With 17 Satellites Slated To Launch in 2014, Orbcomm Eyes Larger Share of M2M Market

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PARIS — Satellite machine-to-machine (M2M) messaging services provider Orbcomm on March 3 said its long-delayed second-generation satellite constellation is now scheduled for launch on two Falcon 9 rockets operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the first in late-April and the second in November.

The first of the two launches, which is now second in SpaceX’s 2014 manifest behind a NASA-purchased cargo delivery run to the international space station, scheduled for mid-March, will carry six second-generation Orbcomm satellites. The second, set for November, will carry the remaining 11 satellites, Orbcomm Chief Executive Marc J. Eisenberg said.

In a presentation to an investor conference organized by Raymond James investment advisers, Eisenberg said the first six satellites will plug a hole in Orbcomm’s current coverage, which is being provided by a first-generation constellation that is well beyond its original design life.

Filling that gap to existing customers will generate an immediate revenue increase of “a couple of million dollars” per year starting as soon as the satellites are operational, Eisenberg said.

The 11 remaining second-generation spacecraft will be launched in November, also from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., under current SpaceX planning, Eisenberg said.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX has a heavy launch manifest in 2014 with at least a dozen planned missions.

Rochelle Park, N.J.-based Orbcomm originally expected the second-generation constellation to be operational sometime in 2011. The launches have been successively delayed for multiple reasons, the latest being the availability of the SpaceX Falcon 9.

Industry officials have said Orbcomm secured the SpaceX launches, originally aboard smaller Falcon 1 rockets before that vehicle was retired, at an exceptionally low price, leaving the company little alternative but to wait its turn on Falcon 9.

The new-generation satellites will be backward compatible with today’s Orbcomm modems and antennas, used to track the status of fixed and mobile assets. But the new satellites have six times more receivers on board than do the current spacecraft, and offer twice the message delivery speed.

Eisenberg said that when advances in transmission protocols are factored in, the second-generation constellation will have about 100 times the overall capacity of the existing satellites.

Given the new satellites’ capabilities, he said, Orbcomm’s addressable market will expand tenfold as the company competes more effectively with machine-to-machine connections enabled by terrestrial-cellular networks.

Eisenberg said satellite-linked M2M has advantages over terrestrial cellular that have not been made obvious to users in part because of the high price of satellite M2M gear, in part due to the lack of production scale.

An Orbcomm antenna, he said, costs about $50, with the modem costing around $125. Similar products from Orbcomm competitor — and recently partner — Inmarsat of London are even more costly.

A terrestrial cellular system typically features a $5 antenna and a $40 modem.

Orbcomm is partnering with competitors Inmarsat and Globalstar of Covington, La. — all three have global constellations in orbit — to develop a common satellite M2M modem and antenna and to share parts and other costs.

“We’re going to get the price of a satellite modem down to $75 and the price of an antenna to sub $15,” Eisenberg said. With the costs down, he said, the usually lower per-bit costs of satellite transmissions should enable satellite systems to win market share.

The current satellite share of the global M2M market has been estimated at 5 percent or less. Nudging that up to 9 percent, with each percentage point representing about 100,000 installed units, is within reach for the industry, according to Orbcomm.

One inherent advantage of satellite M2M over the dominant terrestrial cellular systems is technical continuity, Eisenberg said. Orbcomm’s current satellites are 15 years old and have been serving some Caterpillar heavy-equipment customers since 1995 with no equipment change needed.

This longer cycle, which contrasts with the multiple technical transmission changes in cellular networks moving from analog to digital, to 3G and now 4G, is more in line with the life cycle of the equipment on which the M2M terminals are placed.

Orbcomm has been able to use the cash it had reserved for the SpaceX launches and related launch insurance — $55 million and $20 million, respectively, to be spent this year — for acquisitions, according to Orbcomm Chief Financial Officer Robert G. Costantini.

Orbcomm has purchased five companies in the past two years, lowering profitability but paving the way for a diversified product portfolio that, along with the expected satellite launches, should deliver profit starting this year, Eisenberg and Costantini told investors.