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 my view the announcement of a partnership between Orbcomm and Inmarsat on Monday evening may represent a sea change for the MSS industry, as Orbcomm showed how its planned “multi-network operator strategy” could eventually lead to it getting out of the business of operating its own satellite fleet, allowing Orbcomm to be what it wants to be: a solutions provider rather than a satellite operator.
In the short term the deal means that Orbcomm will invest in developing a new low cost Inmarsat ISatDataPro (IDP) module, costing around $100 (i.e. aiming to be less expensive than Iridium’s SBD module) which OEMs and VARs can choose to drop into their terminals as a direct alternative to Orbcomm’s own OG2 module, using a common management interface provisioned by Orbcomm.
The choice of module will be up to the OEM, and will depend on their data needs (IDP has higher capacity and less latency, because there will sometimes be several minute gaps in coverage between the 17 OG2 satellites), the geographies they will serve (Inmarsat will provide access to Russia and China) and the price they are willing to pay (IDP service will be more expensive than the current Orbcomm $5-$6 OEM ARPUs). Note that this is somewhat different than Orbcomm’s arrangement with Globalstar, under which Orbcomm’s Solutions business offers a Globalstar tag to retail customers (and existing Comtech VARs), but Globalstar will not be a direct alternative for Orbcomm’s OEM customers (who buy from Orbcomm’s Devices and Products business).
In the longer term it seems to me that (although this is not part of the current agreement with Inmarsat) Orbcomm will very likely not build a third generation of LEO VHF satellites, as the nature of their network (where the LEO satellites search actively for channels that are free of interference as they orbit the Earth) would be very difficult to consolidate onto an Inmarsat GEO platform. Because Orbcomm will have access to Inmarsat capacity on an I6 constellation which will last into the 2030s, eventually (in a decade or more) Orbcomm could instead migrate its customer base onto Inmarsat’s L-band services, so that it will not have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on another round of fleet replenishment. In fact, if Orbcomm has any substantial launch problems with OG2 (remember that the satellites from its last two launches have been lost) it might not even make sense to reinvest the insurance proceeds in replacement satellites and conceivably such a migration could take place more quickly.
The significance of this announcement is that it appears to represent the first step towards a reduction in the amount of capex being invested in the rather slow growing MSS market. The next question will be whether, when Inmarsat orders its I6 L-band satellites (likely in late 2014 or early 2015), it opts for a copy (or even a simpler version) of the I4 constellation, and thus whether, as I suggested last year, we really have now reached the “end of history” in the MSS L-band industry. After all, with the sale of the Stratos energy business to RigNet (and a likely disposal of Segovia), Inmarsat is now backing away from its strategy of going direct, and is continuing to focus on maritime price rises to boost revenues, in accordance with the other part of my “end of history” thesis.
I won’t belabor the errors of physics in the movie, instead just noting that even though you might think that in space things can keep going in a straight line indefinitely, they are still subject to gravity and you can’t get to a higher orbit without some form of propulsion.
We’ve now seen confirmation from Iridium of what I pointed out last week, that Q3 was very bad for the MSS industry. Iridium missed its expectations for equipment revenues (i.e. handset sales) and subscriber growth (i.e. M2M net adds), although at least the government contract renewal is more favorable than expected – the unlimited nature of the contract removes the incentive for the DoD to scrub its user base to remove unused handsets, which has been a headwind for Iridium in the last couple of years.
Its far from clear that anyone else is doing better: it looks like Iridium’s competitors also saw pretty poor handset sales in Q3 and the SPOT 3 has been very slow to arrive in stores as well. Moreover, the government business is dire – Intelsat’s profit warning (which included its off-net business reselling MSS) is a bad sign for Inmarsat, as are the large scale layoffs in Astrium’s government business last week.
Inmarsat has now followed up its promise not to raise FleetBB prices in 2014 with an enormous 48% rise in maritime E&E prices from January, in an attempt to sustain maritime revenue growth next year. While the stated intention is to persuade the remaining pay as you go customers to move off the E&E network and choose FleetBB instead, the vast majority of higher spending B and Fleet customers have already migrated and many of the remaining users are mini-M voice-only users or really want the PAYG service because they are only occasional users, so FleetBB is not necessarily the ideal option.
Inmarsat is clearly calculating that these customers won’t want to risk moving to Iridium after the OpenPort problems earlier this year and has stepped up its efforts to portray Iridium’s network as “failing”. Despite all this, no-one believes that Inmarsat could possibly achieve its 8%-12% revenue growth target for 2014 and I expect this to be “softened” in the near future as well. Inmarsat is also likely to emphasize its opportunities for internal cost savings next year and move to dispose of some retail business units like Segovia.
Its interesting to speculate about implications for the wider satellite industry as well. Last time around (in 1999-2003), problems in the MSS industry were a harbinger of a downturn in the FSS industry a couple of years later. That came in the wake of a peak in satellite orders in the 1999-2001 timeframe and after the launch of these satellites, which resulted in a sharp decline in prices, the FSS industry took a big hit. We’ve seen a similar peak in orders in recent years (2009-10), and while the major operators are much more likely to retain pricing discipline (in a far more consolidated industry than a decade ago), the advent of High Throughput Satellites, especially those owned by smaller players like Avanti (who might become the most desperate for contracts), could pressure prices in certain market segments and geographies.
Just as an example, in recent years, underlying transponder demand has grown at roughly 4% p.a., but revenues have been boosted by around 2% p.a. by price rises. Even if demand growth continues (not a foregone conclusion in some sectors like government where WGS is an alternative), a reversal of the pricing trend would certainly make a big difference to the FSS revenue outlook. As I said at the beginning of this post, gravity clearly exerts a force, even in space.
Incredible…it’s even worse than I thought
That’s been the reaction to my 57 page Globalstar profile, released on Friday (you can see the contents list here and get an order form here), because of the history of challenges that the MSS industry has faced in the past and more particularly the difficulties that the industry is seeing this year.
After discussions with a number of people in the industry over the last few weeks, it looks like Q3 has been pretty disastrous for MSS sales across the board, with none of the usual surge in demand expected in the summer months, as customers stock up to prepare for outdoor adventures or potential hurricanes. Part of that relates to slow government orders, as a result of the sequester (predating the current shutdown), but commercial demand has also been poor, and that’s much harder to explain.
In the handheld segment, one suggestion is that Hurricane Sandy proved that terrestrial cellphone networks are now considerably more reliable during disasters (and far more data capable than MSS phones), so companies are no longer giving as high a priority to MSS equipment in their disaster planning. In the M2M segment, a fairly convincing explanation is that service providers who formerly specialized in MSS are now focusing more and more on selling cellular-based solutions to customers who find they don’t need MSS as a backup.
As a result, I’m now convinced that subscriber growth (and equipment sales) will fall short of expectations this year, particularly in the handheld and M2M segments, for almost all of the major MSS players, with knock-on effects for subscriber revenues in Q4 and more particularly next year. The defense business also looks poor (as shown by Intelsat’s recent profit warning): the word on the street is that Inmarsat may dispose of its Segovia government FSS business, as revenues in Inmarsat’s US Government business unit fell by 11% year-on-year in the first half of 2013 and appear to have eroded further in recent months, particularly in Segovia’s VSAT business. The sale price would be a fraction of what Inmarsat paid for Segovia, but in exchange Inmarsat would hope to secure a GX airtime contract, similar to its RigNet deal in the energy sector.
In the case of Globalstar, the implications of the MSS downturn are that while Globalstar should be able to meet the new bank case revenue forecasts, it won’t be easy to beat them. However, unlike some other players, Globalstar is fortunate in having the potential upside from monetizing its spectrum, if it can complete a deal with Amazon or another company. The report looks at spectrum valuation for both LTE and TLPS and concludes that there could be substantial value for Globalstar, although realizing this will require both rapid approval from the FCC and for a deal to be struck fairly quickly, before new spectrum bands such as 3550-3650MHz develop an alternative ecosystem at what will likely be much lower prices. If you are interested in getting a copy, please contact me for more details.
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.
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.
As I remarked in an interview for the Satellite 2012 downlink newsletter yesterday, 2011 has seen a dramatic deceleration in MSS revenue growth, with wholesale service revenues now expected to grow by less than 3% in 2011, compared to the 7%-8% growth seen in each of 2008, 2009 and 2010. Yesterday we also released our latest industry report which gives ten year forecasts for MSS industry growth. In the L-band market (including Inmarsat L-band, LightSquared, Thuraya, Iridium, Globalstar and Orbcomm) we project cumulative revenue growth from 2010 to 2020 of only 4% p.a. and even when Global Xpress is added to Inmarsat’s revenues in the latter part of the decade, the overall cumulative growth rate is only increased to around 6% p.a.
This represents a striking contrast with widely quoted forecasts from Euroconsult and NSR, that the MSS market (excluding GX) will grow at 7% p.a. over the decade (Euroconsult) or 10% p.a. from 2010-15 (NSR). These optimistic forecasts seem to have achieved wide currency with analysts and bankers, who have argued (for example at the Satcon conference in October) that the MSS industry is more attractive than the FSS industry because of its much faster growth profile. One example that stands out is a JP Morgan analyst report on Inmarsat, published last Thursday, which gives an upbeat assessment of Inmarsat’s prospects and projects a target price of 800p per share (roughly double the current level). Not only does JPM expect LightSquared’s spectrum lease payments to be continued indefinitely after they file for bankruptcy (which is ludicrously unrealistic once you understand that LightSquared’s political backing has evaporated and even the FCC has basically given up on them, but may reflect the fact that JPM co-led (with UBS) the sale of LightSquared’s first lien debt earlier this year), but they expect Inmarsat’s core L-band business to resume growth at 2.5% p.a. from 2012 and Global Xpress to achieve Inmarsat’s target of $500M in annual revenues after 5 years.
Where do we differ with Euroconsult and NSR? It appears the primary source of the discrepancy is in our expectations for the maritime and aeronautical L-band markets. According to the JPM report, NSR is projecting 11% p.a. and 13% p.a. growth respectively for the maritime and aeronautical segments between 2010 and 2015. We are told that Euroconsult also takes a relatively optimistic view of the outlook for the maritime and aeronautical L-band markets. However, our expectations are that wholesale maritime and aeronautical L-band service revenues will actually decline between 2010 and 2020, as customers move to Global Xpress and other VSAT solutions. As a result, future L-band growth will have to come from land-based services, particularly low speed data and (to a much lesser extent) handheld satellite phones. That’s relatively good news for Iridium and Globalstar (as well as Orbcomm, if they can continue to gain momentum), but its still unclear whether ~8% p.a. growth in land MSS revenues will be sufficient for all of these companies to thrive in the face of what will inevitably be an ever-increasing focus by Inmarsat on this part of the MSS market.
If you are interested in our latest report, which also includes a detailed analysis of Inmarsat’s maritime market outlook and forecasts for in-flight passenger communications services, as well as discussion of the current prospects for terrestrial use of MSS spectrum, please contact us for more details about our MSS information service.
Inmarsat revealed in its 2009Q3 results that it is in negotiations to acquire a satellite services provider that generated more than $50 million in revenue in 2008, is currently profitable and will have no material indebtedness at closing, in a purchase that would cost less than $150M. There are very few companies in the MSS space that fit the profile given by Inmarsat, but one that does is SkyBitz, which Inmarsat noted in its June 2009 investor day presentation was one of the “key competitors” in the satellite Low Data Rate (LDR) market. Inmarsat also noted that one of its objectives in investing in SkyWave was to “stimulate consolidation in the [satellite LDR] market”.
Indeed, back in July we speculated that a possible resolution to the fight between Inmarsat and SkyBitz over what SkyBitz characterized as “restrictive trade covenants included by Inmarsat” in its SkyWave investment would be for Inmarsat to facilitate a buyout of SkyBitz. An Inmarsat acquisition of SkyBitz would have the added benefit (for Inmarsat) of taking out another of SkyTerra’s key LDR customers, in addition to the 50K GlobalWave customers who were moved from SkyTerra’s satellites to Inmarsat’s I4 satellite network in October 2009.
***We’ve now been reliably informed that Inmarsat’s current acquisition target isn’t SkyBitz. We understand it is most likely a system integrator focused on government business. We don’t have a name at this point, but one company in this area that would fit the disclosed parameters is Segovia. There are likely several other similar possibilities as well.***
We’ve lamented previously that no-one ever seems to leave the MSS industry, but if Inmarsat does eventually follow through on its stated ambitions to stimulate consolidation in the LDR market, then perhaps that sector could be one place where much needed MSS industry consolidation finally begins.
In that context, with Orbcomm having yet another disappointing quarter, we wonder if now is the time for a competitor to make a bid for Orbcomm. After all, the company expects to settle the $50M insurance claim for the failure of all of its QuickLaunch satellites “imminently”, at which point Orbcomm will not have spent too much on its second generation constellation and will still have a reasonable amount of cash on its balance sheet. That might be particularly attractive to Globalstar or Iridium, either of which would benefit greatly from moving Orbcomm’s subscribers over to their own networks (albeit with significant costs for terminal upgrades), and could allay investor concerns about whether Orbcomm can fund the rest of its second generation satellite constellation (which would be exacerbated if the company fails to receive something close to $50M from its insurance claim in the near future). With its partners postponing some new service offerings until messaging delays are resolved, Orbcomm will need these new satellites sooner rather than later if it to build a sustainable business and generate the rapid growth that has been promised ever since the company’s IPO in 2006, but to date has failed to materialize.
In April 2009, Inmarsat announced that it would be taking a 19% stake in SkyWave, facilitating SkyWave’s acquisition of Transcore’s satellite communications assets. However, SkyBitz, Wireless Matrix, XATA and Comtech Mobile Datacom [the Commenters] jointly objected to SkyWave’s FCC application for the transfer of these assets, citing “numerous and substantial negative impacts on MSS Providers and other end-users using L-band capacity”. Although the submission is heavily redacted, it appears that one of their primary concerns relates to the “restrictive trade covenants included by Inmarsat” in the Transaction and they demand an explanation of how Inmarsat “will ensure non-discriminatory treatment of all MSS Providers and other end-users with respect to capacity, availability and contractual terms and conditions”. The Commenters “believe in fact that the Transaction will (i) actually eliminate competition for end-users (as a result of the Covenant), (ii) delay deployment of advanced satellite services to end-users other than SkyWave’s customers, (iii) result in higher pricing to end-users at the expense of higher margins for SkyWave and Inmarsat, and (iv) ultimately reduce the affordability of MSS services for end-users.”
While it remains unclear exactly what is contained in the “Covenant” referred to in these comments, Inmarsat noted at its recent investor conference that one of its motivations for investing in SkyWave was to promote consolidation in the Low Data Rate (LDR) industry, and that more than half of the investment comes in the form of future airtime credits. The Transaction also “provides for a fully funded development programme for new products and services” and will drive “traffic growth on Inmarsat satellite network”, we assume at least partly as a result of SkyWave and Transcore committing to use Inmarsat’s capacity exclusively (Transcore currently uses SkyTerra’s L-band capacity in North America). The airtime credits and development program certainly give SkyWave an advantage over other providers using leased L-band capacity, and this financial and commercial advantage is presumably what would induce the “consolidation” that Inmarsat seeks.
What is particularly interesting is that on June 29, SkyWave withdrew its FCC application to undertake the Transaction and on June 23, Inmarsat (in conjunction with other MSS operators) sought an extension of time until July 14 to respond to the FCC’s consultation proceeding for its Third Annual Report to Congress on Status of Competition in the Provision of Satellite Services in which the only meaningful concern was also expressed by SkyBitz.
With SkyBitz (which currently uses leased SkyTerra capacity) cited by Inmarsat as one of the “key competitors” in the LDR market (and the only plausible one that could switch to Inmarsat capacity, since the other key competitors listed, namely Iridium, Qualcomm and Orbcomm, all use incompatible technologies), it will be very interesting to see what happens over the next few weeks: will Inmarsat restructure (or even abandon) the SkyWave Transaction to eliminate the “restrictive trade covenants” that SkyBitz is concerned about (presumably making it more difficult to promote the consolidation Inmarsat seeks), or will Inmarsat actually facilitate a deal between SkyBitz and SkyWave to fulfill its market consolidation objective and eliminate the most prominent source of objections?