Eutelsat’s plan to sell off European retail broadband activities bucks a trend that has seen satellite operators increasingly buy these kinds of businesses in recent years.
The French geostationary operator’s focus back on wholesale is also notable because it comes just three years after it bought some of these assets on the chopping block.
Eutelsat has not identified the buyer, although spokesperson Anita Baltagi told SpaceNews it is a retail business.
Meanwhile, most other operators have shown eagerness to become more vertically integrated. Climbing down the value chain can help operators tighten their grip on uncertain markets by getting closer to end users, and help compensate for lower margins as the supply of satellite capacity soars.
Notable recent acquisitions to this end include Viasat’s purchase of energy sector specialist RigNet and Intelsat’s acquisition of Gogo’s commercial aviation assets.
Getting hands on that inflight connectivity business was so important to Intelsat that it pounced on the group even before the operator had wrapped up its Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring.
Analysts see these and similar deals as part of an evolution of the classical satellite operator business, which has been branching out of its wholesale roots toward more managed services.
Chris Quilty, CEO of research firm Quilty Space, said operators are increasingly being forced to choose between wholesale and direct business models now that this traditional wholesale distribution model has broken down.
“Unlike many of its peers, Eutelsat has reiterated its commitment to its channel partner strategy,” Quilty said via email.
“Is it a winning strategy? It worked out well for Iridium, which is now the most valuable “pure play” space company in existence.”
Iridium has made a point of not buying up resellers of its capacity to avoid potentially competing with other customers.
Still, companies allergic to vertical integration are increasingly outliers in other parts of the space industry, too.
Space companies have been keen to broaden their businesses in response to uncertainty in the supply chain, noted Bryce Tech director of analytics Carie Mullins.
A company like Rocket Lab that builds the rockets it launches, for instance, is effectively the primary customer for the parts the broader group needs to run its main business.
“It speeds up your lead time if you’ve got your own in-house” assets, Mullins said.
Eutelsat’s retail business also hasn’t been a huge success, Mullins added, compared with a wholesale business that recently secured big telco customers in France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland.
Tuning for OneWeb
Another factor is Eutelsat’s proposed acquisition of low Earth orbit operator OneWeb, part of the company’s push into the broadband market, which would help globalize its business.
“It’s much harder to run retail on a global basis, and doing direct in some regions and wholesale can make managing channel conflict difficult,” according to Armand Musey, founder of advisory firm Summit Ridge Group.
OneWeb has a wholesale-only distribution strategy that it hopes will help differentiate it from other LEO broadband operators, such as Starlink.
The consumer broadband segment is also a very different beast compared with mobility and other verticals, noted Northern Sky Research principal analyst Lluc Palerm-Serra.
“It requires scale,” he said, “and it has always been a key challenge for the satellite industry to reach scale.”
Whereas satellite broadband operators Hughes and Viasat have been able to scale rapidly in the United States, it is more challenging to build scale in Europe because the market is fragmented.
Eutelsat has a retail broadband presence in Africa that is not part of the sale, and the company is also continuing to push closer to end customers in other verticals through more managed services.
Even if Eutelsat moves away from retail services completely, what it means to be a wholesaler has evolved since five years ago, Palerm-Serra said.
Historically, wholesalers would typically just sell their capacity, and it was the integrator’s job to construct the teleport, buy the baseband equipment, and build out their service.
Today, in most cases, he said wholesale means managed services, where the integrator buys megabits from a satellite operator that also handles the teleport and ground segment — in addition to providing virtual network services to help manage the end customer.
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.