AsiaSat revenue up, but regional C-band pressure mounting
WASHINGTON — Hong Kong-based fleet operator AsiaSat reported a third year of increased revenue, but warned that the C-band spectrum it uses for television broadcasts is now under threat in several of its markets.
AsiaSat tallied 1.44 billion Hong Kong dollars ($183.7 million at current exchange rates) in revenue, up 6.5 percent over 2017, which was also a growth year, as was 2016. The company’s core fleet of five satellites saw a 3 percent increase in capacity use, reaching an overall fill rate of 72 percent.
Four of those satellites carry C-band transponders, however, causing AsiaSat to worry about the impact regulators may have by repurposing some of those frequencies for nascent 5G cellular networks.
“[D]ue to stepped up efforts by regulators around the world to re-purpose a portion of C-band satellite spectrum to facilitate the roll-out of new 5G services, there have been concerns over the tightening supply of C-band transponder capacity available for broadcast distribution,” AsiaSat Chairman Gregory Zeluck said in a statement accompanying the earnings release.
Last year AsiaSat CEO Roger Tong blamed Intelsat for opening the floodgates around the world for regulators to go after satellite airwaves with renewed vigor after the operator allied with chipmaker Intel on a proposal to allow 5G networks to use a portion of C-band, but only in the United States. Speaking at the CASBAA Satellite Industry Forum last summer, Tong said the satellite industry had already proven its ability to defend its use of C-band at past World Radiocommunication Conferences — where regulators gather every three or four years to debate how spectrum should be used — but that now cellular operators have the excuse they need to claim more need for the band.
“Once they get it they won’t stop,” Tong said. “They can’t. They will be more and more bandwidth hungry, they will claim to have more devices out there, they will claim that their market segment is expanding so they have to expand the spectrum.”
Clare Bloomfield, director of policy and research for CASBAA, since renamed the Asia Video Industry Association, or AVIA, said the U.S. C-band debate was having an impact on Asia. Satellite operators are preparing for the next World Radiocommunication Conference, which takes place this October and November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Zeluck put a mildly positive spin on the risk of regulators chipping away at satellite C-band, describing it as one of two trends that could result in an increased demand for satellite communications services.
“With the slowdown in the deployment of new geostationary satellites, coupled with the tightening supply of C-band transponders due to the expected rollout of 5G services in a number of Asian markets, we believe the demand for satellite transmission capacity will be outstripping net distribution capacity,” he said in his statement.
Zeluck said AsiaSat has been working on damage control measures “aimed at alleviating the anticipated impact of 5G implementation,” that include a mix of technical workarounds and the “rationalization of satellite capacity” to broadcast customers.
Asia-Pacific satellite operators have argued that C-band is more important in their markets because of the spectrum’s resilience during rainstorms that are a regular part of life for many of their customers. AsiaSat said broadcast customers account for two thirds of its C- and Ku-band capacity, and continue to grow.
Even its newest satellite, AsiaSat-9, has become a video “hotbird” AsiaSat said, providing broadcast transmissions instead of the data-centric services it was designed for.
Zeluck said AsiaSat continues to reevaluate its plans for AsiaSat-10, a high-throughput satellite the company indicated a desire to buy more than a year ago to have in service in 2020. Geostationary communications satellites typically take two to three years to build and launch, making that timeline all but impossible now.
Tong, in an interview last summer, said AsiaSat has been closely following high-throughput satellite technology — which is principally used for data connectivity — for the past six years, but that Asia’s market dynamics make it extremely difficult to implement.
“In Asia it is very hard to close an HTS business case,” he said. “The market is too fragmented with small countries each wanting their own gateways and beams. Landing rights is an issue, and government control is another issue. We are still working on it. We know what can be done; we know what we need. We are trying to close the case, and when we close the case, we will move.”
AsiaSat reported a profit of 429 million Hong Kong dollars for 2018, up 32 million Hong Kong dollars thanks to an increase in revenue.
AsiaSat said full payload leases on two of its satellites — AsiaSat-4 and AsiaSat-8 — buoyed revenues. Other satellite operators are borrowing both spacecraft.
Spacecom in Israel is borrowing the four and a half year old AsiaSat-8 to cover the loss of Amos-6, a satellite destroyed in a SpaceX Falcon 9 fueling incident in 2016.
Pakistani satellite operator Paksat is borrowing AsiaSat-4, a 16-year old satellite rebranded as Paksat-MM 1, for coverage of Pakistan, the Middle East and Asia.
Since AsiaSat replaced AsiaSat-4 in its own fleet with AsiaSat-9, which launched in 2017 on an International Launch Services Proton, the company doesn’t count the older satellite as part of its core five-satellite fleet. AsiaSat also doesn’t count AsiaSat-3S, a 20-year old satellite that Indonesian satellite operator PSN has been borrowing for coverage of its home country.
PSN said it intends to transfer customers from AsiaSat-3S, which it calls PSN-5, to its new satellite Nusantara Satu, which launched last month on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. AsiaSat made no reference to any pending dip in revenues from PSN’s transfer of customers.