Asia-Pacific Operators: Looking Out For More Business

By | June 1, 2010 | Cover Story, Telecom

While the Asia-Pacific region offers satellite operators multiple markets and strong business opportunities, a number of regional operators are beginning to look outside of their home markets to drive revenue growth in the future.

Measat Satellite Systems, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is one of the new breed of Asia-Pacific operators no longer content in serving only local markets. “We are not taking our focus off Asia but are using our Asian business as a stepping stone into a wider geographical market. While Asia will remain our core market, we are developing more into an emerging market operator. We want the company to be more of a global player than an Asian player,” says Paul Brown-Kenyon, COO of Measat. Measat has the ability and desire to expand its reach, says Brown-Kenyon. “Measat has the rights to develop a number of orbital slots around the world. Over time we are looking to develop these. Our approach to date has been pragmatic. We are building our business piece by piece. Initially, our focus was on Southeast Asia with our Measat-1 and Measat-2 satellites. Once they became established, we looked at a wider Asian footprint with Measat-3 and Measat-3a. In addition to seeking to expand our Asian fleet, we are now looking outside of Asia at Africa,” he says.

Measat is one of a number of international operators targeting Africa,where it “is easier” for new operators to get a foothold, says Brown-Kenyon. “I think there is strong demand in Africa and Middle East. The market in this region is less established than Asia and it can support the entry of new operators such as ourselves,” he says. The operator is hoping to partner with others to better serve the African market. “We have engaged in a number of discussions with potential partners over the development of new satellites for the African region. We expect to be able to announce the first of these ventures in the near future. Given that the African satellite communications market at this time is at an earlier stage of development, our marketing strategy is more broad based. As the market develops, we will take a much more segment specific approach, as we have done in Asia,” he says. Brown-Kenyon expects Measat’s business to remain predominantly in Asia, with about 30 percent of the company’s revenues coming from outside the region in three to five years.

While Measat still drives most of its revenues from Asia, the same cannot be said for Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS), which already derives the majority of its revenues from outside Asia. “Before the Mabuhay acquisition (in November), the percentage of revenues coming from Asia was less than 8 percent. With the launch of ABS-2, we expect the revenues to be around 20 percent with the remaining revenues generated outside Asia,” says ABS CEO Tom Choi. After the acquisition of the initial ABS-1 satellite, ABS saw higher demand for capacity outside of Asia, he says. “When we made the investment for ABS-1 and bought the satellite from Lockheed Martin International, we knew we had to serve Asia as well as the other markets such as Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. When we started to market the capacity, we had much higher interest in the capacity from those markets. As a result of customer demand, this is where we are looking to grow. Customer diversification is key to our future growth. It turned out that the demand for capacity was much greater in non-Asian territories,” he says.

ABS also serves a number of Asian-based customers that use the capacity for business in other parts of the globe. “We do have a lot of Asian customers who buy capacity in those other markets. We have clients such as PCCW and Singapore Telecom who are based in Asia but use our capacity to serve the Middle East and African markets. Additionally, we also have African customers use our capacity to service customers in their domestic markets,” says Choi, who hints at greater revenue generation opportunities outside of the Asia-Pacific region. “Today, we see many operators in Asia with a lot of capacity, and due to the oversupply of capacity in Asia, we see low prices. In markets which are more consolidated, however, such as in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, you have a combination of a smaller number of satellite operators and a growth in demand for capacity, resulting in higher transponder yields. Unless the growth rate in Asia catches up with the supply in Asia, we are not going to see high fill rates or strong capacity prices. In other markets, supply is outstripping demand, resulting in higher prices,” he says. 

Tough Markets to Judge

Patrick French, a satellite analyst at NSR, says the nature of many of the markets in Asia, means it is impossible to compare with other regions Asian-based operators are targeting. “It is impossible to compare Asia as a whole to the Middle East or Africa because Asia is made up of many individual and distinct markets that, in some cases, are seeing very different trends,” he says. “First, a number of Asian markets (South Korea, Japan, China and Australia/New Zealand) are dominated by essentially domestic operators and are not comparable to Middle East or Africa. India, which is certainly a strong market, is also unique in the world in the way ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) controls access to the market of foreign satellite operators and largely determines pricing. Again there is no comparable example to India in the Middle East or Africa.”

However, some comparisons can be made. “Possibly the closest comparable market in Asia to the Middle East and Africa would be Southeast Asia. In both cases we are talking about a group of countries, many of which have domestic DTH service, strong pan-regional cable distribution markets and decent data/VSAT markets. Plus, there are strong regional operators serving Southeast Asia just as seen in the Middle East (to a lesser extent in Africa). Africa and the Middle East are probably growing faster that Southeast Asia, because Southeast Asia is generally ahead of them on the development curve related to DTH and cable services, while VSAT networking growth is probably stronger in Middle East and Africa as well since they have also been somewhat slower to develop in this area,” he says.

French says it is understandable, given their orbital slots, that operators like Measat and ABS are looking aggressively outside Asia. “If you look at the core of clients that ABS inherited when they bought the satellite and have since cultivated, their strongest market has always been Russia, followed by Africa and then some CIS clients. ABS’ Asian client base has always been small and non-core to the company. As for operators like Measat who are entering Africa or Europe, it is simply an issue of having orbit rights and looking for the fastest growing markets to address,” he says.

While both ABS and Measat are looking outside of Asia, both operators still see plenty of opportunities in their home region. “We are very bullish on the industry prospects at this time. Over the last four to five years, we have seen the DTH business show very strong growth in our core Malaysia market,” says Brown-Kenyon. “This is the same situation in India and, while Indonesia has not experienced the same growth, we are very positive about the opportunity there. DTH growth is fuelling the growth for video distribution, with HD beginning to take hold. We tailored our model to support the HD model three years ago, and are now seeing a strong takeoff in the market outside of the video space. We see Universal Service Provision opportunities as a big driver over the next three to four years over a number of SE Asian markets.” 

Others More Cautious

While ABS and Measat target Africa and other regions, other operators are not such in a rush to look outside Asia for growth. Peter Jackson, who will step down as CEO of AsiaSat Aug. 1, believes certain markets in Asia will develop faster. “The predominant reason is that the footprints of our existing satellites don’t cover Africa very well, but that is not to say that if the right opportunity developed we would ignore that continent. Today, the satellite usage growth in Africa is predominantly a backbone market for developing cellular and Internet services. That is not a long term market for satellite, but it will last some time and the applications that utilize the distribution and geographic capabilities of satellite will develop. However, China and India will develop considerably faster than Africa.”

We are not taking our focus off Asia but are using our Asian business as a stepping stone into a wider geographical market. While Asia will remain our core market, we are developing more into an emerging market operator. We want the company to be more of a global player than an Asian player.

­— Brown-Kenyon, Measat

As the economic situation improves in major territories throughout the Asia-Pacific region, this will open the doors for satellite, says Jackson. “If you look at the Asian market, specifically countries such as China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, when you consider their population density and their geography, you would logically think they should be very large users of satellites, but they are not, and the reason is probably their economic position. As their economic situation improves — and it is improving — they will increasingly use satellites to provide the communication services that the terrestrial service finds uneconomic or impossible. Even with the considerable expansion of the cable network in some parts of these countries satellite still has real role to play in multipoint distribution and, of course, reaching the areas where the cable network has not reached,” he says.

However, even AsiaSat ultimately may look at other regions of the globe for revenue growth. “We are really focused on Asia. I am sure even international operators look at Asia as their growth market as the use of satellite in the United States and Europe tends to totally migrate to DTH. As I have said, we would look at developing into Africa and the Middle East if the right orbital slot becomes available,” Jackson says.

Satellite broadband provider Thaicom is “looking for the opportunity from other orbital slots that cover Africa and Middle East,” says Arak Chonlatanon, CEO of Thaicom. But Thaicom made a major strategic bet by building the IPStar satellite, and as a result, a lot of its future performance will be tied into satellite broadband within the Asia-Pacific region. “We believe that our core strength is in providing satellite services for the Asia-Pacific market. We have a long-term relationship with our customers here in this region. Besides, our main focus will be with filling up the Thaicom-4 (Ipstar) satellite, launched just over three years ago,” he says.

Chonlatanon is convinced satellite broadband markets will begin to pick-up in Asia. “We have placed a significant bet on broadband satellite, and we have seen double-digit growth in the past years for broadband services. Broadband as a whole, whether in the form of terrestrial or wireless 3G, have really taken off in most parts of Asia. This combined with the still relatively poor last-mile infrastructure in many parts of Asia is where we feel there is a great opportunity for broadband satellite services, be it as a backhaul or directly to the premises,” he says. Thaicom is still “very positive” about Asia. “Many countries are seeing a turn around in the economy after the world financial crisis and consumer confidence is picking up. That will spur demand for broadband and broadcast services. Thaicom is in a good position as we have investments in both markets, especially broadband having the only commercial broadband satellite, Thaicom-4 (IPStar), in the region capable of” 45 gigabits per second, he says.

Japan’s Sky Perfect JSAT is another operator that plans to remain more focused on Asia than growing in other regions. “For the past few years, we have seen robust transponder demand in the Asia-Pacific region, irrespective of the global financial crisis that began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008,” says CEO Masanori Akiyama. “Demand has been particularly solid in the area of satellite Internet services, communications involving gas and oil exploration, mobile backhaul, and government use. We continue to expect an increase in transponder demand in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in Indonesia, Afghanistan and Australia,” he says. “We recognize that Africa is a growing market for telecommunications, but we have no projects underway there at the present time,” says Akiyama.

JSAT’s international strategy is focused more on North America, Akiyama says. “We are in a unique position in the region because we have two business models: pay-TV operator and satellite (FSS) operator. This unique combination, backed by the lucrative Japanese pay-TV market, facilitates our expansion into other fields and regions,” he says. “Accordingly, in December 2007, we launched Horizons 2 over the United States in partnership with Intelsat. In August 2008, we commenced mobile satellite services in Japan in partnership with Stratos. We are proud of being the only satellite operator in Asia that has business access to North America, thanks to our joint venture with Intelsat. We are also seeking opportunities in Asian countries in order to expand our business fields. These include potential business collaboration projects and merger and acquisition activities.” JSAT plans to expands its opportunities within the Asia-Pacific region with the launch of JCSAT-13, scheduled for 2013, carrying 44 Ku-band transponders with Japan and Southeast Asia beams and two steerable beams covering the region from the Middle East to Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania. “We expect to find new opportunities in the fields of DTH, IP solutions and teleport business in the Asian region that will utilize our existing and new satellites,” Akiyama says.

While Asia has huge potential for satellite communications, Asian satellite operators want to make their presence felt around the globe. With strong regulation and national champion operators, some markets within the region remain frustratingly untapped for satellite players. What operators are showing is they are not afraid to take chances outside of the region.

To comment on this article, visit Mark Holme’s blog at www.SatelliteToday.com/blog/?p=90

Mark Holmes is Via Satellite’s Associate Editor.

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