Comtech Subsidiary Faces Layoffs after Navy Cancels JMAPS

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PARIS — Satellite communications hardware builder Comtech Telecommunications Corp. said near-term outlook for its AeroAstro microsatellite division is in doubt with the cancellation of a U.S. Navy program that had been the division’s showcase project.

The Joint Milli-Arcsecond Pathfinder Survey (JMAPS) satellite, which Comtech AeroAstro had hoped to use to tap into a broad U.S. government interest in smaller, less-expensive satellites, “has now lost its funding. Revenue will cease” in the coming weeks, Comtech Chief Executive Fred Kornberg said in a June 8 conference call with investors.

Melville, N.Y.-based Comtech purchased AeroAstro in 2008 with the idea that tighter U.S. Defense Department budgets would turn U.S. military attention to low-cost satellites that are AeroAstro’s focus.

Comtech had received two contracts valued at a combined $43.5 million for the JMAPS satellite, which will not be completed unless some other U.S. agency steps in to replace the U.S. Navy. Kornberg said a new customer, if found, is not likely to appear before the next U.S. federal government fiscal year begins in October.

Kornberg said Comtech is reducing staff and other costs at Ashburn, Va.-based Comtech AeroAstro to align its costs with the revenue outlook.

Offsetting the loss of JMAPS and the clouded outlook for AeroAstro has been new U.S. government contracts for satellite Earth stations and for continued work on the U.S. Army’s Blue Force Tracking (BFT) and Movement Tracking System (MTS) programs.

Comtech lost the contract to build the second-generation BFT system when ViaSat of Carlsbad, Calif., came in with a far lower bid. But Comtech has assumed that the Army would maintain, for several years, its Comtech BFT/MTS link through contracts for maintenance and for the use of Comtech intellectual property.

That forecast has proved true. In March, Comtech received an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract for up to $80.7 million for BFT-1 and MTS work for three years. That figure includes an annual $10 million payment for Comtech’s intellectual property.

Kornberg said he expected the Army to exercise its option for at least a second year, but that there are no guarantees of this. Also uncertain is the contract value in the second year aside from the $10 million fixed license fee.

As part of BFT-1 and MTS, Comtech is providing the Army with satellite bandwidth under a contract that expires June 30. The Army had indicated it would not renew the contract, but instead would purchase bandwidth from the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

After an initial DISA attempt to purchase bandwidth was terminated, the agency is trying again. Comtech is bidding for work from DISA as a subcontractor.

Kornberg said that while Comtech has no special insight into ViaSat’s performance on the BFT-2 work, it appears that, nearly two years after the July 2011 contract award, “qualification tests are not completed and no fielding has been occurring.”

ViaSat Chief Operating Officer Rick Baldridge, in a June 13 presentation to investors said that BFT-2 deployment is proceeding smoothly.

An initial deployment occurred in a small region in March, and deployment to a second region has begun, Baldridge said. The initial order of 40,000 BFT-2 terminals occurred in mid-2011, and since then new orders have been booked.

“The customer is dying to move the new systems” into the field, Baldridge said. “It saves them a bundle in [satellite] bandwidth. It gets your screen refreshed in seconds instead of minutes.”

One of Comtech’s key product lines is the manufacture of tube amplifiers and solid-state power amplifiers for high-bandwidth communications via satellite. The company’s 500-watt amplifiers have found a market in high-throughput satellites being fielded for broadband applications for the U.S. Defense Department and in the commercial market.

This market is growing, as is the market to provide higher-speed, lower-cost satellite bandwidth to maritime markets. Comtech has not been active here but recently won a $3.5 million contract with Harris CapRock of Melbourne, Fla., as part of a Harris CapRock project to supply cruise ships with satellite telecommunications links.

“This [contract] enters us into the maritime market and allows us to take market share,” Kornberg said. “Ku-band offers the lowest cost of ownership.”

Competing with providers of very small aperture terminal satellite networks such as those being built by Comtech and Harris CapRock are Ka-band systems that connect to a growing fleet of Ka-band satellites designed for high throughput. Kornberg said it is too early to assess how big the market might be, but that bandwidth demand from crew and passengers is increasing quickly.