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?