SES’s 2016 Outlook Clouded by Falcon 9 Failure

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES on July 24 said the rapid rise in the U.S. dollar has been good news for its revenue and profit but bad news for certain customers operating in developing nations.

Luxembourg-based SES also said it could not provide a forecast of 2016 revenue until SpaceX sets a firm date for the launch of the large SES-9 satellite.

Originally scheduled for mid-2015, then delayed to September earlier this year, the satellite’s launch has now slipped into to-be-determined category since the June 28 failure of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

An industry official said SES is saying privately that it expects the SES-9 launch to occur before the end of the year. In response to SpaceNews inquiries, SES said it also expects that, whatever the launch date, SES-9 will be the inaugural customer for the upgraded Falcon 9, known as v1.2, which has more power.

In a conference call with investors discussing SES’s financial results for the six months ending June 30, SES Chief Financial Officer Padraig McCarthy said the SES-9 “is the most important contributor to 2016 growth” in SES revenue. “SpaceX has said they want to get all planned 2015 launches launched by the end of the year. But we won’t speculate. We prefer to wait until we have certainty.”

SES operates a fleet of 53 satellites in geostationary orbit. SES-9’s importance is in part due to its large capacity, but due mainly to the fact that much of its capacity is dedicated to new SES business, and not to replacing existing capacity.

In a context in which SES wants the satellite up as quickly as possible, SES-9’s all-electric design poses an additional problem. Electric propulsion enables a high-capacity satellite to save weight and thus save on launch costs. The same SES-9 with conventional chemical propellant would be too heavy for the Falcon 9.

But all-electric satellites take months, not weeks, to reach their operating positions in orbit, delaying the start of revenue. SES has said the three all-electric satellites it has on order each will take 4-6 months to enter service after launch.

In what may have been an effort to make a virtue of a necessity, SES Chief Executive Karim Michel Sabbagh said the delay in SES-9’s launch had a positive consequence in that the company could spend more time selling its capacity before launch, which is better than selling it after the satellite is in orbit and begun its 15-year depreciation in SES’s financial accounts.

This positive aspect confronts the fact that some customers like to see a satellite in service before booking capacity on it.

Regardless of its ultimate launch date with SpaceX, SES-9 will thus be of no help to the company in 2015.

SES said revenue for the first six months of 2015 was 999.1 million euros ($1.11 billion at June 30 exchange rates), up 6.4 percent compared to the same period a year ago, but down 2.6 percent after stripping away currency-exchange effects.

Similarly, EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, was 74.1 percent of revenue and 74 percent at constant exchange rates.

SES said full-year 2015 revenue and EBITDA will be down by 3.5 percent compared to last year at constant exchange rates, but up if, as seems likely, the dollar maintains its strength relative to the euro.

But the underside of a strong dollar’s positive effect overall for the company is its strongly negative effect on certain SES customers.

The company said customers buying satellite capacity from SES in U.S. dollars but whose customers pay in other currencies account for about 15 percent of its total revenue and at least the same amount of its gross profit.

These customers, many in short-term contracts, are not renewing as often, or with as much volume, as they did before as they cope the their higher dollar-denominated costs.

McCarthy said that while satellite bandwidth costs are no more than 3-5 percent for television broadcasters, for many of SES’s fixed-data customers the bandwidth costs are 50-70 percent of revenue.

These fixed-data customers’ reduced business with SES account for a bit more than half of the decline in revenue at the company before accounting for the dollar effect.

But here too, Sabbagh saw a silver lining. Many of these customers now struggling with the high U.S. dollar ultimately will be better served by O3b Networks, a broadband data supplier operating a 12-satellite fleet in medium-Earth orbit.

SES owns 45 percent of O3b, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, and the two companies have been working to present a mixed product offering to several customer sets, including the U.S. Department of Defense.

Sabbagh strongly hinted that sometime in 2016 SES would position itself to become O3b’s majority shareholder to fully profit from the complementary portfolios.