Orbcomm, exactEarth compete for key Canadian satellite-AIS contract


PARIS—Canadian satellite maritime surveillance data provider exactEarth Ltd. on Feb. 9 debuted as an independent company traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange and will get an early indication of its competitiveness in the coming weeks when the Canadian government decides a large contract.

Cambridge, Ontario-based exactEarth is competing with Skywave Mobile Communications of Ottawa, which since early 2015 is owned by satellite machine-to-machine messaging provider Orbcomm Inc. of Rochelle Park, New Jersey.

Both companies have multiple satellites in orbit equipped with Automatic Identification System (AIS) receivers that pick up ship data – location, identity, heading and speed – and beam the information to coastal authorities.

Satellite-based AIS completes the maritime awareness picture for corporate and government customers that otherwise would need to rely on coastal radars with a reach of no more than 100 kilometers out to sea.

Peter Mabson, chief executive of exactEarth, told shareholders Feb. 5 that the company is optimistic that it will win the Canadian contract, for which it is the incumbent provider.

The earlier contract, awarded in September 2014 and expiring in March, was valued at about 19 million Canadian dollars ($14.5 million).

Marc Eisenberg, chief executive of Orbcomm, said Skywave presents a package of assets that should be every bit as attractive as exactEarth’s, if not more.

Start with Canadian employment: Eisenberg said Skywave employs 145 people in Canada. ExactEarth’s work force is around 70 and growing.

Orbcomm’s second-generation constellation of 17 satellites provides global coverage and is now operational following the launch of the last 11 of them in December.

“With our second-generation satellites airborne, we have a clear technical advantage,” Eisenberg said Feb. 5. “We will clearly meet the requirements of the [Canadian government] RFP. We have a larger Canadian presence.”

Mabson has said exactEarth’s advantage lies not only in the number of its satellites, but in its proprietary technology designed to sort out the riot of individual signals hitting the satellites simultaneously from hundreds of ships.

The company has seven satellites in service, with two more AIS payloads scheduled for launch this year – one attached to the Spanish government’s Paz radar Earth observation satellite, to launch aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket, the other an AIS-dedicated satellite being launched as one of the co-passengers on India’s PSLV rocket.

Mabson said the Paz-mounted terminal is the first time that a radar Earth observation satellite has carried an AIS payload. Radar satellites can peer through clouds and darkness. When combined with AIS data, the imagery can improve ship monitoring.

The Canadian contract won by exactEarth in September 2014 – before Orbcomm’s purchase of Skywave – included some 7.5 million Canadian dollars dedicated to providing AIS services to other governments. That may no longer be a part of the coming contract, but Mabson said if that is the case then exactEarth would be able to sell AIS directly to these governments no longer receiving Canadian data.

The start of public trading of exactEarth shares coincided with the sale of its former majority owner, Com Dev, to Honeywell Inc. of Phoenix, Arizona, which was completed on Feb. 4.

Com Dev spun off its majority ownership of exactEarth to Com Dev shareholders. Hisdesat of Spain, a 27 percent exactEarth owner, retained its ownership stake.

ExactEarth reported revenue of 26.6 million Canadian dollars for the 12 months ending Oct. 31, up 68 percent from the previous year. EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, was 21 percent of revenue, compared to 11 percent the previous year.

The Canadian government contract was a substantial reason for the improved financial performance, as is the fact that exactEarth, which began operations in 2009, is still ramping its business.

As of Oct. 31, exactEarth had more than 130 subscribers, mainly government agencies, in 40 nations. Mabson said during the conference call that the company expects revenues to plateau in the current fiscal year before accelerating starting in late 2017 as the new satellites are brought into service.

Its agreement with Harris divides revenue from the AIS payloads being placed on 58 of the 81 Iridium Next low-orbiting satellites now under construction and scheduled for launch starting this year.

Mabson said it was unclear whether exactEarth would add to its own fleet once the Iridium-mounted payloads were in service starting in early 2018. The exactEarth-Harris agreement remains in effect for 12.5 years after initial operating of the Iridium payloads, assuming that minimum service levels are maintained.