12.12.19

Reality and hype in satellite constellations…

Posted in Broadband, Echostar, SpaceX, Spectrum, ViaSat, VSAT at 4:47 pm by timfarrar

I was surprised to see last month that generally well informed observers like Om Malik were taking seriously (and even describing as “astute”) a blog post by Casey Handmer that suggests Starlink is a “very big deal” that will “catalyze enormous positive change, bringing, for the first time, billions of humans into our future global cybernetic collective.”

In order to justify that level of hype, Handmer claims that each satellite will cost $100K (which could “fall to $20k by the thousandth unit off the line”) and generate $30M in revenue during its five year lifetime, delivering “the ocean of gold needed to philanthropically build a self-sustaining city on Mars”. The first half of this claim is excessively optimistic unless the capabilities of the satellite are dramatically scaled down, which is already known to be the case.

For example, Starlink has abandoned crosslinks, at least for now, and would require a fundamental change in design and deployment in order to accommodate them: placing fragile movable RF antennas (let alone laser payloads which was the original plan) on the corners of the satellites would mean changing the current stacking and non-propulsive deployment mechanism and potentially implicate other characteristics like the stabilization of the satellite bus, due to the need for extreme pointing accuracy (especially for laser crosslinks). And the cost of a single phased array antenna on the ground can exceed Handmer’s supposed $100K cost for the entire satellite, which may be another explanation for why the current satellites are apparently operating in a fixed beam configuration.

But my primary focus is on the second half of the claim with regard to revenue, which is far easier to validate against terrestrial broadband benchmarks. In order to get to his $30M per satellite figure, Handmer assumes that a satellite will generate 100 beams capable of supporting 100Mbytes per second (800Mbps), i.e. a peak capacity of 80Gbps per second, with a loading factor of 100 seconds per 90 minute orbit (i.e. 1.85%) in order to carry 1000 GBytes of data per orbit. This peak capacity is significantly in excess of the figures in SpaceX’s own November 2016 FCC filing (which states an average aggregate downlink capacity of 20Gbps), and that filing doesn’t account for any reduction in capacity resulting from SpaceX being required to share spectrum with other satellite systems such as OneWeb.

However, Handmer’s assumed loading factor could be slightly on the low side (thought certainly not “ludicrously low” as he alleges), if Starlink was able to provide services all around the world. For example, Iridium’s (never filled) capacity for its first generation of satellites was just under 4% of the nominal peak capacity per satellite (1100 calls per satellite x 66 satellites = 38.2 billion minutes, but the system only had 1.5 billion minutes of saleable capacity per year).

On the other hand, SpaceX is planning to ignore the ITU spectrum priority rules (claiming merely that Starlink needs to initiate rather than complete coordination with other systens), which give OneWeb priority access to the NGSO spectrum and may block Starlink from gaining market access in many countries. And the low altitude of Starlink’s satellites, combined with the lack of crosslinks, means that providing services to ships and planes crossing the oceans and poles is not a feasible objective in the foreseeable future.

Combining these two factors, it appears that Handmer’s 1000Gbytes of saleable capacity per orbit will in reality be more like 250-500Gbytes per orbit (i.e. 2-4 times less), based on a peak capacity of up to 20Gbps (downlink plus uplink) and a loading factor per orbit of 2%-4%.

But the more important assumption is that this capacity will be sold at “a subscriber cost of $1/GB”. That figure is ludicrously overstated compared to the cost of broadband today. For example the average usage of Altice customers was 220Gbytes per month back in Q2 2018, while Charter’s median broadband usage in Q1 2019 was 200Gbytes with cord cutters averaging 400Gbytes per month. If we take a typical retail ARPU of around $60 then the retail price is $0.15-$0.30 per Gbyte and with consumer Internet data usage projected to increase by 160% between 2018 and 2022 (according to Cisco) the retail price of data on existing fixed broadband connections will soon be below $0.10 per Gbyte. So Handmer has overestimated the retail revenue potential per satellite for Starlink by at least 20-40 times.

Another, even more critical consideration is that the underlying cost of data delivery over fixed networks is much, much lower than the retail price. Back in 2016, Dave Burstein noted that it cost ISPs less than 1 cent per Gbyte to deliver internet traffic, and that figure is undoubtedly lower today. That’s the more appropriate basis for comparison with the cost of delivery for Starlink (unlike Handmer’s ridiculous comparison with an obselete 14 year old submarine cable, when most domestic internet traffic doesn’t even need to go outside the US), which (using our 250-500Gbytes per orbit figure above) would have a satellite capex cost alone of 0.7-1.3 cents per Gbyte over 5 years.

Then you need to add the cost of the ground segment and backhaul (certainly at least as high as the satellite capex), and most importantly, the cost of the user equipment, which will be much higher than the (less than $100) cost of a terrestrial cable modem and will far outweigh the cost of the satellites themselves. As CNN notes, “ground equipment may pose one of the biggest obstacles to success” and was probably the main reason why previous efforts like Teledesic folded.

Viasat spends $700 to acquire each satellite broadband customer of which roughly $300 is the end user equipment and installation adds another $150. But those are fixed dishes which do not need to track the satellites as they move across the sky. A Starlink terminal could easily cost $1000 or more, even with various compromises to reduce cost (such as narrowing the scan angle, though that will require a very large number of satellites, potentially several thousand, to be in orbit), before adding the cost of rooftop installation, let alone customer acquisition. And if each customer consumes say 500 Gbytes per month, then that will mean 250-500 terminals will need to be deployed to consume each satellite’s saleable capacity, implying incremental terminal costs of at least $250K-$500K per satellite (at $1000 per terminal).

To sum up, Handmer’s assessment that the satellites will generate revenue equal to 300 times their costs is fatally flawed. Even looking purely at retail revenues, then the revenues will be 20-40 times lower than he estimates, while the total system capex costs will be 4.5 to 7 times higher than he estimates (including ground segment costs of $100K per satellite and terminal costs of $250K-$500K per satellite). In the best case (and with unlimited demand!) that means retail revenues will be just over 3 times the capital costs, while in the worst case the retail revenues will only just cover the capital costs, ignoring ongoing operations, service and support.

When looking at the underlying costs of data delivery, it is also clear that Starlink’s costs will be meaningfully higher than the cost of terrestrial data delivery in areas with access to broadband, giving terrestrial rivals plenty of room to compete to retain their existing customer base (and ensuring that additional cost sensitive markets like cellular backhaul will remain out of reach).

So my conclusion is that while Starlink may be a “big deal” for the satellite industry (and for astronomers), it certainly isn’t a big deal for the terrestrial broadband market. In essence, under any plausible set of cost assumptions, Starlink’s bandwidth will cost more than current terrestrial broadband connections, and Starlink’s ability to disrupt a retail market where existing providers have existing infrastructure with enormous gross margins will be very limited. That’s nothing like Handmer’s nonsensical claims that “further launches will be funded entirely by providing better service to high density cities”.

Starlink may provide service for customers with no access to terrestrial broadband alternatives, but the satellite broadband market has fewer than 2M subscribers in North America and 1M users in the rest of the world combined, which Viasat, Echostar and others have spent the last decade trying to serve (and at least in North America have essentially saturated the market). So it seems unlikely that Starlink will do much better.

02.28.17

Groundhog day…

Posted in DISH, Echostar, Financials, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint, VSAT at 10:17 am by timfarrar

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?

02.17.17

Cold feet?

Posted in Aeronautical, Broadband, Echostar, Eutelsat, Operators, Services, SES, ViaSat at 10:47 am by timfarrar

As we get closer to Satellite 2017, where major new deals and partnerships are often announced, it looks like a number of players may be getting cold feet about their future satellite plans. This may be partly attributable to fears that OneWeb will contribute to a eventual glut of capacity, now it has secured SoftBank as a lead investor and raised another $1.2B. Even though capacity pricing may have stabilized somewhat for now, its certainly the case that a satellite ordered now is likely to enter the market at a point when pricing is set to decline much further.

We’ve already seen a delay in Panasonic’s XTS satellite order, which was supposed to happen before the end of 2016. Ironically enough, Leo Mondale of Inmarsat said at the Capital Markets Day last October that he believed “Panasonic in Yokohama are a little wary of getting into the satellite business” and in the wake of the recent FCPA probe, Panasonic Avionics now has a new Japanese CEO.

Moreover, one way of viewing the recent announcement that Eutelsat will take its ViaSat JV forward (and include aero mobility, which was not part of the original agreement) is that Eutelsat no longer believes it will strike a deal to operate Panasonic’s XTS satellites. That’s a much better explanation than bizarre speculation that ViaSat is going to buy Eutelsat, especially when ViaSat is still struggling to fund its third satellite for Asia and is openly hinting that it will need US government contracts to close the business case. Eutelsat also seems to be cutting back elsewhere, with some speculation that the Ka-band broadband satellite previously ordered for Africa may now be repurposed for other (non-broadband) applications.

But the biggest news appears to be a pull back on SES’s part from the long rumored global Ka-band GEO system that I noted last summer. SES announced only a single satellite (SES-17) for the Americas in partnership with Thales last September, but had plans for two additional satellites, and it seemed increasingly likely that a partnership with EchoStar would be announced soon to fund this development. Now it seems that effort is on hold, leaving EchoStar without an obvious way forward to achieving global coverage (as it seems EchoStar considered but rejected the idea of buying Inmarsat last fall).

There are also other more speculative projects that need to show some progress to remain credible. When it was disclosed by the WSJ last month, SpaceX’s business plan for its satellite internet service was widely dismissed as laughably unrealistic. However, I believe that in fact this is not the business plan that corresponds to the current system design, and instead SpaceX will be seeking a large amount of US government money to fund its constellation. Compared to SpaceX and OneWeb, Telesat’s constellation ambitions have largely been ignored by commentators, despite Telesat’s priority claim to the Ka-band NGSO spectrum band. So Telesat therefore also faces pressure to secure external investors in the near term so that it can keep pace with OneWeb.

Now the question is whether caution amongst major existing players will make it harder for new entrants to move forward. Will it signal to investors that they should be cautious about investing in any satellite businesses? Or will it be perceived that new opportunities will face less competition from existing operators? The NewSpace community certainly seems to still be living in a bubble, despite the deeply negative implications of Google’s decision to abandon its efforts in satellite and hand over Terra Bella to Planet (not least because a sale to Google or other internet companies was seen as the most plausible exit for VC investors). So I look forward to seeing how much reality intrudes on the discussions at Satellite 2017.

08.01.16

Going global…

Posted in Broadband, Echostar, Financials, Inmarsat, Operators, Services, ViaSat at 10:50 am by timfarrar

In late July, EchoStar raised $1.5B in debt, to add to its existing $1.5B in cash and marketable securities. Echostar’s lack of obvious need for these additional funds has led to considerable speculation about what the company’s intentions are, including the possibility of an Avanti acquisition.

As an aside, Avanti is clearly in serious trouble, having leaked the possibility of an Inmarsat acquisition on Friday, in order to try and drum up more interest in its sale process, only to be rebuffed by Inmarsat today, with Inmarsat stating that “it has withdrawn from Avanti’s announced process and it is not considering an offer for the shares of Avanti.”

It seems very likely that there is no potential buyer for the company (otherwise the leak would not have been needed) and therefore Avanti will be forced to file for bankruptcy on or around October 1 when its next bond interest payment is due. Inmarsat would clearly be interested in certain Avanti assets, including Ka-band orbital slots for its I6 and I7 satellites and possibly the Hylas-1 satellite for additional European capacity, but these can be picked up in bankruptcy, likely for no more than $100M. And it is hard to imagine other mooted potential buyers, such as Eutelsat and EchoStar being more generous: Eutelsat has made it clear it does not intend to invest more in Ka-band satellites until they reach terabit-class economics, while Charlie Ergen’s past adversarial relationship with Solus and Mast (in DBSD, TerreStar and LightSquared) makes him very unlikely to bail out Avanti’s investors. At this point, it is therefore probable that there will be no buyer for Hylas-4, forcing Avanti’s bondholders to continue to fund its construction, if they want to avoid a NewSat-like situation, where the nearly completed satellite is simply abandoned and handed over to its manufacturer.

Returning to the question of what EchoStar intends to do with its $3B of cash, it seems that a response to ViaSat’s global ViaSat-3 ambitions is likely to emerge in the very near future. After all, Hughes announced Jupiter-1 in 2008 in response to ViaSat-1, and then pre-empted ViaSat-2 with its own Jupiter-2 announcement in 2013. EchoStar could do this in one of three ways:

1) EchoStar could build its own global satellite system. This seems like the least plausible option, because there will already be at least three global Ka-band systems (from ViaSat, Inmarsat and SES). However, if EchoStar decides it does not believe the fully global opportunity is large enough, it could decide to just build a North America focused Jupiter-3 satellite (which would likely have a capacity of at least 500Gbps, and would have competitive economics to ViaSat-3).

2) EchoStar could partner with another operator. This is very plausible, especially as SES seems poised to announce its own GEO system soon, and would be keen to offload risk to an anchor tenant. Its even possible that EchoStar could build Jupiter-3 for North America, and partner in a separate global coverage effort with somewhat lower capacity.

3) EchoStar could buy another operator. This would be the most radical option, with Inmarsat the obvious candidate. There are many challenges here, not least that EchoStar might not be able to afford to buy Inmarsat, but the fit would be perfect, enabling EchoStar to leapfrog ViaSat to fully global coverage today, while being able to backfill Inmarsat’s limited GX capacity with its own HTS satellites. Moreover, Ergen would clearly attach significant value to Inmarsat’s L-band spectrum assets, not least in the leverage he could obtain over Ligado’s efforts to become a competing source of terrestrial spectrum to DISH in the US.

There remain other possibilities, but these seem less likely to emerge in the near future. EchoStar could build out a terrestrial network to meet the buildout deadline for DISH’s AWS spectrum holdings, and lease it to DISH, but it would be odd to announce that before the incentive auction has finished. EchoStar also changed the disclosure about new business opportunities in its SEC filings earlier this year, noting that:

Our industry is evolving with the increase in worldwide demand for broadband internet access for information, entertainment and commerce. In addition to fiber and wireless systems, other technologies such as geostationary high throughput satellites, low-earth orbit networks, balloons, and High Altitude Platform Systems (“HAPS”) will likely play significant roles in enabling global broadband access, networks and services…We may allocate significant resources for long-term initiatives that may not have a short or medium term or any positive impact on our revenue, results of operations, or cash flow.

However, this new language appears to have related to Ergen’s discussions about a partnership with Google, which I noted previously, and Google appears to have opted for an alternative path for its wireless broadband buildout, with its recent acquisition of Webpass.

As a result, I think EchoStar is likely to push forward with its satellite broadband efforts in the next month or two, presenting a serious challenge for ViaSat. That means its certainly not the case, as Jefferies wrote in its coverage initiation on ViaSat today, that “ViaSat-2/3 will give [ViaSat] the best bandwidth economics in the world (for now) and a de facto monopoly in residential broadband”. Indeed, I’d predict that although ViaSat will undoubtedly grow its satellite broadband business in North America very substantially (by as much as a factor of two) over the next 5 years, its extremely unlikely to pass EchoStar in the total number of subscribers, especially given the lead to market that Jupiter-2 will have over ViaSat-2 during 2017.