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MSS Market Poised for Faster Growth as Next-Gen Constellations Prepare to Launch

By | March 12, 2014
      MSS CEOs panel at SATELLITE 2014

      MSS CEOs panel at SATELLITE 2014. Photo: Kenny Bordelon

      [Via Satellite 03-12-2014] With Inmarsat and Iridium having either begun or soon to begin launching their next-generation constellations, and Globalstar and Thuraya Communications finding success in the consumer-driven handheld market, the world’s leading MSS players all expressed optimism for their growth prospects at Tuesday’s opening General Session.

      During their initial remarks of business highlights from 2013, panel moderator Tim Farrar of TMF Associates playfully reminded Iridium CEO Matt Desch of last year’s bet with Jay Monroe of Globalstar, who bet Desch $1,000 that Iridium Next would not make its scheduled launch of March 2015. Iridium recently announced that it would be delayed by a few months to accommodate additional software validation on the network.

      “I’m glad to pay my bets,” quipped Densch, adding, “I’ll pay it in Iridium stock — it will be worth far more than the money.”

      Desch conceded that 2013 “wasn’t the best business year” in terms of bottom-line results, reporting equipment shortfalls that he indicated would be turned around this year with the launch of several new products. “We’re in a capital cycle right now — we’re about half way through a $3 billion program, and are testing our satellites that will start to be launched next year,” he said.

      Desch highlighted two successes in 2013: securing the satellite industry’s first fixed-price contract with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and shoring up the company’s hosted payload strategy for Aireon, which will leverage Iridium’s new constellation to provide better tracking of aircraft across the Atlantic. “We brought all the money and partners together so Aireon is guaranteed to be a successful product company,” he said.

      Rupert Pearce, Inmarsat’s CEO, said his company is poised for “double-digit growth” with the coming of Global Xpress. The company anticipates growth in wholesale revenues of 8 to 12 percent over the next two years. That’s a dramatic jump from 2013, when Inmarsat only grew by 3.3 percent in what Pearce called a “difficult market environment.”

      “We spent most our time last year on our new wave [of] innovation and we continue to spend roughly $300 million a year on innovation,” he added.

      The first of three Inmarsat 5 satellites forming the Global Xpress network launched in December, and Pearce said the next two satellites are on course to launch later this year to deliver full worldwide coverage by year’s end.
      “The whole program remains on track and on budget — including the modems, terminals, the distribution channels as noted by our new announcements this week,” said Pearce. “I’m confident we will launch and deliver services through a very powerful distribution channel.”

      He added that the Inmarsat’s core Maritime L-band business is growing, where “$1 in new innovation is delivering $10 value more into the enterprise.” Pierce sees the L-band market continuing to evolve with more broadband capabilities in smaller form factors for small vessels at sea. “I see us pushing the envelope on higher speeds,” he said.

      Pearce added that Inmarsat’s fastest-growing segment this year will be aviation, which is growing 25 to 30 percent a year in areas such as cockpit services, safety service and passenger connectivity.

      Monroe was decidedly upbeat about his company, noting, “It’s finally fun to be Globalstar again.” He successfully reworked loan provisions to give Globalstar additional liquidity. “We are fully funded and we are starting to grow rapidly.”

      Last August, Globalstar’s second-generation satellites were in full commercial service, supporting voice, duplex and simplex data products and services. The company also is preparing for a new ground system that will deploy a few years after the constellation. The target timing for the whole system to be up and running is early 2016. “It will allow us to deliver very inexpensive chip sets and technology at faster speeds,” Monroe said.

      This year, he expects voice and duplex services to grow rapidly, with revenues in that area up more than 100 percent from this year, with increasing contribution from M2M applications.

      Samer Halawi, CEO of Dubai-based Thuraya Telecommunications, said his firm’s revenues were up 15 percent with equipment sales up by more than 50 percent. Thuraya also restructured its debt, which Halawi said now is the “lowest average in the industry.”

      Additionally, the company also entered into the maritime broadband market. “We’re offering a value proposition to customers that make sense,” Halawi said, explaining that for some customers, L-band may be the only solution. “We designed packages that our partners can take and bundle with bands so we can offer a managed solution.”


      M2M Market Robust

      The panelists see a lot of momentum for the Machine-to-Machine (M2M) market.

      Inmarsat signed a partnership with Orbcomm in December that will allow Orbcomm’s modem to run over Inmarsat’s network. The modem maker has similar deals with three other satellite networks.

      “It cascades into terrestrial and satellite, fixed and mobile — it’s a big wave of the future,” said Pearce, calling the M2M market “a big driver of growth for Inmarsat.”

      Desch said that Iridium sees continued opportunities in the market, adding that his M2M is expected to grow fastest in the coming year. Iridium currently provides satellite M2M services to Caterpillar, the largest heavy-equipment provider in the world and an early adopter of M2M.

      “It’s clear that Caterpillar is going to telematics on all their devices because they recognize the value of knowing where their assets are. It’s a growth segment. We are investing in this area in terms of cost, size, throughput and latency,” said Densch, noting that when Iridium Next launches, the company will be able to offer additional innovation in this growth area.


      Differing Views on Consumer Handheld Market

      Both Thuraya and Globalstar were positive about the market for their consumer satellite handhelds, with Thuraya just announcing the launch of two more SatSleeve products.  The SatSleeve is currently outselling other products “two to one,” Halawi said.

      Many of the panelists disagreed on whether their handhelds could achieve the price points to reach a mass market, however. Globalstar’s Monroe was most bullish, saying, “It’s our objective to create what is now SatFi into something that can be a $100 product,” he said.

      Globalstar hopes to eventually offer 5 to 10 million units in a market where two billion people today live, work or play outside terrestrial coverage.

      “I appreciate Jay’s optimism, but when we start talking millions we have to be very careful,” said Halawi, observing that reaching a mass market is hindered by the industry’s current lack of standardization.

      Desch, on his part, is focused on working through channels to sell the Iridium GO! which creates a satellite-backed Wi-Fi hotspot to users. Desch said that from his experience in the consumer market, going direct to consumers is expensive and inevitably market players raise have to raise prices to make any money. “It’s not just about coming up with a low-cost product; it’s about distribution and branding,” he said. “We’ve stayed away from that because if you go down that path and you’re not successful, it’s spectacularly unsuccessful.”


      Globalstar on One Side of Spectrum Debate

      As the satellite industry continues to rally together to fight off spectrum attacks by the wireless terrestrial market, many of the panelists were not in favor of Globalstar’s move to expand into Wi-Fi. The FCC placed Globalstar’s request for terrestrial use of spectrum on public notice, which Monroe says if the process goes as expected a commission order would be expected in late summer or early fall.

      “We can make no apology for exploiting all the assets inside Globalstar — Inmarsat has leased their spectrum for similar reasons. We all are trying to make sure that the terrestrial wireless guys don’t impinge on satellite spectrum that we need to operate our networks,” Monroe said, adding that Globalstar worked hard with FCC to get a technical solution that would reduce harmful interference.

      “It’s dangerous to start to flirt with different business models,” said Pearce, noting it could cause further loss of spectrum to the Wi-Fi industry, which already has occurred in the U.S. with spectrum being repurposed for firms like LightSquared. He noted two big threats facing the satellite industry: the trend of national regulators instituting local spectrum policy to the highest bidder, and the direct threat of the International Mobile Telecommunications (ITM) industry, which has created a “crisis” mindset.

      “We’re beginning to mobilize,” he said, noting that IMT technology efficiencies are already addressing the capacity problem.

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