle forecast that the full year adjusted EBITDA results for Row44 and AIA would be -$25M and +$22.3M respectively.
If we look forward to 2013, then it seems certain that Row44′s revenues will decline sharply, because of the slowdown in equipment installations (from $61M of equipment revenues in 2012 to ~$35M in 2013, and potentially to only $20M in 2014, based on Row44′s current business plan). More importantly, the company is set to make another significant loss on provision of connectivity services: I estimate $20M-$25M in revenues, depending on the take rates that Southwest achieves, compared to connectivity costs of well over $30M and more likely close to $40M (just in payments to Hughes, ignoring Row44′s own operational costs). In addition, content revenue is still minimal (Global Eagle described the product as “brand new” in mid March), with a very limited selection available, and by my estimate content and portal revenues will be no more than ~$5M this year.
In the longer term, Row44′s new deal with Southwest has locked the airline into a deeply unfavorable competitive position vis-a-vis JetBlue, who intend to offer Internet access for free. Southwest can’t possibly do the same, if they have to pay Row44 at least $5 for every passenger who uses the service, despite the two airlines competing very actively on other passenger amenities (like free checked bags). Moreover, if Row44 is ever to break even, it may have to cut back on the amount of capacity it buys from Hughes (rather than boosting capacity as Southwest currently plans), making Southwest’s Internet service even less attractive compared to JetBlue, which uses much cheaper Ka-band capacity.
In recent days, we’ve seen yet another report predicting rapid growth for in-flight connectivity deployment and revenues. However, none of these reports have got to grips with the issue of what services can be profitable for providers but still affordable for the airlines. Of course, if there’s one lesson to be learned from the Connexion-by-Boeing debacle, its that you can’t just assume companies will be able to continue providing service at an enormous loss indefinitely. After scraping through 2012, raising money at effective interest rates of up to 421%, Row44 has escaped for the time being by capturing Global Eagle’s cash balance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its management’s apparently tenuous connection to reality, Global Eagle now intends to “use its balance sheet” to pursue consolidation of the in-flight connectivity business, which might provide some relief from Row44′s current unsustainable business model, but on the other hand may simply drag down other companies in the sector.
We’ll be publishing our own detailed report on the in-flight connectivity business next month, which takes a very different approach to the analyses we’ve seen so far: instead of simply projecting how many planes might be fitted out with each technology, we’ll look at both the revenue and cost base of the various IFC providers, and discuss which of them may be able to find a sustainable long term business model.
As Inmarsat approaches its end of year results presentation, scheduled for March 7, the company’s stock price has been surging in the expectation of continued strong progress in the maritime market, which is likely to lead to full year wholesale MSS revenue growth for 2012 (excluding LightSquared payments) somewhat above Inmarsat’s 0%-2% target. This has been driven primarily by Inmarsat’s 2012 price rises, which have been so successful that Inmarsat announced further price rises of around 10% for E&E services last month.
I estimate that these new price rises could boost wholesale maritime revenues by a further $10M (roughly 3%) in 2013, on top of the pull-through from the mid year price rises in 2012, and as a result, it is plausible to imagine that Inmarsat’s wholesale MSS maritime revenues might rise by as much as 10% in 2013. Thus, unless there are severe cutbacks in government usage this year, overall revenue growth for 2013 may again come in quite a bit above the 0%-2% target. Our updated profile of Inmarsat provides full details of our forecasts by product, and will be released shortly.
That revenue upside perhaps explains why Inmarsat has become notably more aggressive in recent weeks, for example telling its sales team that commission will no longer be paid for selling Iridium products and services (historically Stratos has sold over $10M of Iridium equipment each year). In addition, the IS-27 launch failure appears to have given Inmarsat more confidence that potential partners will need GX for maritime and aeronautical services, rather than continuing to rely on Ku-band services in what may now become a capacity-constrained North Atlantic Ocean Region over the next couple of years.
One intriguing issue to watch in terms of Inmarsat’s relationships with its distributors is the ongoing dispute in Russia, where I’m told Morsviazsputnik has refused to pay for Inmarsat capacity for a substantial period of time (note that Inmarsat’s trade receivables have been increasing by about $10M per quarter during 2012, excluding LightSquared payments), unless all Inmarsat-equipped vessels going into Russian waters use a Russian SIM. This dispute has apparently extended to the Russians modifying their call routing gateway (which sends all traffic within 200 miles of Russian territory to an intercept point in Russia) to give them the ability to cut off the communications on foreign vessels. I’m told that in response Inmarsat has considered terminating the routing of traffic to the Russian intercept point, which would of course escalate the dispute even further and make it even more difficult to recover the withheld revenues.
Beyond this year, Inmarsat is guiding that its 8%-12% revenue growth in 2014-16 will be backend loaded, and so growth in 2014 will not need to increase sharply (which would be difficult prior to achieving global GX coverage). Indeed, a combination of continued price rises on L-band services and a release of some of the cash previously received from LightSquared (and never spent on installing filters) could help to meet expectations in the next few years, even if GX does not live up to Inmarsat’s projected $500M in wholesale revenue by 2019.
With respect to GX, I have been cautious about the $500M target because I have always assumed that maritime would account for the largest share of the GX business and it is very hard to see how Inmarsat could hope to generate $200M-$300M of wholesale maritime GX revenues by 2019, when Inmarsat itself estimates that only $145M was spent on maritime FSS space segment capacity in 2010.
However, I understand that Inmarsat is now suggesting that the GX government business will generate more revenue than the maritime market. Of course that is much harder to prove or disprove, especially as Inmarsat gave very little insight in the October 2012 investor day into whether the government business is expected to rely mainly on the dedicated HCO beams in military Ka-band frequencies or on the standard wide area coverage beams which only use civil Ka-band frequencies.
An additional GX question that may soon be answered is the potential for a fourth backup satellite to be ordered. Inmarsat certainly has ample justification for placing a near term order, given its reliance on Proton launchers for all three GX satellites, and the run of problems that Russian rockets have had in recent months. Although Inmarsat would presumably portray an order as a sign of increased confidence in the market for GX, this would also add up to $200M of additional capex to the $1.2B GX program, even if no commitment was made to a fourth satellite launch at this stage.
Given Inmarsat’s more assertive stance in the market, it will now be particularly interesting to see whether Inmarsat can persuade distributors to share its positive view of the overall GX opportunity, and make revenue commitments similar to the $500M that Intelsat has achieved from Caprock, MTN and Panasonic for its EPIC system. Time will tell, but at least so far, my assertion last October that we had reached a turning point in MSS history has come only partly true: while it certainly appears that the next few years will bring regular price rises, an improvement in Inmarsat’s relationships with its distributors still seems like a distant prospect.
The latest Global Eagle investor presentation, which was filed with the SEC on November 27, makes for some pretty entertaining reading, much like the script for one of those Hollywood disaster movies that Row 44′s new owners may be fond of. Of course it requires some pretty convoluted logic to argue that Row 44, which is selling equipment at cost and losing money on every megabyte of data carried across its network, is worth $250M.
That’s especially true when the company fully intends to continue to sell equipment at cost and intends connectivity to be a “lower margin” service. In addition, despite a new contract with Southwest, which is expected to lead to a near 50% increase in connectivity revenue per passenger by 2014, the connectivity service is projected to produce less than $5M of gross margin (not EBITDA) that year. Instead, Row 44 and Global Eagle “believe the next frontier for growth will be providing quality entertainment, vast entertainment, first through the airlines into a projected multi-billion-dollar marketplace in the air” and so are projecting that Row 44 will make $49M of gross margin in 2014 from “TV/IPTV/VOD” and portal services.
What’s wrong with this picture? At its simplest, Row 44 is projecting that the take rate for connectivity on Southwest will grow to 6.5% (not outrageous, but perhaps ambitious given recent trends for Gogo and the predominantly leisure orientation of Southwest’s customer base) and the take rate for the “TV/IPTV/VOD” service will be 5.75% in 2014. Recall that passengers are paying $5 for internet connectivity on Southwest, which is the same as Row44′s assumed $5 per passenger fee for TV/IPTV/VOD. That’s all well and good if this was seatback IFE, available (and very visible) to all passengers with attractive early window content (very few people pay for live TV onboard planes in the US today), but remember that the only way to get access to the “TV/IPTV/VOD” service is through an Internet-enabled portable device.
Why on earth would almost as many passengers decide to pay (the same amount) for access to just the walled garden “TV/IPTV/VOD” service as pay for access to the rest of the Internet (where they might expect to have access to any content they choose – unless Row 44 decides to cripple the Internet service, which of course will lead to its own problems)? Will Row 44 have some incredibly compelling early-window content? Well studio executives apparently “Lol’d” when asked about whether they would allow early window content to be streamed over wireless IFE networks. And remember that while you might happily access email and social media on your iPhone, its far more difficult to watch long form video on a phone for an hour or two, so in reality even less devices may be suitable for watching the content services than for accessing the Internet.
Row 44 also intends to generate $19M ($0.15 per passenger carried) from its portal business by 2014, even though it has “only nominal revenue from the portal business today”. As another point of comparison, Row44 expects to make more than half of its passenger revenue from the video and portal services by 2014, when today Gogo only generates 2% of its Commercial Aviation revenue from “Gogo Vision, Gogo Signature Services and other service revenue” (i.e. video and portal services combined, plus other services such as VOIP for flight crews).
Fundamentally, I simply can’t understand why on earth Global Eagle think that this business is a good investment (though lack of understanding might be one reason). The history of inflight connectivity is littered with failures, and even Gogo, the market leader, is facing challenges in getting a return on its investment, let alone completing a successful IPO. In every respect, Row 44 is a worse business than Gogo: it has substantial ongoing bandwidth costs, far more expensive equipment, and (in Southwest) probably the least attractive airline in the US from the point of view of demand (few business travelers, short flights and no power outlets). I can only conclude that, as in the picture above, Global Eagle is suffering from the Icarus Syndrome, and flying too close to the sun for its own good.
Apologies for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks – I’ve been buried in writing my latest MSS industry report, which is bigger and better than ever, and includes not only all the latest MSS industry developments such as an analysis of Inmarsat’s investor day, but 30 pages on everything you want to know about the current spectrum issues involving DISH, LightSquared, etc. I’ll be writing blog posts about that plus some of the latest inflight connectivity developments over the next few days, but I’ll start with a little noticed fact that emerged while I was analyzing MSS subscriber growth: surprisingly enough, the various MSS operators use very different definitions for what they count as a subscriber.
Now you might think that a subscriber is simply someone who is paying the operator for service (perhaps indirectly via a distributor) and if the customer is paying for x terminals, then the MSS operator will report that they have x subscribers. That is basically what Iridium do, now that there is a charge each month even for suspended terminals. However, until recently Inmarsat didn’t have a monthly access charge for most terminals, and only got paid for airtime. As a result, Inmarsat has always defined its subscriber count as terminals that have accessed the network in the last 12 months. Now that Inmarsat is charging monthly fees for most services, this leads to anomalies such as in its 2012Q2 results, where Inmarsat noted that:
“At the time of our consolidated financial results for the three months ended 31 March 2012, we announced having reached over 55,000 IsatPhone Pro subscribers. However, in our reported active terminals for land mobile, we included a lower number of approximately 49,800 terminals, the difference being the elimination of subscribers who had not used their IsatPhone Pro terminal in the preceding twelve months…”
Even more significantly the number of Satellite Low Date Rate (M2M) terminals reported by Inmarsat has declined quite noticeably over the last year, but as far as Inmarsat’s distributors like SkyWave are concerned, the number of subscribers is actually going up. However, once you realize that a key application for ISatM2M is stolen vehicle recovery, its pretty obvious that only a small proportion of terminals (i.e. those cars that are actually stolen) will need to access the Inmarsat network each year.
That’s a positive for Inmarsat, because their market share in the SLDR/M2M sector is actually quite a bit higher than many assume. However, Globalstar’s counting methodology goes the other way: SPOT customers are included in the published subscriber count even if their terminal is “suspended” for non-payment, because those terminals still have access to the network and Globalstar is attempting to collect payment for the service (although of course no revenue is actually being recognized for those subscribers unless and until collection occurs). The number of suspended SPOT subscribers has increased consistently since this statistic was first reported in early 2010, and by 2012Q3 amounted to 29% of SPOT subscribers. I’ve generally been pretty optimistic about the long term potential of the personal tracking market, but worringly, in the third quarter of this year the number of paying (i.e. non-suspended) SPOT subscribers actually fell from the previous quarter for the first time ever.
The history of the MSS industry, like most other parts of the telecom and technology sectors, has revolved around a theme of “faster, better, cheaper” as technological advances have dramatically improved satellite throughput and enabled significant reductions in the price per minute and per bit of voice and data communications. However, it seems that at least in L-band, we may have reached the limit of economically justifiable technological advances, and the future for the traditional MSS market could now be one of slower development cycles, simpler satellite systems and more expensive services.
Some of those technological dead ends are obvious, like the huge satellite antennas built for LightSquared and TerreStar, which did nothing whatsoever to make their satellite services more viable. However, more importantly, Inmarsat sets the tone for the entire MSS sector and could now make it much clearer that we have reached the end of the historical development pattern for this industry.
We’ve already seen Inmarsat pushing up prices this year, and with its new focus on the Ka-band Global Xpress system, Inmarsat has also indicated that it expects to delay capital expenditures on a next generation L-band (I6) satellite system and that the system itself will be cheaper and simpler than the I4 satellites. After feeling a backlash from distributors and customers, Inmarsat has been at pains to suggest that this year’s price rises represented a one-off adjustment, rather than the start of regular yearly price rises. Nevertheless, Inmarsat has seen little if any impact in terms of maritime customer losses because Inmarsat holds such a dominant position in the market and Inmarsat’s 2012 wholesale revenues are likely to be boosted by at least 2%-3% as a result of the price rises.
Looking forward, the outlook in most parts of the MSS market is fairly depressed, with M2M services providing the main source of growth, and overall wholesale L-band revenues are only likely to grow by perhaps 4% p.a. in the next few years. Although we’ll find our more specifics on Tuesday about Inmarsat’s expectations for Global Xpress, it also remains hard to see how GX will meet the original target of $500M in incremental wholesale revenues within 5 years, suggesting that Inmarsat’s move to Ka-band will not move the needle on overall MSS market growth very far. Reasons for this include the apparent lack of military Ka-band frequencies (which were supposed to be secured by Boeing and would be needed to allow GX to operate as a seamless supplement to WGS), the fact that XpressLink customers are being given the option but not the obligation to upgrade to GX when it is launched and, most importantly, the threat posed by Intelsat’s new Epic satellites, which have secured some key anchor customers (Panasonic, MTN and Harris Caprock) and caused many distributors and end customers to reconsider the “inevitability” of a move to Ka-band.
As a result, it seems there is now a fairly clear case for Inmarsat (as the price leader in the MSS sector) to push through regular annual price rises on the 50% or so of its wholesale L-band revenue base that is least likely to move to alternative solutions and has the lowest price elasticity. This would mean price rises for low and mid range maritime customers plus many land customers, while leaving aeronautical and high end maritime customers (who are more at risk from VSAT competition) largely untouched. Today there is an essentially flat outlook for L-band revenues, as modest growth in M2M and handheld is being offset by the migration of high end maritime and aeronautical customers to XpressLink (and other VSAT solutions), together with reductions in defense spending/event revenues. However, a price rise of 5%-10% p.a. would potentially allow Inmarsat to grow its L-band business at 2%-4% p.a. for the next several years.
Other MSS operators would also benefit through (modest) gains in market share and more pricing freedom, and the overall MSS sector could perhaps then return to something closer to the 7% p.a. revenue growth rate seen before the downturn of the last couple of years. Even distributors, who have seen their margins pressured over the last decade, would appreciate some ability to increase their overall revenues (given that demand elasticity is quite low), if margins can be sustained or even increased.
However, in order to execute such a change in strategy, Inmarsat would also need to repair its relationship with independent distributors, which has taken a significant knock from Inmarsat’s acquisitions of Segovia and Ship Equip and its decision not to pass on some wholesale price increases through its own direct distribution channels. There have also been several instances where Inmarsat has made its own bids for key contracts which massively undercut the bids from the incumbent independent distributors providing the same services. Indeed it often appears that Inmarsat has the explicit intention of driving its leading independent distributor, Vizada (now owned by Astrium Services) into the arms of other satellite operators such as Intelsat and Iridium. It seems to me that only with the cooperation of independent distributors can Inmarsat present a united front to end customers, and explain that price rises are necessary for a healthy market, as opposed to having their assertions undermined not only by (the expected) sniping from competitors, but by distributor dissatisfaction (and potential defections due to increased margin pressures) as well.
Is Inmarsat willing to change this dynamic and restrain its direct distribution arm, or will it resort to a “bunker mentality” and either miss the chance to boost revenues or push further price rises onto its independent distributors, amidst a rising tide of opposition? Time will tell, but its perhaps worth remembering that the full title of the book was “The End of History and the Last Man”, the last man being someone who “is tired of life, takes no risks, and seeks only comfort and security“.
It seems that most if not all commentators have ignored Gogo’s Aug 14 S-1 amendment containing the company’s results for the first half of 2012, instead picking up on Gogo’s Aug 28 press release that Gogo has been approved to operate in Canada (which in fact according to Gogo’s SEC filing was actually approved back in mid July).
That’s a shame because the six month results are pretty fascinating: they show that in Q2 of 2012 Gogo’s take rate and (more significantly) the average revenue per passenger carried both fell compared to Q1. If the revenue per passenger carried does not grow after the price increases Gogo implemented during the second quarter of 2012, then this raises the question of whether we may already be close to the point at which Gogo’s average revenue per plane cannot be increased much further. In addition, Gogo’s average revenue per session fell from the previous year, despite the price rises. Gogo’s filing attributed the decline in revenue per session to more (lower revenue) sponsored sessions compared to the same period in 2011. However, this simply highlights that a major contributor to Gogo’s (rather modest) increase in take rates over the last year has been the growing use of sponsorships, which are counted as part of the “take rate” even when passengers do not pay anything to use the service.
The chart above shows how Gogo’s take rate has developed by quarter since its launch, and how much it has been driven by promotional activity, with take rates at an all time high during the Google promotion in Q4 2010, and falling quite sharply when there was very little promotional activity in Q2 2011. Q1 2012 saw another boost to take rates, again coinciding with high levels of sponsorship revenues.
Though there is clearly some underlying growth in the take rate, during the remainder of 2012 this is likely to be diluted by the increasing number of Gogo installations on regional jets (where usage is much lower than on longer flights) and the (more marginal?) deterrent effect of recent price increases. As a result, I now expect that barring some large scale sponsorship, Gogo take rates for 2012 as a whole are unlikely to exceed 6%, and if we only count paid usage by passengers, then the true take rate may remain below 5%.
That’s pretty scary given the $1B valuation supposedly being mooted for Gogo’s IPO and the $200M valuation put on Row44 in its recent fundraising transactions. Its also interesting that Gogo’s bankers insisted that their recent $135M loan should be secured against Gogo’s profitable Business Aviation subsidiary, with cashflows from that operation potentially devoted to pre-payments on the loan, so that their loan recovery would not depend solely on the success or otherwise of Gogo’s commercial aviation business.
Its been a little hard to make sense of some of the data emerging from Inmarsat recently. For example, a recent factsheet from OnAir indicates that the first Global Xpress launch will be in October 2013, followed by subsequent launches in April and November 2014. Perhaps OnAir is confusing the launch date and the availability of the satellite for commercial service, but if these are indeed the launch dates, then they are later than the timeline that Inmarsat’s partners were given back in January this year of a first launch in June 2013 followed by subsequent launches in Q1 and Q3 of 2014 (and they don’t correspond to the “availability” dates given then either), even though Inmarsat stated on the Q1 results call in May that GX was “on schedule and on budget”.
We’ve also seen Inmarsat defending its price rises in a briefing paper to the International Chamber of Shipping by stating that their Standard Plan for FleetBB only costs $130 for the subscription charge, or $13/Mbyte for the bundled data. However, Stratos’s website indicates that the subscription fee for the Standard Plan was increasing to $208 per month from May 1, and Inmarsat has indicated separately that the wholesale price alone was being increased by $3 per day or $90 per month (to what I estimate is something very close to $130). So is Inmarsat assuming that distributors will now sell at zero margin, or is it simply quoting a wholesale price when a retail price would be more relevant?
Hopefully we’ll hear a explanation of these apparent inconsistencies on Inmarsat’s upcoming results call, or at least at Inmarsat’s investor day in October. But (mixing my literary references) as Inmarsat continues to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, amid predictions of its imminent “downfall”, it might be worth taking a lesson from William Tell’s son, and standing still!
That pretty much sums up the situation with inflight cellphone calls in the rest of the world, after OnAir’s CEO indicated that only 10% of OnAir’s inflight GSM traffic is now coming from voice calls. Just how disastrous a statistic that is can be discerned from the fact that Inmarsat’s total wholesale aero passenger connectivity revenue is only around $2M per year, from 160 planes equipped with cellular connectivity, or around $12K per plane per year (in fact the number might even be lower if Inmarsat is including the far larger number of long haul planes equipped with traditional seatback phones in its $2M total).
Grossing up to retail revenues, that means passengers are spending perhaps $30K to $40K per plane per year on cellular services, and so if only 10% of OnAir’s “traffic” (which I assume is measured in revenue terms) is derived from voice calls, then that is about $10 per plane per day in voice usage. Put another way, I estimate that on average there may be as few as 2 voice calls per plane per day!
For (a truly scary) comparison, take a look at OnAir’s estimates back in 2007, that Ryanair passengers would spend EUR300K per plane per year on voice calling, or 100 times more than the current level of usage.
Of course that shouldn’t really be a surprise, because the original providers of inflight phones in the US (Verizon Airfone and Claircom) both went out of business and Inmarsat’s revenues from seatback phones were about 2% of their original projection in the early 1990s. More recently, Ryanair also stopped providing inflight cellular services. Obviously the lack of privacy and the level of background noise make it pretty hard to conduct business on a cellphone call inflight, while the cost has generally been prohibitive for leisure users, and neither of those factors has changed in any meaningful way with the introduction of cellphone instead of seatback connectivity. As a result, its no wonder that business travelers much prefer email and SMS to voice calls, and some airlines have even decided to ban voice calling themselves, despite it being legal outside the US.
It therefore seems pretty ironic that we’ve had letterwriting campaigns to the FAA and FCC, a ban proposed in Congress and even a lobbying group set up by OnAir and AeroMobile, trying to argue that voice calls on planes are a bad or a good thing (depending on your point of view), when the reality is that almost no-one actually wants to do it anyway. However, just as with the title of this article, once people become convinced that there is no middle ground to the debate, logic tends to fly out of the window. In those circumstances, its no wonder that members of Congress are eager to get involved.
UPDATE (9/5): The FAA’s own consultation document on legalizing cellphone use onboard aircraft has now been published and gives some interesting specifics on the usage levels seen in other countries. In particular, the Brazilian regulator indicated that TAM was only seeing about 0.3 voice calls per flight leg, and the consensus of most respondent countries was “that there was relatively low use of cell phone voice communication on airplanes”.
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