Musk’s space push forces satellite rivals into merger mode

Pressure from new competitors like Space X have pushed the satellite industry, traditionally wary of mergers, to prepare for consolidation. — AFP

Plans by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to launch thousands of satellites into orbit are forcing an industry that’s traditionally wary of mergers to prepare for consolidation.

The billions of dollars that Musk is pouring into his Starlink broadband internet service are skewing the economics of space for companies like SES SA, the world’s second-biggest satellite operator by sales. The growth of streaming over fiber optic networks threatens another of their mainstays – satellite TV.

Takeovers, investments and joint ventures in the industry this year have already surpassed 2020, with more than US$3.6bil (RM15.26bil) spent on them so far in 2021, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

"I’m sure everyone’s talking to everyone,” said SES Chief Executive Officer Steve Collar. Space is "essentially a fixed-cost industry, so the scale that’s generated from consolidation can be important financially. And obviously we’ve also seen some disruptors coming into the industry. That can also be a catalyst,” he said in an interview.

ViaSat Inc. Chairman Mark Dankberg said there "certainly is discussion” in the industry about mergers. "One of the reasons for consolidation would be to try to divert more capital funding from broadcast into broadband.”

Although industry executives downplay the threat from Musk, they are adapting. Companies such as Inmarsat Holdings Ltd., ViaSat, Eutelsat SA and Telesat LLC plan to launch high-throughput or low-latency satellites to offer their own broadband services to businesses and homes.

But each launch is an expensive bet that clients won’t defect to other technologies. Combining forces would make these rollouts more efficient.

The UK’s biggest satellite company, Inmarsat, "is likely to have many interested dance partners,” its Chief Executive Officer Rajeev Suri told Bloomberg last month in an interview about his plans for a new network with similar low-earth orbit technology to Starlink.

Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. was valued by investors this year at US$74 bil (RM313.65bil). Last year, analysts at Morgan Stanley said Starlink made up four-fifths of SpaceX’s value. That would make Starlink worth roughly double the combined market value of the world’s biggest listed satellite companies.

"Eutelsat and SES were the giants but now, compared with the potential of Elon Musk and Amazon to invest in this industry, they are very very small – and they don’t have the leadership in the new technologies,” said Kepler Cheuvreux analyst David Cerdan.

He said Eutelsat should merge with SES if the countries’ respective governments can agree over control, as they share the problem of shrinking broadcast-TV income.

Corporate rivalries and political sensitivities have tended to obstruct satellite mergers. While the biggest companies came close to consolidating in the last few years, large tie-ups have fallen through. Billionaire Charlie Ergen’s EchoStar made a bid for Inmarsat in 2018 and France’s Eutelsat also considered buying it. The company was ultimately acquired by a group of private equity and pension funds.

Extra Catalyst

Funds for more deals are coming, with SES and Intelsat SA in line to receive a combined US$9bil (RM38.15bil) for relinquishing airwaves for US phone companies to use. The funds that acquired Inmarsat in 2019 received delayed spectrum payments of US$700mil (RM2.96bil) last year, lowering the bar for them to make a return on the US$3.4bil (RM14.41bil) buyout price.

The industry’s new appetite for partnerships has already benefited Musk’s UK-based rival OneWeb, which has launched hundreds of its own small, low-earth orbit satellites and has global rights to airwaves. It’s attracted a consortium of owners including Eutelsat and Ergen’s Hughes Network Systems.

Intelsat tried to buy OneWeb as early as 2017, but is currently held back from deals as it goes through bankruptcy.

OneWeb’s CEO Neil Masterson told Bloomberg he wants the company to be in the strongest position for an "inevitable restructuring” of the sector. – Bloomberg

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