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Cover Story: Via Satellite’s Global Satellite Survey Trends And Statistics

By | July 1, 2002

      By Cynthia Boeke

      The satellite industry has undergone a turbulent year. Consolidation, competition and continuing retrenchment seem to describe the market forces at work in many sectors of the satellite profession in 2001. DBS continues to present the largest revenue streams for the industry, and many experts believe direct digital radio services hold great potential as well Satellite broadband ventures are largely out of vogue, at least for the time being, while large FSS operators are now in style among many investment analysts.

      The delayed reaction of the economic recession and the crash that marked the turn of the millennium has finally caught up with the global satellite industry in 2001. Because of the minimum two-year cycle to build and launch most commercial spacecraft, the industry’s momentum, in terms of buying and lofting new birds into orbit, appeared to continue at a healthy pace through 2000. That scenario changed last year and is continuing into 2002. When all the numbers were crunched, the tough economic climate undisputedly took its toll on the satellite market.

      The year 2001 saw one of the lowest numbers of satellites orbited in nearly a decade. As of late April 2002, the satellite industry was getting back on track as far as its launch rate was concerned, with seven Western-built, commercial, geostationary communications satellites orbited by the world’s major rocket providers in the first four months of the year. However, the number of new launch contracts being signed reflects the slowdown in the procurement cycle due to operator consolidation and the negative climate for satellite financing. As we went to press, only eight commercial launch contracts had been announced in 2002.

      The manufacturing sector continues to be hit by a variety of negative factors. In-orbit anomalies have wreaked havoc in the insurance market, where operators face significant increases in their premiums. Reacting to the outcry over the growing number of satellite malfunctions, quality control efforts are being increased and schedules lengthened well beyond their expected date of completion. For their part, rocket providers have demonstrated an unheard of level of ingenuity in reshuffling launch pad schedules to accommodate late-arriving spacecraft.

      The market for new satellites has dwindled, as new operators face a dearth of financing and large operators enjoy a relative lull after replenishing many of their orbital slots. In terms of spacecraft announcements, the first part of 2002 revealed dismal results. Only three satellites were announced, one of which was a “refurbished” spacecraft previously damaged by fire, another was a replacement for a previously-cancelled satellite, and the third was a bird previously announced in 2001 but technically contracted for in 2002.

      The industry is undergoing a painful period financially and many household names are becoming a thing of the past. Looking ahead, the industry is setting the stage for its next growth cycle. Those companies with the ability to prosper, or at least survive, will dominate the landscape of future satellite services. This is not the first time the satellite market has witnessed such a cycle. One needs only to remember the names that dominated the profession in years past. Westar, GTE Spacenet, Hughes, RCA Astro, General Dynamics, and Ford were once as dominant as companies like SES, Panamsat, Alcatel, ILS, Arianespace, Boeing and Loral are today. The question is not whether the industry will re-ignite its growth trajectory, but when.

      Historical Overview: Satellites In Orbit And Under Construction

      Since we began tracking these numbers seven years ago, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of spacecraft in orbit. The number of satellites under construction averages out at 71. Currently, there are 232 Western-built, non-LEO, commercial satellites in orbit and 75 under construction, although 10 of these projects are on hold for various reasons. The large increase in capacity reflects the relative abundance of space segment available today, and underlies the extremely competitive market for satellite operators, as well as launch providers and spacecraft manufacturers.

      Launch Rate: Commercial Satellite Launch Rates By Decade*

      The launch rate of commercial, non-LEO satellites has risen dramatically throughout the past four decades, from an average one per year in the ’60s to 20 per year in the ’90s. The first two years of the new decade reveal an average launch rate of 21 satellites. When examined more closely, however, 2000 saw an extremely high rate, but was followed by one of the worst years in nearly a decade. Although many factors contributed to this decline, one of the worst culprits was the delay in satellite manufacturing cycles, as customers and satellite builders strove to detect errors and anomalies before the spacecraft were shipped to launch pads.

      Satellite Announcements: Commercial Satellite Announcements: 1992-2001

      The announcement of new spacecraft under construction tends to fluctuate, often quite dramatically, from year to year. In 2000, the industry saw a record-breaking number of new satellites “under construction.” Only time will tell the truth, however, since nearly one-third are defunct, on hold or in questionable stages of financial development. Most of the 23 satellites announced in 2001 appear to be moving ahead to completion, although an order for at least three satellites was cancelled.

      DBS Subscriber Growth: DBS Subscriber Market

      In its latest forecast, the Carmel Group estimates the DBS market will reach 19.6 million subscribers this year, adding approximately 2.1 million new subscribers from 2001. Their calculations assume there will be two DBS providers (Echostar and DirecTV), which means the numbers are not based on a merger scenario. Venturing out to the end of the forecast period, The Carmel Group says the DBS industry will add an average of 1.8 million new subscribers annually, reaching 30.1 million by 2008. While these numbers seem high, the Carmel Group believes they are actually a bit conservative. For example, this scenario projects the DBS sector to grow only 7 percent annually from 2002 to 2008. In comparison, the DBS industry recorded a 55 percent compounded annual growth rate from 1994 to 2002.

      Operator Consolidation And Marketshare

      One sector enjoying renewed interest is FSS operations. Long ignored by financial analysts, large operators are becoming popular due to their large, long-term revenue streams from blue-chip customers. The trend here is consolidation. Since the mid-’90s, the number of operators has held steady at around 50. But, within that mix, the top five have consolidated into large fleets that control nearly 40 percent of the satellites in operation and under construction. As we went to press, rumors abounded regarding who would buy whom. As a result, the number of operators is expected to decrease steadily throughout the next several years.

      U.S. Manufacturing Marketshare: U.S. and European Marketshare 1999-2001

      According to Futron, the mix of GEO commercial communications satellite orders placed in 1999, 2000 and 2001 has varied when it comes to the selection of a U.S. or European manufacturer. The year 2000 marked the first time the number of satellite orders to European manufacturers exceeded the number of orders to U.S. manufacturers. The likely reasons 2000 was such a successful year for the non-U.S. manufacturers were the still-evolving export control regulations in the United States, the strength of the Euro, and growing confidence in the ability of European manufacturers to deliver a flight-proven product.

      Key sales in this year were from GE Americom, Intelsat and Inmarsat, each ordering multiple satellites from European manufacturers. U.S. manufacturer dominance rebounded in 2001, and the tables turned, with Eutelsat ordering their first U.S. satellite, e-Bird, from Boeing Satellite Systems.

      DARS Projected Growth: Digital Satellite Radio

      The variety of new digital audio programming and the coast-to-coast coverage are the biggest selling points of this innovative satellite service, according to the Carmel Group. Take-up will remain slow for the after-market side of the business; however, once satellite radio becomes a normal purchase option in most new cars, the two services will begin their rapid growth phase, according to the Carmel Group. At the same time, the satellite radio industry players are saddled with the challenge of getting three pieces of hardware (radio receiver, antenna, and add-on controller) down to two (receiver and antenna), and ideally just one.

      The product and the service appear to be excellent. For example, XM’s overall marketing, with its brand and its ads, has been strong. Focusing on a technically savvy music lover audience has been a great strategy. Once consumer spending and the economy get back on track, so too will the future look brighter for the satellite radio industry.

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