Back in 2010 the FCC came out with its notorious forecast that there would be a 275MHz spectrum deficit by the end of 2014, based on projections of traffic growth, cell site growth and network efficiency. I pointed out at the time that there were problems with their calculations, and in reality it turned out that at the end of 2014 there was a nearly 300MHz spectrum surplus not a deficit.
The primary reason for this error was the flawed estimate of network efficiency, which was predicted only to double from 0.625bps/Hz to 1.25bps/Hz between 2009 and 2014 (note that in practice new cellsites are also placed to meet data traffic demand, but for simplicity I’ve rolled this into overall network efficiency).
In reality, if we plug in the actual growth in reported traffic and cell sites over the period from 2009 to 2014 (as summarized by Brattle in their 2015 CTIA-backed effort to continue the spectrum crisis narrative) the implied network efficiency (i.e. traffic per MHz per cell site) was 525% of the 2009 value by 2014, not 200% as the FCC predicted (i.e. a 425% improvement in efficiency, not the 100% predicted).
The chart above combines this data with Brattle’s predictions of traffic and cellsite growth from 2014-2019 and highlights that once again the prediction is for very modest network efficiency gains over this period, to only 139% of the 2014 figure in 2019, and Brattle use this figure to assert that there will once again be a spectrum deficit of over 300MHz by 2019.
Put another way, Brattle assert that the efficiency gains between 2014 and 2019 (39%) will be less than one tenth of the improvement that occurred between 2009 and 2014 (425%). Of course, in the real world, massive efficiency gains are already flowing from the deployment of MIMO technology, and Gigabit LTE is only just getting started.
Sprint stated in its October 2016 spectrum leaseback transaction that it is already achieving average spectrum efficiency of 1.6-1.95 bps/Hz, well above the Brattle predictions for 2019, and that it expects the average downlink efficiency in its Band 41 spectrum to reach almost 13bps/Hz by 2019 after the introduction of massive MIMO.
Indeed, the only way Sprint was able to justify the high valuation placed on its spectrum (based on a calculation of how much capex Verizon would be able to avoid by purchasing Sprint’s spectrum) was to assume that massive MIMO would not be feasible in paired spectrum bands. In practice massive MIMO is already being addressed in paired spectrum, and will simply be a bit less efficient than in TDLTE implementations. And if even a fraction of the efficiency gains set out by Sprint are applied to the FCC/Brattle model, then it is clear that there will continue to be a large spectrum surplus not a deficit.
So returning to my title, if spectrum is like oil, then MIMO is just as revolutionary for the spectrum market as fracking has been for the oil market. And as we are seeing in the incentive auction, where Verizon declined to participate, and AT&T has said it will be spending less than $2.4B, there are very similar implications for the price of spectrum as we’ve seen for the price of oil.
I’m unashamedly stealing the title of the book which chronicles the Iridium bankruptcy, because not only did John Bloom give a talk at this week’s Satellite 2017 conference, but discussion of new LEO satellite systems dominated the conference itself. The proposed merger of OneWeb and Intelsat is only the most visible sign of this return to the 1990s, when Iridium and Globalstar’s satellite phones and Teledesic’s proposed broadband system fascinated both the satellite industry and the wider investing community.
But below the surface there is an even more radical shift going on, as most leading operators are cutting back on their investments in high throughput GEO satellites for data services, and many of them are focused instead on the potential of LEO and MEO systems. Intelsat has already indicated that it is cutting GEO capex, and the merger with OneWeb will mean most of its future capex will be devoted to LEO, in line with Masa Son’s vision of a huge new opportunity for LEO satellites.
However, SES, whose CEO stayed away from the conference, is also hinting at a reallocation of its priorities towards O3b’s MEO system, probably accompanied by a sizeable reduction in overall capex. Telesat is also focused on developing its Ka-band LEO constellation for next generation data services, leaving only Eutelsat (which has already announced that it will cut capex substantially) amongst the Big 4 focusing solely on GEO.
This is deeply worrying for satellite manufacturers, and even the indication by Boeing that GEO demand will “remain soft” at “between 13 and 17 satellites in 2017″ may prove to be overly optimistic. All satellite manufacturers now need to play in the LEO/MEO world, with Thales constructing O3b and Iridium, and Airbus taking the lead role on OneWeb, with SS/L as a major subcontractor.
That leaves Boeing, which is not part of any announced LEO satellite contract, but has its own proposal for a V-band LEO system, which is under consideration at the FCC, along with several rival filings. While Boeing has suggested in the past that it was open to partnerships to develop this concept, most people in the industry are convinced that it already has funding from a potential customer, given the amount of effort that Boeing is putting into developing V-band service rules at the ITU and FCC. Boeing has also indicated to these people that it does not need export credit funding for the project, which supports the idea that this project is backed by a deep pocketed US entity.
There aren’t many possibilities for such a backer, and of the four large technology companies Boeing mentioned two years ago, Google and Facebook have apparently lost interest in satellites (although Google did invest $900M in SpaceX and Facebook tried with Amos-6), and Amazon is pursuing its own efforts in the launch market through Blue Origin. That only leaves Apple as never having discussed publicly its potential interest in space.
This aligns with the chatter I heard from a number of sources at Satellite 2017 that Boeing’s V-band development work is being funded by Apple, which is clearly trying to find the next big thing and has been exploring cars, TVs and other large market opportunities. Its not hard to discern why Apple might want to consider a satellite constellation, when SpaceX came out with a business plan last year that suggested SpaceX alone could generate $30B in revenue from satellite internet by 2025.
Just as in the car market there’s no guarantee that Apple would take this project forward to full deployment, but with SpaceX, SoftBank and now apparently Apple becoming enthusiastic about non-geostationary satellite systems, in addition to most of the main satellite operators, it seems that a dramatic reshaping of industry priorities is underway.
It remains to be seen whether this enthusiasm will last, or whether, like at the end of the 1990s, the pendulum will eventually swing back towards geostationary orbit. However, over the next few years, until we find out whether the ambitions of these visionaries can be realized, non-GEO satellite systems are likely to be the most important contributor to driving satellite communications technology forward.
Today’s announcement that SoftBank is investing $1.7B in Intelsat as part of a merger between Intelsat and OneWeb is eerily reminiscent of SoftBank’s investment in Sprint and subsequent purchase of Clearwire back in 2012-13. Then the motivation was acquisition of large amounts of 2.5GHz spectrum to be used with innovative small cells to revolutionize the cellular market. Today the motivation is acquisition of large amounts of NGSO spectrum to be used with innovative small satellites to revolutionize the satellite market.
There are certainly many synergies between Intelsat and OneWeb: Intelsat needs a next generation plan beyond Epic, to lower the cost of its capacity, and hamstrung by debt, it could not have afforded to build a new system on its own. OneWeb needs distribution and market access, as well as interim capacity so that it does not have to wait until the LEO system is fully deployed. So this deal makes a lot of sense, if you believe, as Masa clearly does, that new constellations will dramatically boost the future prospects for the satellite industry. On the other hand, if it doesn’t work out, would SoftBank get to the point where it is prepared to sell the assets and not even mention them in its vision of the future?
However, another potential parallel is that back in 2013, SoftBank faced a lengthy challenge from DISH, which mounted a bid for Clearwire and later made an offer for all of Sprint, and ultimately forced Masa to pay far more for Clearwire than he had hoped. Now EchoStar, which had made a $50M investment in OneWeb (then WorldVu) back in 2015, but has been far less prominently involved in OneWeb’s development efforts compared to Qualcomm (with DISH even objecting to OneWeb’s use of the MVDDS spectrum), has apparently seen its mooted partnership with SES put on hold.
Clearly Charlie Ergen needs to find a way forward for EchoStar to compete in the satellite broadband market on a global basis, building on the successful launch (and market lead) of Jupiter-2. Some analysts have been reiterating that this could involve a bid for Inmarsat, as I mentioned last summer, but the time for that has probably passed. So does Ergen use this development to revive the mooted SES deal, because SES will now need to compete more aggressively with Intelsat? Or does he want to be more actively engaged with OneWeb and get a larger slice of that development effort (and potentially use its capacity in the longer term)?
Either way it would not be surprising if DISH or EchoStar already holds some of Intelsat’s debt, and Ergen could even seek to maximize his leverage by acquiring a larger position in the company. Does Masa want a cooperative relationship with Ergen going forward (perhaps even with a view to collaboration between DISH and Sprint in the wireless sector), or is he still upset over what happened in 2013? And returning to the theme of Groundhog Day, will this movie end with the two protagonists eventually falling in love, or will we see a repeat of 2013, with yet another battle between Masa and Charlie?
Back in December, I suggested that AT&T could end up being the winner of the FCC’s incentive auction, by “dropping the licenses it held at the end of Stage 1 until broadcasters are forced to accept a tiny fraction of their originally expected receipts, leave T-Mobile (plus a bunch of spectrum speculators in various DEs) holding most of the spectrum…and screw DISH by setting a new national benchmark of ~$0.90/MHzPOP for low band spectrum.”
Broadcasters were certainly forced to accept a tiny fraction of their originally expected receipts, when the reverse auction ended Stage 4 with a total clearing cost of only $12B, and the auction has concluded with a national average price of just over $0.90/MHzPOP. However, by the beginning of this month, the clues to the incentive auction outcome derived from the splitting of reserved and unreserved licenses also suggested that T-Mobile might not have bid as aggressively as expected on licenses such as Los Angeles and San Diego, because only 1 license in these areas was classified as reserved.
Despite this, AT&T’s recently filed 10-K confirms that:
“In February 2017, aggregate bids exceeded the level required to clear Auction 1000. This auction, including the assignment phase, is expected to conclude in the first half of 2017. Our commitment to purchase 600 MHz spectrum licenses for which we submitted bids is expected to be more than satisfied by the deposits made to the FCC in the third quarter of 2016.”
The deposits made by AT&T totaled $2.4B, and commitments below this level indicate that AT&T has purchased no more than 5x5MHz on average across the US. That also suggests that AT&T very likely was responsible for dropping bids in Stages 2, 3 and 4, as I guessed back in December. But if both AT&T and T-Mobile did not bid as aggressively as expected in the auction, Verizon did not put down any material deposit and Sprint did not show up at all, that certainly raises the question of who is left standing as a winning bidder for over $19B of spectrum?
T-Mobile could well have bid somewhat more aggressively outside the southwestern US, and therefore may still be holding $5B-$8B of bids in total. It was also clear from the auction results that one or more designated entities are holding just over $2B of spectrum. But Comcast must certainly have winning bids for upwards of $5B, likely in the form of a national 10x10MHz license (and perhaps more in some markets), and it is even conceivable that DISH is still holding some licenses, despite the bidding patterns suggesting that DISH most likely dropped out in Stage 1.
But taken as a whole, the limited participation by AT&T and the lack of interest shown by Verizon could well have serious implications for the prospects of a rapid standardization and transition in this band. As I noted in December, AT&T could strand T-Mobile, Comcast and the various spectrum speculators by supporting the broadcasters in their efforts to delay the transition and ensuring that this spectrum remains non-standard because AT&T and Verizon won’t bother supporting the band any time soon.
Moreover, this outcome once again raises the question of how much AT&T and Verizon really need spectrum in the near term, or if they can instead make do with their current holdings until small cell networks based on 3.5GHz, 5GHz LTE-U and eventually mmWave spectrum create a new era of spectrum abundance and support vast increases in network capacity. Thus its somewhat ironic to see analysts speculating that Verizon is now more likely to buy DISH.
In fact, Charlie Ergen seemed to be hinting on DISH’s Q4 results call that Verizon and AT&T are no longer the most plausible partner when he stated that “I’m sure there will be discussions among any number of parties that are in the wireless business today and people who maybe are not in the wireless business today. And, I would imagine that – we’re not the biggest company, we’re not going to drive that process, but obviously, many of the assets that we hold could be involved in that mix.” However, it remains to be seen if any Silicon Valley companies are still interested in getting into the wireless business (most plausibly via the renewal of DISH’s previously mooted tie-up with Google and T-Mobile) or if something even more surprising like a reconciliation with Sprint and Softbank could be a possibility.
As the FCC’s incentive auction draws to a close, some further clues emerged about the bidding when the FCC split licenses between reserved and unreserved spectrum. What stood out was that in Los Angeles, San Diego and another 10 smaller licenses (incidentally all located in the southwestern US), only 1 license is classified as reserved. That means there is only 1 bidder that has designated itself as reserve-eligible when bidding for these licenses and that bidder only wants a single 5x5MHz block of spectrum. In contrast, in LA there are five 5x5MHz blocks going to non-reserved bidders (and 1 block spare).
This leads me to believe that T-Mobile may not be holding quite as much spectrum as anticipated, at least in that part of the country, while some potentially reserve-eligible bidders (i.e. entities other than Verizon and AT&T) have not designated themselves as reserve-eligible. That election can be made on a PEA-by-PEA basis, but it would be very odd for a major bidder like Comcast not to designate itself as reserve-eligible. On the other hand, speculators whose intention is to sell their spectrum to Verizon or AT&T, very likely would not want to be reserve-eligible, since that could cause additional problems in a future sale transaction.
A plausible conclusion is that if T-Mobile’s bidding is more constrained, then Comcast may be bidding more aggressively than expected, but is primarily focused on areas where it already has cable infrastructure (i.e. not Los Angeles, San Diego, etc.), and T-Mobile, AT&T and Comcast may all end up with an average of roughly 10x10MHz of spectrum on a near-national basis. We already know that one or more speculators are bidding aggressively, due to the gap between gross and net bids (note that the FCC reports this gap without regard to the $150M cap on DE discounts so it could be a single aggressive player with $2B+ in exposure) and thus the balance of the 70MHz of spectrum being sold would then be held by other players (but with these holdings likely skewed towards more saleable larger markets, including Los Angeles).
Its interesting to note that speculation is now revving up about the transactions to come after the auction is complete, with most attention focused on whether Verizon is serious about a bid for Charter, or if this is a head fake to bring DISH to the table for a spectrum-focused deal, after Verizon apparently sat out the incentive auction. Incidentally, Verizon’s expressed interest in Charter would also tend to support the notion that Verizon believes Comcast may want to play a bigger role in the wireless market, by acquiring a significant amount of spectrum in the incentive auction and perhaps even buying a wireless operator at a later date.
However, when you look at Sprint’s recent spectrum sale-leaseback deal, which was widely highlighted for the extraordinarily high valuation that it put on the 2.5GHz spectrum band, Verizon’s need for a near term spectrum transaction is far from compelling. I’m told that the appraisal analysis estimated the cost of new cellsites that Verizon would need to build with and without additional 2.5GHz spectrum, but that either way, there is no need for Verizon to engage in an effort to add substantial numbers of macrocells until 2020 or beyond, given its current spectrum holdings and the efficiency benefits accruing from the latest LTE technology. And if mmWave spectrum and massive MIMO are successful, then Verizon’s need for spectrum declines considerably.
So it seems there is little reason for Verizon to cave now, and pay Ergen’s (presumably high) asking price, when it does not need to start building until after the March 2020 buildout deadline for DISH’s AWS-4 licenses. It would not be a surprise if Verizon were willing to pay the same price as is achieved in the incentive auction (i.e. less than $1/MHzPOP), but the question is whether Ergen will be prepared to accept that.
Of course, DISH bulls suggest that the FCC will be happy to simply extend this deadline indefinitely, even if DISH makes little or no effort to offer a commercial service before 2020. The most important data point on that issue will come in early March 2017, when DISH passes its initial 4 year buildout deadline without making any effort to build out a network. Will the FCC take this opportunity to highlight the need for a large scale buildout that DISH promised in 2012 and the FCC noted in its AWS-4 order? Certainly that would appear to be good politics at this point in time.
“…we observe that the incumbent 2 GHz MSS licensees generally support our seven year end-of-term build-out benchmark and have committed to “aggressively build-out a broadband network” if they receives terrestrial authority to operate in the AWS-4 band. We expect this commitment to be met and, to ensure that it is, adopt performance requirements and associated penalties for failure to build-out, specifically designed to result in the spectrum being put to use for the benefit of the public interest.”
“In the event a licensee fails to meet the AWS-4 Final Build-out Requirement in any EA, we adopt the proposal in the AWS-4 NPRM that the licensee’s terrestrial authority for each such area shall terminate automatically without Commission action…We believe these penalties are necessary to ensure that licensees utilize the spectrum in the public interest. As explained above, the Nation needs additional spectrum supply. Failure by licensees to meet the build-out requirements would not address this need.”
Given the current status of the FCC incentive auction, which is making broadcasters (or at least their auction advisers) suicidal and leaving Wall St analysts perplexed, it important to note that this really is a “great game” with billions of dollars at stake for the winners and losers. So I though it might be helpful to summarize the winners and losers in previous large FCC auctions, and take a stab at predicting how this time will be different.
2006 AWS-1 auction: Winner: SpectrumCo, Loser: Wireless DBS (DISH/DirecTV), Biggest Loser: Verizon
In the AWS-1 auction, SpectrumCo picked up a national 20MHz block of licenses at the cheapest price per MHzPOP of any participant due to smart advice from Paul Milgrom, which saved them over $1B, as highlighted in this excellent paper. In contrast, Wireless DBS, the partnership of DISH and DirecTV pulled out early without buying any licenses, while Verizon paid the most for its F-block spectrum and didn’t even come away with a national footprint because it ran out of eligibility.
2008 700MHz auction: Winner: Verizon, Loser: Google, Biggest Loser: AT&T
In the 700MHz auction, AT&T painted a target on its back by buying Aloha’s lower C-block spectrum just before the auction. That made it entirely predictable that AT&T would want to acquire the adjacent lower B-block, allowing Verizon to park eligibility in that block and push up the price, while leaving Google to bid against itself for the upper C-block with its open access conditions. This was so obvious that I pointed the situation out while the auction was still going on, even though the bidding was anonymous. Verizon ended up getting the 22MHz upper C-block spectrum very cheaply, while AT&T paid at least $5B more for a similar amount of spectrum.
2014-15 AWS-3 auction: Winner: DISH, Loser: T-Mobile, Biggest Loser: AT&T
In the AWS-3 auction, DISH confused all the other bidders and most external observers, by bidding through three entities simultaneously, and ultimately acquiring all of its licenses via its two Designated Entities, Northstar and SNR, while pushing up the prices to astonishingly high levels. This forced T-Mobile to exit from the auction without gaining the spectrum it wanted, but more importantly, AT&T’s fixed going in position of “get 10x10MHz everywhere” caused it to spend far more than either DISH or Verizon (which was either smarter or just read my blog post on what was happening). Again AT&T spent at least $5B more than necessary in the auction.
Its notable that AT&T has been the biggest loser in both the 700MHz and AWS-3 auctions and has wasted over $10B in the process. But as I noted above, I think this time will be different, presumably because AT&T has hired some smart consultants, and decided to play the game strategically rather than conforming to a fixed spectrum target from the start. So my prediction for the incentive auction is as follows:
2016-17 Incentive auction: Winner: AT&T, Losers: T-Mobile, DISH, Biggest Loser: Broadcasters
AT&T appears to have been the driving force in Stage 1 of the auction, threatening to strand DISH in a handful of expensive top licenses (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco) in Stage 1 and forcing DISH to exit. Then with Comcast also trying to get out after its MVNO deal with Verizon, Verizon not even playing the game, and AT&T set to win the FirstNet spectrum, AT&T clearly holds the winning hand. AT&T can now keep dropping the licenses it held at the end of Stage 1 until broadcasters are forced to accept a tiny fraction of their originally expected receipts, leave T-Mobile (plus a bunch of spectrum speculators in various DEs) holding most of the spectrum (that AT&T can later strand, by supporting the broadcasters in their efforts to delay the transition and ensuring that it remains non-standard because AT&T and Verizon won’t bother supporting the band) and screw DISH by setting a new national benchmark of ~$0.90/MHzPOP for low band spectrum (helpfully also making sure T-Mobile doesn’t need any more spectrum from DISH because it has a surfeit of low band holdings).
Am I giving AT&T too much credit? After all, there is not much existing evidence that they know how to behave smartly in FCC auctions. Perhaps, but on the other hand, I think this is the scenario that best fits what we’ve seen so far (though by stating it so explicitly, I do worry that I might trigger a rush for the exits in the next stage(s) of the forward auction).
What will broadcasters do now? Will they cave on price and accept less than $14B for 84MHz of spectrum cleared (so the auction can close at the Stage 4 reserve price)? Will this drag on further, with both the dollars raised and spectrum sold falling further? That’s unclear, but either way, its not going to be a Happy New Year if you are a broadcaster trying to sell your spectrum.
Here’s a question for FCC incentive auction watchers: why did Stage 1 of the forward auction stop suddenly in Round 27 with proceeds of $23.1B? After all, that was substantially more than the first component (reserve price) target of $15.9B and dramatically less than the second component target (clearing costs) of $88.4B. So was it just random, or was there a deliberate decision by one or more large bidders to stop in that round by dropping demand to match supply in all of the top 40 high demand markets?
If you analyze the data carefully, you can see that in fact that stopping in Round 27 was precisely calibrated to match the reserve price target in Stage 4 and beyond, when it resets to a subtly different formulation. To be specific, “the first component, which aims to ensure that winning bids for forward auction licenses reflect competitive prices, will be satisfied if, for a given stage of the auction:
The clearing target is at or below 70 megahertz and the benchmark average price per MHz-pop for Category 1 blocks in high-demand PEAs in the forward auction is at least $1.25 per MHz-pop; or
The clearing target is above 70 megahertz and the total proceeds associated with all licenses in the forward auction exceed the product of the price benchmark of $1.25 per MHz-pop, the forward auction spectrum benchmark of 70 megahertz, and the total number of pops associated with the Category 1 blocks in high-demand PEAs.”
[UPDATED 12/21] Its clear that Round 27 was the first round in which “the benchmark average price per MHz-pop for Category 1 blocks in high-demand PEAs in the forward auction is at least $1.25 per MHz-pop” (although this will only be achieved in Stage 4 if one or more of the spare licenses in Los Angeles is taken up). Thus, at least one bidder was looking ahead to a situation where the auction would have to go into Stage 4 or beyond (the FCC pointed out in its public notice that the starting price for high demand markets in Stage 4 was $1.22/MHzPOP). That conclusion very likely explains why we saw no further bidding in Stages 2 and 3, as additional bids were dropped. It also tends to confirm that DISH was no longer present at the end of Stage 1 to force up the price of spectrum above the minimum necessary.
Now we’ll have to see how the game continues (and you can read more about who we think is responsible in our industry report for subscribers published last week), but the carefully calibrated outcome of Stage 1 ensures that the first component can be met as soon as one or both of the spare licenses in Los Angeles are taken up, but (if they still have eligibility to play with in the top 40 markets) the bidders could continue to drop license demand and simply wait until the clearing costs drop below the total forward auction bids. That would mean a realized average price for spectrum across the US as a whole of less than $0.90/MHzPOP.
When could that happen? Well, with FCC staff apparently suggesting that as little as 40MHz of spectrum might be sold, it could be a while yet, and net proceeds might be as low as $10B (at 40MHz sold in Stage 7) or $12-13B (at 50MHz sold in Stage 6). With $1.9B deducted from that figure for repacking costs, broadcasters could quite plausibly be left with little more than $10B in reverse auction payments. That might be too pessimistic, but at this stage it seems like a decent bet that the final net proceeds in the forward auction will be below the $19B raised (from 52MHz of spectrum sold) in the 700MHz auction back in 2008 and essentially certain that the average price per MHzPOP will be lower than the $1.28/MHzPOP achieved back in 2008.
Probably the most surprising thing about today’s announcement that Softbank is investing $1B in OneWeb as part of a $1.2B funding round, is the lack of a spoiler announcement from SpaceX. That’s happened in the past on both of the two occasions when OneWeb made a major announcement, in January 2015 (when OneWeb announced its initial agreements with Qualcomm and Virgin) and in June 2015 (when OneWeb announced its initial $500M equity round).
In fact one of the more important fights that is going on behind the scenes is related to regulatory priority in terms of ITU filings, where SpaceX is some way behind. OneWeb is acknowledged to be have the first filing for an NGSO Ku-band system, but also needs access to the Ka-band for its gateway links. That led Telesat to request that the FCC deny OneWeb’s petition for a US licenses, based on “Canadian ITU filings associated with Telesat’s Ka-band NGSO system [that] date back to 2012 and January 6, 2015″ whereas “the earliest ITU filing date priority for OneWeb is January 18, 2015.” LeoSat also claimed that it had priority over OneWeb in November 2016, based on “French ITU filings for LeoSat’s Ka-band MCSAT-2 LEO-2 network [that] date back to November 25, 2014.”
However, OneWeb now appears to have attempted something of an end run around these objections, acquiring rights to the French MCSAT LEO with an ITU advance publication date of April 2, 2013 network from Thales Alenia Space. That’s particularly odd because LeoSat, which states specifically in its FCC application that it “will deploy the LeoSat System in conjunction with Thales Alenia Space,” might now find TAS’s own filings being used against it.
UPDATE (12/20): I’m told that the relevant ITU coordination dates for the different Ka-band NGSO proposals are as follows:
Telesat (Comstellation): December 20, 2012
LeoSat (MCSAT2 LEO2): November 25, 2014
OneWeb’s newly acquired MCSAT LEO filing: December 3, 2014
SpaceX: December 27, 2014
OneWeb’s original Ka-band filing: January 18, 2015.
That would imply that OneWeb has now jumped ahead of SpaceX at the ITU, but remains behind Telesat and LeoSat, although I’m sure there will be many arguments to come.
All this fighting to be first in line at the ITU will also have to take into account the FCC’s attempt to clarify the rules for new NGSO systems in an NPRM released on Thursday, December 15. The FCC’s rules state that NGSO systems should share spectrum through the “avoidance of in-line interference events” and the NPRM proposed new language in an attempt to make this more explicit. However, this language is far from clear about whether the sharing of spectrum is required on a global basis or just in the US, specifically the key paragraph in the newly proposed §25.261 states:
(a) Scope. This section applies to NGSO FSS satellite systems that communicate with earth stations with directional antennas and that operate under a Commission license or grant of U.S. market access under this part in the 10.7-12.7 GHz (space-to-Earth), 12.75-13.25 GHz (Earth-to-space), 13.75-14.5 GHz (Earth-to-space), 17.8-18.6 GHz (space-to-Earth), 18.8-19.4 GHz (space-to-Earth), 19.6-20.2 GHz (space-to-Earth), 27.5-29.1 GHz (Earth-to-space), or 29.3-30 GHz (Earth-to-space) bands.
whereas the existing language states:
(a) Applicable NGSO FSS Bands. The coordination procedures in this section apply to non-Federal-Government NGSO FSS
satellite networks operating in the following assigned frequency bands: The 28.6-29.1 GHz or 18.8-19.3 GHz frequency bands.
The pertinent question here, which is left unresolved by the proposed changes shown in the italicized text above, are whether a “satellite network” consists of both an FCC-licensed satellite system and the earth station it is communicating with, and if so whether both of these or just the satellite system itself must “operate under a Commission license or grant of U.S. market access” according the new text. If it is the former, then the new rules will clearly apply only in the US (where the earth station is licensed by the FCC), whereas if it is the latter, then the rules could be taken to imply that any recipient of a satellite system license from the FCC in the current processing round may have to agree to comply with these sharing rules on a global basis.
It therefore seems that regulatory lawyers will have plenty of work for the next year arguing on behalf of their clients. However, OneWeb will have the money to move forward quickly and extend its lead over other NGSO systems, apart from O3b, which is currently building its next batch of 8 satellites. It remains to be seen if other systems will catch-up, but Telesat (which has already ordered two test satellites) is potentially best positioned to be a third player, especially if it can secure Canadian government backing for universal service in the Arctic region.
Then we need to see how the market evolves. Greg Wyler highlighted his ambitions for OneWeb to serve 100M people by 2025 and after the alliance with Softbank, this will most likely be in the form of cellular backhaul from tens or hundreds of thousands of small cells in remote areas, just as Softbank already does at over 6000 cell sites in Japan using IPStar capacity. In contrast, O3b should continue its plans to serve highly concentrated demand hotspots, like remote islands needing connectivity to the outside world and large cruise ships.
Most of the other NGSO proposals, including Telesat and SpaceX, appear to have a fairly similar plan to O3b, with small beams used to serve a select number of demand hotspots. So the question then becomes, how much concentrated demand exists for satellite connectivity? O3b will generate roughly $100M of revenues in 2016 and has a clear path to growth into the $200M-$300M range. But is it a multi-billion dollar opportunity and is there room for one or more additional systems in this niche? And can new systems overtake O3b, given its multi-year lead in this market? Only time will tell, but if OneWeb can maintain its focus on low cost cellular backhaul and gain anchor tenant commitments from Softbank, Bharti Airtel and perhaps others, these competitive dynamics are going to be much more of an issue for O3b.
UPDATED Feb 5, 2017
There’s been a lot of recent news about Chinese investments in satellite companies, including the planned takeover of Spacecom, which is now being renegotiated (and probably abandoned) after the loss of Amos-6 in September’s Falcon 9 failure, and the Global Eagle joint venture for inflight connectivity.
There were also rumors that Avanti could be sold to a Chinese group, which again came to nothing, with Avanti’s existing bondholders ending up having to fund the company instead in December 2016. The latest of these vanishing offers was a purported $200M bid from a Chinese company, China Trends, for Thuraya in mid-January 2017, which Thuraya promptly dismissed, saying it had never had discussions of any kind with China Trends.
Back in July Inmarsat was also reported to have approached Avanti, but then Inmarsat declared it had “no intention to make an offer for Avanti.” I had guessed that Inmarsat appeared to have done some sort of deal with Avanti, when the Artemis L/S/Ka-band satellite was relocated to 123E, into a slot previously used by Inmarsat for the ACeS Garuda-1 L-band satellite (as Avanti’s presentation at an event in October 2016 confirmed).
However, I’m now told that the Indonesian government reclaimed the rights to this slot after Garuda-1 was de-orbited, and is attempting to use the Artemis satellite to improve its own claim to this vacant slot before these rights expire. I also understand that with Artemis almost out of fuel, various parties were very concerned that the relocation would not even work and the Artemis satellite could have been left to drift along the geostationary arc, an outcome which thankfully has been avoided.
The action by the Indonesian government seems to hint at a continued desire to control its own MSS satellite, which could come in the shape of the long rumored purchase of SkyTerra-2 L-band satellite for Indonesian government use, similar to the MEXSAT program in Mexico. If that is the case, then presumably the Indonesians would also need to procure a ground segment, similar to the recent $69M contract secured by EchoStar in Asia (although that deal is for S-band not L-band).
Meanwhile Inmarsat still appears to be hoping to secure a deal to lease the entire payload of the 4th GX satellite to the Chinese government, which was originally expected back in October 2015, when the Chinese president visited Inmarsat’s offices. That contract has still not been signed, apparently because the Chinese side tried to negotiate Inmarsat’s price down after the visit. Although Inmarsat now seems to be hinting to investors that the I5F4 satellite will be launched into the Atlantic Ocean Region for incremental aeronautical capacity, last fall Inmarsat was apparently still very confident that a deal could be completed in the first half of 2017 once the I5F4 satellite was launched.
So it remains to be seen whether Inmarsat will be any more successful than other satellite operators in securing a large deal with China or whether, just like many others, Inmarsat’s deal will vanish into thin air. China has already launched its own Tiantong-1 S-band satellite in August 2016, as part of the same One Belt One Road effort that Inmarsat was hoping to participate in with its GX satellite, and Tiantong-1 has a smartphone which “will retail from around 10,000 yuan ($1,480), with communication fees starting from around 1 yuan a minute — a tenth of the price charged by Inmarsat.” Thus Inmarsat potentially faces growing pressure on its L-band revenues in China, and must hope that it can secure some offsetting growth in Ka-band.
Although there have been plenty of news articles describing the proposed 4000 satellite constellation that SpaceX filed with the FCC last week, to date there has been no analysis of how technically plausible this proposal actually is. That is perhaps unsurprising because the Technical and Legal Narratives included with the submission omit or obscure many of the most salient points needed to analyze the system and determine how realistic the claims made in SpaceX’s Legal Narrative actually are.
In particular, SpaceX claims that it has “designed its system to achieve the following objectives”:
High capacity: Each satellite in the SpaceX System provides aggregate downlink capacity to users ranging from 17 to 23 Gbps, depending on the gain of the user terminal involved. Assuming an average of 20 Gbps, the 1600 satellites in the Initial Deployment would have a total aggregate capacity of 32 Tbps. SpaceX will periodically improve the satellites over the course of the multi-year deployment of the system, which may further increase capacity.
High adaptability: The system leverages phased array technology to dynamically steer a large pool of beams to focus capacity where it is needed. Optical inter-satellite links permit flexible routing of traffic on-orbit. Further, the constellation ensures that frequencies can be reused effectively across different satellites to enhance the flexibility and capacity and robustness of the overall system.
Broadband services: The system will be able to provide broadband service at speeds of up to 1 Gbps per end user. The system’s use of low-Earth orbits will allow it to target latencies of approximately 25-35 ms.
Worldwide coverage: With deployment of the first 800 satellites, the system will be able to provide U.S. and international broadband connectivity; when fully deployed, the system will add capacity and availability at the equator and poles for truly global coverage.
Low cost: SpaceX is designing the overall system from the ground up with cost effectiveness and reliability in mind, from the design and manufacturing of the space and ground-based elements, to the launch and deployment of the system using SpaceX launch services, development of the user terminals, and end-user subscription rates.
Ease of use: SpaceX’s phased-array user antenna design will allow for a low-profile user terminal that is easy to mount and operate on walls or roofs.
What is particularly interesting is that the application says nothing whatsoever about the size of the user terminal that will be needed for the system. One hint that the user terminals are likely to be large and expensive is that SpaceX assures the FCC that “[t]he earth stations used to communicate with the SpaceX System will operate with aperture sizes that enable narrow, highly-directional beams with strong sidelobe suppression”. More importantly, by analyzing the information on the satellite beams given at the end of the Schedule S, it is clear that the supposed user downlink capacity of 17-23Gbps per satellite assumes a very large user terminal antenna diameter, because there are only 8 Ku-band user downlink beams of 250MHz each per satellite, and thus a total of only 2GHz of user downlink spectrum per satellite.
In other words this calculation implies a link efficiency of somewhere between 8.5 and 11.5bps/Hz. For comparison, OneWeb has 4GHz of user downlink spectrum per satellite, and is estimated to achieve a forward link efficiency of 0.55bps/Hz with a 30cm antenna and up to 2.73bps/Hz with a 70cm antenna. Put another way, OneWeb is intending to operate with twice as much forward bandwidth as SpaceX but with only half as much forward capacity per satellite.
That’s because OneWeb is intending to serve small, low cost (and therefore less efficient) terminals suitable for cellular backhaul in developing countries, or for internet access from homes and small businesses in rural areas. In contrast SpaceX’s system appears much more focused on large expensive terminals, similar to those used by O3b, which can cost $100K or more, and are used to connect large cruise ships or even an entire Pacific Island to the internet with hundreds of Mbps of capacity. While this has proved to be a good market for O3b, it is far from clear that this market could generate enough revenue to pay for a $10B SpaceX system. Even then, an assumption that SpaceX could achieve an average downlink efficiency of 10bps/Hz seems rather unrealistic.
SpaceX is able to gain some increased efficiency compared to OneWeb by using tightly focused steered gateway and user beams, which the Technical Narrative indicates will provide service in “a hexagonal cell with a diameter of 45 km” (Technical Annex 1-13). But there are only 8 user downlink beams per satellite, and so the total coverage area for each satellite is extremely limited. A 45km diameter hexagon has an area of 1315 sq km (or 1590 sq km for a 45km circle). Taking the more generous measure of 1590 sq km, over 5000 cells would be needed to cover the 8 million sq km area of the continental US. And SpaceX states (Technical Annex 2-7) that even in a fully deployed constellation, 340 satellites would be visible at an elevation angle of at least 40 degrees. So this implies that even when the constellation is fully deployed, only about half the land area of CONUS will be able to be served simultaneously. And in the initial deployment of 1600 satellites, potentially only about 30% of CONUS will have simultaneous service.
SpaceX could use beamhopping technology, similar to that planned by ViaSat for ViaSat-2 and ViaSat-3, to move the beams from one cell to another within a fraction of a second, but this is not mentioned anywhere in the application, and would be made even more challenging, especially within the constraints of a relatively small satellite, by the need for avoidance of interference events with both GEO and other LEO constellations.
In summary, returning to the objectives outlined above, the claim of “high capacity” per satellite seems excessive in the absence of large, expensive terminals, while the “worldwide coverage” objective is subject to some question. Most importantly, it will likely be particularly challenging to realize the “low cost” and “ease of use” objectives for the user terminals, if the phased array antennas are very large. And the system itself won’t be particularly low cost, given that each satellite is expected to have a mass of 386kg: taking the Falcon Heavy launch capacity of 54,400kg to LEO and cost of $90M, it would take at least 32 Falcon Heavy launches (and perhaps far more given the challenge of fitting 140 satellites on each rocket), costing $2.8B or more, just to launch the 4425 satellites.
Instead one of the key objectives of the narrow, steerable beams in the SpaceX design appears to be to support an argument that the FCC should continue with its avoidance of in-line interference events policy, with the spectrum shared “using whatever means can be coordinated between the operators to avoid in-line interference events, or by resorting to band segmentation in the absence of any such coordination agreement.”
This continues SpaceX’s prior efforts to cause problems for OneWeb, because OneWeb provides continuous wide area coverage, rather than highly directional service to specified locations, and therefore (at least in the US, since it is unclear that the FCC’s rules could be enforced elsewhere) OneWeb may be forced to discontinue using part of the spectrum band (and thereby lose half of its capacity) during in-line events.
OneWeb is reported to be continuing to make progress in securing investors for its system, and it would be unsurprising if Elon Musk continues to bear a grudge against a space industry rival. But given the design issues outlined above, and the many other more pressing problems that SpaceX faces in catching up with its current backlog of satellite launches, it is rather more doubtful whether SpaceX really has a system design and business plan that would support a multi-billion dollar investment in a new satellite constellation.
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