11.05.10

Is Viasat trying to challenge Inmarsat’s Global Xpress?

Posted in Broadband, Inmarsat, Operators, VSAT at 3:24 pm by timfarrar

On its results call last night, Viasat said that it is soliciting preliminary technical proposals from manufacturers for a ViaSat-2 Ka-band satellite to complement the ViaSat-1 spacecraft set for launch in the first half of 2011. Viasat is also aiming to sell around 10% of its Viasat-1 capacity to government users and another 10% of the capacity for mobile applications. With the possibility that the Viasat-2 satellite could add beams to target areas such as the North Atlantic ocean and/or various oilfields, it now seems plausible that Viasat will seek to challenge Inmarsat’s Global Xpress project directly, in several of its Inmarsat’s planned target markets (government, energy and maritime).

This would not be particularly surprising, because it is our understanding that (despite significant efforts earlier in the year) Viasat is not on the list of bidders for the Global Xpress ground infrastructure contract, which Inmarsat is expected to award early next year (and for which bids were received in mid-October). Inmarsat has a major advantage in that Global Xpress will provide coverage around the world, including hotspots for UAV demand such as Afghanistan. However, Viasat has dramatically more capacity on its satellite and so it could potentially cherry pick some high revenue opportunities in North America and the surrounding areas.

On balance I think Inmarsat is better placed to win this battle, because we have projected for many years that the satellite consumer broadband market would not live up to Viasat’s very high expectations. Indeed I still expect that the most that Viasat and Hughes can hope for in the North American consumer broadband market is 2-3 million customers between them, with growth stalling in 3-4 years time as terrestrial buildout continues. Fundamentally, I have a hard time seeing satellite broadband as anything other than a last resort technology, however much capacity Viasat throws at the customer, because the constraining factor is the need to install a relatively costly terminal, which then requires ARPUs of $50 per month and up, far above expectations for terrestrial alternatives (especially in less wealthy rural areas).

As a result, Viasat could well be left with excess capacity if it does decide to contract for Viasat-2 before Viasat-1 has proved its commercial potential, as was stated on the call. Of course that could lead to some destructive price cutting to capture the limited number of regional customer opportunities, but just as in the MSS market when regional players have made inroads in certain areas, Inmarsat could well emerge relatively unscathed.

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