11.09.18

The New New Space Thing…

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 5:32 pm by timfarrar

Michael Lewis’s book “The New New Thing” was published the same week as I moved to Silicon Valley in October 1999 and provided a great tour through the landscape at the high point of the Dotcom Bubble, just as his Liar’s Poker was a signature story of the 1980s Wall Street boom. Unfortunately we don’t have anything quite the same about New Space, although Tim Fernholz’s book comes close.

However, just as it was obvious back in 1999 quite how untethered Silicon Valley had become from real world business models, the New New Space industry seems intent on demonstrating the same about the space sector. In recent months I’ve heard about numerous planned nano-satellite constellations that are struggling to raise funding (beyond their $10M or so in proof of concept venture capital) and may run out of money soon, because they simply don’t have a credible business plan.

Looking elsewhere, it seems that 5G IoT and “Armani WiFi” are not really such convincing buzzwords after all (sorry Charlie and Jay), and Ligado’s lobbyists can’t outwit Brad Parkinson’s “fervent ally” in the White House, so some if not all of those multi-billion dollar investments will soon prove to be a complete debacle as well.

But the poster child for the bursting of the bubble can be seen in SpaceX’s increasing frantic attempts to raise money in the face of a rapid decline in launch demand, and increasing competition from Blue Origin, which doesn’t need to make a profit. Firing your bankers because they are nervous about how much additional debt you will take on in the future is a bad sign, and redesigning your constellation to hide its problems seems even more bizarre.

SpaceX’s launch tempo is already falling, with 10 launches now scheduled for the second half of 2018 compared to 12 in the first half, far short of the 50% increase in 2018 launches and medium term 30-40 launches per year that the company predicted only a year ago. So its an open question what the core business is worth, but with $270M in LTM adjusted EBITDA (which counts deposits and excludes some R&D) and a declining revenue outlook for 2019, the valuation of $28B achieved this spring is clearly ludicrous.

SpaceX’s attempts to find new sources of revenue are also proving deeply problematic because the broadband satellite constellation business now appears to be in even more dire straits than the launch business. Recently rumors have circulated that SoftBank is looking to exit from OneWeb (before the next tranche of its $1B equity commitment is due after the test satellites are launched in early 2019), as the system costs increase and questions abound over the size of the market opportunity for satellite broadband. Certainly Masa Son’s attitude to the project appears to have changed dramatically in the last year, from touting satellite as an alternative to fiber, to not even mentioning satellite in a recent lengthy feature on the Vision Fund.

And finally, given the lack of demand for launch services, the need for the BFR now seems highly questionable, except as a vehicle for space tourism. Since SpaceX is likely to have investment needs of $1B+ per year just for BFR and the debt capacity of the company is unlikely to be more than about $2B, it therefore wouldn’t be in the least surprising if the company’s next step in 2019 is to start taking more deposits from potential tourists who want to emulate Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. In the meantime, soliciting contracts from anyone who might offer a cash deposit seems like another avenue SpaceX will be exploring.

Looking back once again to 1999, it seems quite relevant to note that the first major meltdown (the Iridium bankruptcy) came in August 1999, well before the bursting of the wider tech bubble. And it now appears that there are several multi-billion dollar satellite projects that could suffer the same fate within the next year. What will that mean for investor perceptions? Will incumbents benefit? And which elements of this new technology will prove to be useful in the long run?

09.28.18

Fake it till you make it?

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 1:03 pm by timfarrar

As students of history and those who were there at the time (such as FCC International Bureau chief Jose Albuquerque) know only too well, sometimes a dud satellite can be just as good as a real one for promoters of a new broadband LEO system. Back in February 1998, the Teledesic BATSAT apparently never worked properly (some say not at all), but the launch was instrumental in causing Prince Alwaleed to invest $200M in the company in April and more importantly in persuading Motorola to abandon its own Celestri LEO system and join forces with Teledesic in May 1998, investing $750M for a 26% stake.

So the question now is whether SpaceX is in the same position with Starlink? After all, when basking in the glow of apparent back-to-back successes with Falcon Heavy and Starlink during February 2018, followed by receipt of its constellation license from the FCC, SpaceX raised $500M the following month at a reported valuation as high as $27B, supposedly to develop the Starlink constellation.

And subsequently, SpaceX has been positioning itself to play a role in DARPA’s Blackjack satellite constellation program, which will provide total funding of up to $117.5M to be split between several bidders. Notably, SpaceX filed a new experimental application with the FCC in August 2018 “to reflect additional test activities undertaken with the federal government” and add “two new types of earth stations, one of which will transmit uplink signals to the Microsat satellites first from the ground and later from a moving aircraft”. In that application, SpaceX told the FCC that:

“These experimental engineering verification vehicles are currently engaged in the test regimen as authorized, in order to enable the company to assess the satellite bus and related subsystems, as well as the operation of space-based and ground-based phased array technologies.”

As he looks to secure both DARPA funding (which should be announced in the next couple of weeks) and FCC approval of the new experimental license application, Elon Musk is certainly extraordinarily sensitive to any suggestion that there might be a problem with Starlink. Notably, within a few hours after my previous blog post appeared on September 18, it seems he planted a (rather bizarre) question on Twitter so that he could state that “Starlink should be active by then [2023]“. Indeed, he was so keen to get this assertion out there that the same question was posted twice.

And if we look back to Elon’s previous tweet about the status of Starlink, its hard to believe it was purely a coincidence that this information was released the day after DARPA’s Blackjack solicitation.

But the reality is that the Starlink satellites have not performed in accordance with the plan that SpaceX presented to the FCC as recently as February 1, 2018, when Patricia Cooper told the FCC that:

“As set out in the original application, after system checkouts are performed and the system is evaluated as ready to proceed, SpaceX will engage in orbit-raising maneuvers until the spacecraft reach a circular orbit at an altitude of 1,125km.”

And the original application stated that:

“After system checkouts are performed and the system is evaluated as ready to proceed, the orbit-raising phase of the mission will commence. This segment will last approximately half a year depending on system performance.”

But what has actually happened? Both satellites have remained around the launch altitude of 514km, with TinTin A not showing any meaningful evidence of propulsion since at least early March, and TinTin B not experiencing any significant change in altitude after attempting a few orbital maneuvers. So it seems all but certain that there has been a major issue with the propulsion system onboard both of the Starlink satellites.

When confronted with the rumors of a satellite failure by SpaceIntelReport, SpaceX stated that the satellites “were delivered to their intended orbit, communicated with ground stations, continue to communicate with ground stations, and remain in operation today.” That may all be true, but says nothing about whether the propulsion system has failed.

Unsurprisingly such a failure would put SpaceX in a very awkward position, when there were already many questions about whether Starlink would go forward, not least because the satellites may not reach the correct orbit to bring SpaceX’s ITU filing into use, and the FCC’s experimental authorization was based on the assumption that mission operations would be conducted at 1125km. And if SpaceX cannot build satellites with a reliable propulsion system, that would reinforce concerns expressed by FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel in SpaceX’s license grant that “the FCC has to tackle the growing challenge posed by orbital debris.”

09.18.18

420,000 km. Funding secured!

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX, Spectrum at 7:32 am by timfarrar

Yes I know it’s only 384,000 km to the Moon, but just like Elon, I decided to round up. After all, it’s apparently “better karma”!

Last night’s SpaceX event raised a lot of questions for many observers, not least because it “caught some SpaceX employees off guard” and was rushed out so fast that some of the promotional imagery was incorrect. However, I suspect that the reason for this surprise announcement was to distract from impending bad news about the Starlink project, namely that the project has for all intents and purposes been put on hold.

We already knew that there was a significant reduction in hiring in early July, but I’m told the cutbacks went much deeper, with a significant fraction of the Starlink team departing. SpaceX was also looking to develop a more concrete business plan for the project in Q2, but I believe it proved impossible to come up with anything remotely close to the ludicrous forecasts from 2016 reported by the Wall St Journal that suggested the project would have over 40M subscribers and $30B in annual revenues by 2025.

Ironically enough, the principal mention of Starlink last night was as a source of funding for the BFR development. It makes no sense whatsoever to think that Starlink will generate profits to fund a $5B+ BFR development between now and 2023, so the only logical conclusion is that money raised for Starlink will now be diverted to the BFR. Another hint that Starlink is going away was the statement that BFR is expected to consume the majority of engineering resources after the commercial crew development has been completed for NASA next year, despite Starlink supposedly costing more to develop than BFR ($10B+ compared to ~$5B) over the next 5 years.

However, without Starlink to support the business plan, SpaceX will face significant challenges in sustaining its reported $27B valuation, as it grapples with an expected reduction from 28 to 18 launches next year, which will very likely cause overall revenues to decline in 2019. It’s also notable that when Viasat decided to contract with ULA (seeking a US launch provider so as to support its upcoming expected request for Ex-Im Bank funding), it reportedly did not even invite SpaceX to bid, presumably because of a lack of confidence in the future of Falcon Heavy (since the upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5 will now suffice for most GEO satellites).

It’s only natural that SpaceX would look for a replacement market that can be projected to generate billions of dollars of profitable revenue, and the company now appears to have settled on space tourism, as previewed by Gwynne Shotwell last week, when she suggested that it “will probably be the majority of our business in the future, flying people” with “7 billion potential payloads“.

However, the critical question is whether investors will remain sanguine about such a dramatic transformation in where over 80% of SpaceX’s future revenues are supposed to come from. Do investors that thought they were investing in the future of connectivity, really want to invest in taking rich people to space? And does the checkered track record of space tourism give them confidence that Elon’s promises will actually be realized, especially as it will take 5+ years and $5B+ of additional investment (even by Elon’s optimistic estimates) before the BFR is ready to transport passengers to the Moon?

03.19.18

Will Silicon Valley go three for three?

Posted in Broadband, Eutelsat, Operators, SES at 4:44 pm by timfarrar

At Satellite 2018 last week it was interesting to note how after dominating some recent conferences, the role that Silicon Valley companies might play in rolling out new global broadband satellite networks was barely even mentioned. That’s probably because betting on these companies to anchor new satellite systems could now be said to have cost two industry leading CEOs their jobs, and it remains conceivable that the same could happen to a third.

Back in October 2015 Michel de Rosen took the decision to step down as Eutelsat CEO after his spectacular embrace of Silicon Valley’s T-shirt culture at Satellite 2015 only led to a modest partnership with Facebook for capacity on Amos-6. Facebook ultimately didn’t invest in Eutelsat’s Africa Broadband satellite and even the initial partnership disintegrated after Amos-6 was lost in the Falcon 9 launchpad explosion. So Eutelsat was left to go it alone with much reduced expectations for its broadband data business.

Then last month, SES announced that Karim Michel Sabbagh was stepping down as CEO, after his decision last year to skip Satellite 2017 because of the “number of exciting things we are working on”. At that time he suggested that “Some of these will come out in early April” but in fact the major announcement was delayed until early September, when SES ordered the O3b mPOWER satellites from Boeing.

In the interim, SES had been working to secure an anchor tenant from Silicon Valley, highlighting its collaboration with Google to provide backhaul for Project Loon in Peru and pointing to its deal with Facebook in Africa as an example of its redefined enterprise market strategy. SES even went so far as to select Boeing’s much more advanced and expensive architecture for O3b mPOWER in an attempt to convince prospective partners that the system would meet their future needs, but was forced to go ahead without the partner that SES’s board had expected to see in order to justify their investment commitment, undermining Sabbagh’s position.

Now it appears that Telesat is seeking partners for its own NGSO satellite project, which its CEO was very bullish about at Satellite 2018. We hear that Telesat may also be looking to Silicon Valley for an anchor tenant commitment to its new system, which it hopes to announce in the next few months. However, I have to hope that Dan Goldberg is not placing all his eggs in that basket, or else he may end up being the third satellite industry CEO in a row to suffer from the inability of Silicon Valley companies to commit to major investments in satellite connectivity projects.

01.09.18

Viasat’s curious antenna issues

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Services, ViaSat at 1:54 pm by timfarrar

Last fall, I found Harris’s announcement on its 2017Q3 results call that “we received our largest order for a single commercial satellite covering four reflectors, bringing total orders to eight over the past two years” to be particularly odd because the only commercial satellites on order with four unfurlable reflectors are ViaSat-3.

Viasat then effectively confirmed that they had made this order in their 10-Q, which showed that Viasat’s total satellite purchase commitments increased from $1037.5M to $1106.6M during the quarter and that the size of Viasat’s contract with Boeing had increased by $11.2M in the same quarter (presumably to cover integration of the Harris antennas).

Not only was Viasat’s order quite late in the game (some knowledgeable observers assumed that it would have been ordered back in 2016), but it is also just for one satellite, not for both of the ViaSat-3 satellites that are under contract with Boeing. Viasat may well have another purchase option (which it can exclude from its purchase commitments for the time being), but it is still surprising that it took so long to reach an agreement with Harris. And it may suggest that the construction schedule for Boeing’s second ViaSat-3 satellite will be longer than originally thought.

Another curious issue was Viasat’s decision to use a fake image of ViaSat-2, which Viasat’s President Richard Baldridge later admitted “in fact is not the actual ViaSat-2″ satellite, because “we obscured the sensitive parts”. It is hard to understand why Harris’s antennas are deemed so sensitive by Viasat when Harris themselves were happy to publish a mockup image back in 2016 (which has since been removed from their website) and the size of the antenna can easily be worked out from Viasat’s own FCC submissions.

Although I have no evidence to suggest this is actually the case, one possible reason for these two apparent coincidences would be if Viasat had sought to patent some features relating to deployment of the Harris antenna on ViaSat-2 in order to try and prevent rivals from making use of Harris’s unfurlable Ka-band antennas (in particular Hughes and SS/L will likely use them for Jupiter-3). That would certainly explain Harris’s decision to highlight during the Q3 results call that the commercial reflector business is “a commercial model driven business where we invest our own R&D to develop that offering. We sell it into the marketplace.”

Now we have Viasat revealing today that Boeing “has identified an in-orbit antenna issue, which has caused some spot beams to perform differently than they did during ground testing.” It seems very likely that the issue is related to the unfurlable 5m Harris antennas, since “Viasat believes the issue will not affect the coverage area of the satellite” and the smaller solid antennas will provide most of the geographic coverage, while the larger unfurlable antennas will provide the high capacity coverage within the continental US.

It also seems somewhat more likely that this is a deployment problem (i.e. an issue primarily for Boeing/Viasat) rather a problem with the antenna itself (i.e. an issue primarily for Harris), since the antenna performed “differently” (and presumably correctly) during ground testing. If this problem relates to a new feature that Viasat or Boeing introduced, then that would clearly be particularly contentious, especially if it was related to any patent issues that might have been in play previously. So now we need to wait and see how the blame game develops and what this means for the future relationship between Harris and Viasat.

09.15.17

Eye of the hurricane…

Posted in Aeronautical, Broadband, Eutelsat, Inmarsat, Operators, Services, SES, Spectrum, ViaSat at 12:54 am by timfarrar

This week in Paris all seemed calm, after the turbulence of the last few years, with the only major announcement coming from SES with its new O3b mPower MEO constellation. But under the surface a lot is happening, and (perhaps appropriately) I think we are now just in the eye of the hurricane, and the storm will shortly ramp up once again, before we find out who and what will be left standing in a couple of years time.

SES’s announcement came several months after it selected Boeing to build the O3b NEXT constellation (the “development agreement” was announced in July as part of SES’s half year results) and the delay until now appears to have been due to SES waiting for an anchor tenant that never materialized. In fact I believe SES originally expected to announce the contract in May, as was hinted at when SES’s CEO said he was “too busy” to go to Satellite 2017). However, SES is clearly not willing to see OneWeb, ViaSat and Inmarsat take the lead in new data-oriented satellite systems, whether or not it secures a major anchor tenant for this system.

Another subject of much debate is what Panasonic will decide to do now its original plan to invest in dedicated XTS satellites appears to be dead. Panasonic wants to lay off much more of the risk on a satellite operator, rather than underwriting the satellite costs in full, as Thales did with SES-17. Will an FSS operator be prepared to take this risk, bearing in mind that Intelsat is short of money, SES is now building O3b NEXT (which won’t be well suited for high latitude aero operations) and Eutelsat is intending to partner with ViaSat? Or would Panasonic do something more radical and let a rival like Inmarsat take over provision of connectivity services?

Finally, Inmarsat seems to be under a lot of pressure after a 15% decline in its share price in the last two weeks, and some were speculating that recent personnel changes were connected to this uncertain outlook. Profitability of aero contracts (notably that with Lufthansa) remains a major concern, and issues remain to be resolved for the EAN air-to-ground network, especially if Inmarsat is forced to provide a more robust satellite link in the wake of ViaSat’s legal challenge.

All of these issues provide much food for thought, and could lead to significant realignments in the industry over the next year. Decisions affecting the inflight connectivity market are almost certain to occur, because Panasonic can’t wait too long to provide clarity on its future positioning, and so we had better batten down the hatches for the coming winds of change.

09.08.17

Me first, no me…

Posted in Broadband, Regulatory, Spectrum at 9:42 am by timfarrar

Yesterday the FCC released the proposed text of its Report and Order on “Updating Rules for Non-Geostationary-Satellite Orbit Fixed-Satellite Service Constellations” which will be voted on at the Open Meeting on September 26. There are some minor wins for SpaceX and other systems that aren’t as advanced as OneWeb, notably in the relaxation of the 6 year construction deadline so that only 50% of the constellation needs to be completed by that date.

However, the key text on the geographic scope of the FCC’s in-line interference avoidance rule (that requires the spectrum to be shared equally between NGSO systems when their satellites are aligned with one another) marks a major defeat for SpaceX, because the FCC will allow the ITU’s “first-come, first-served” coordination procedures to take precedence for non-US systems operating outside the US.

53. Geographic Area. SpaceX and SES/O3b ask that we clarify the geographic scope of our NGSO FSS sharing method as it relates to non-U.S.-licensed satellite systems granted U.S. market access. While SpaceX argues that it should govern such operations worldwide, a grant of market access typically considers radiofrequency operations only within the United States. Sharing between systems of different administrations internationally is subject to coordination under Article 9 of the ITU Radio Regulations. We believe this international regime is the appropriate forum to consider NGSO FSS radiofrequency operations that fall outside the scope of a grant of U.S. market access. Because ITU coordination procedures do not apply between two U.S. systems, our coordination trigger of ΔT/T of 6 percent will govern such operations both within and outside the United States.

OneWeb is licensed by the UK and Telesat by Canada, and these systems have ITU priority in the Ku and Ka-band NGSO spectrum respectively. Thus SpaceX will have to operate on a non-interference basis with respect to these systems in either band outside the US. This (proposed) ruling represents a big problem for SpaceX, which needs to find another line of business outside of launch to justify its latest $21B valuation.

SpaceX is already building two experimental 400kg Ku-band satellites, apparently pictured above, which are scheduled for launch at the end of 2017, as co-passengers with the Hisdesat PAZ SAR imaging satellite (note that the orbital injection parameters of PAZ and SpaceX are identical: a sun-synchronous orbit at 514 km altitude with an inclination of 97.44 degrees). A license from the FCC, both for these test satellites, and likely for the entire constellation as well, is expected very shortly.

The key purpose of SpaceX’s accelerated launch schedule is to beat OneWeb (which plans to launch its 10 test satellites in early 2018) to orbit, as under the FCC’s regulations, the first system to launch gets to choose its “home” spectrum during an inline event. Presumably on the assumption that possession is nine-tenths of the law, SpaceX also recently extended the planned lifetime of these two satellites from 6 months to at least 20 months, stating that “if this lifetime is exceeded, SpaceX plans to continue operation until such time as the primary mission goals can no longer be met.”

However, now the FCC’s proposed order appears to have derailed its strategy, SpaceX will need to find a way to gain ITU priority, if it is to build and operate a global constellation. From this point of view, Telesat, which has been adamantly defending its ITU priority, appears to be sitting pretty. Indeed we are told that after its planned test satellite launch later this year, Telesat will wait until next summer before deciding how to move forward, presumably expecting to have a wide variety of suitors once its ITU priority status is recognized.

A joint venture with SpaceX (to which Telesat contributes its licenses and SpaceX brings the money) is certainly a plausible option, though it would require SpaceX to shift its plans to Ka-band. However, if this became a real possibility, it wouldn’t be surprising for SoftBank to try and head off SpaceX by investing in Telesat, or perhaps even buying Loral Space and Communications.

The ramifications of such a move on SoftBank’s part would be even more significant, given that Intelsat’s investors apparently expect SoftBank to return to the negotiating table next year, after they rejected SoftBank’s previous offer in May, and a switch to Telesat would put them in a tricky position.

So now we have to wait and see how SpaceX responds to this setback. Will SpaceX still move forward aggressively into the satellite business or will some of the executives who have in the past counselled caution gain the upper hand? Will the experimental launch proceed on plan (I assume so)? And most importantly, which partners will emerge for Telesat’s proposed LEO system?

03.10.17

Eccentric orbits…

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Intelsat, Iridium, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SES, Spectrum at 3:40 pm by timfarrar

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.

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.

12.19.16

Me first…

Posted in Broadband, Regulatory, Spectrum at 10:46 am by timfarrar

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.

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