Echostar’s take on high-throughput satellites: best bought one at a time

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WASHINGTON — EchoStar wishes it ordered its latest satellite, Jupiter-3, sooner than it did, but won’t seek to play catch up by buying another copy of the satellite in order to meet surging demand for broadband connectivity, executives said Feb. 21.

Jupiter-2, EchoStar’s newest broadband satellite on orbit, is already filling up with customers just two years after launch. Englewood, Colorado-based EchoStar, ordered Jupiter-3 from Space Systems Loral in 2017 to bring expansion capacity over the Americas, but the satellite isn’t slated to launch until 2021.

Echostar executives said that while they recognize the need to field more capacity, they don’t want satellite purchases to outpace the development of better technology, lest they risk overstocking on assets that could prove obsolete.

“We can go spend [capital] and build two Jupiter-3s simultaneously and have that capacity available longer,” David Rayner, EchoStar’s chief financial officer, said during a Feb. 21 earnings call. “But the reality is that a subsequent satellite is going to have better technology, better economics, and so you want to try and stage things appropriately so that you are getting the best returns on the capital investment.”

EchoStar is not alone in the struggle to time satellite purchases as optimally as possible. The rapid advance in high-throughput satellite technology, which uses narrower, more concentrated beams than traditional satellites to deliver broadband connectivity, has caused several operators to second guess their decisions or hold off on purchases entirely. Fleet operator ABS, for example, said Viasat’s global ViaSat-3 system would have vastly outperformed its ABS-8 satellite had ABS gone through with the order (ABS canceled ABS-8 due to a lack of export-credit financing). Indonesian satellite operator PSN said its newest satellite really should have been designed with 10 times more capacity, but that that wasn’t at all obvious five years ago at the time of purchase.

EchoStar’s Hughes Networks Systems division, located in Germantown, Maryland, operates three high-throughput broadband satellites — SpaceWay-3 (launched in 2007), Jupiter-1 (launched in 2012) and Jupiter-2 (launched in 2016) — providing internet to households, inflight connectivity businesses and other customers. Pradman Kaul, president of Hughes, said the company’s Jupiter-3 satellite will have more than 500 gigabits per second of total capacity, making it one of the highest capacity satellites under construction.

Hughes counted 1.36 million consumer broadband subscribers as of Dec. 31, a number, Kaul said amounts to 69 percent of all satellite broadband subscribers in the United States. More than 300,000 subscribers were added since Dec. 31, 2016.

As beams on Jupiter-2 reach full saturation, Hughes’ subscriber growth is increasingly coming from South America, executives said, where the company leases payloads on competitor satellites Eutelsat 65 West A and Telstar 19 Vantage. Kaul said the company has expanded service across Brazil and Colombia, and entered Ecuador and Peru with plans to launch into additional countries soon.

Until Jupiter-3 launches, the majority of broadband growth will come from Latin America, Kaul said.

Hughes also anticipates expanding in Africa through a joint venture with Emirati satellite operator Yahsat that began operations last month. Kaul said the $100 million Hughes invested in the joint venture, plus $60 million Yahsat put in from an insurance claim on Al Yah 3, gives the joint venture the financial means to support “ambitious expansion plans in Africa.”

“We hope that we will buy more capacity, either a hosted payload or a new satellite,” Kaul said, though he didn’t give a timeframe.

Kaul said Hughes is actively exploring additional joint venture possibilities in other parts of the world.

Kaul said Hughes is also still optimistic on receiving approval from the Indian government to field a broadband satellite over the country, but gave no forecast for when that might occur.

Hughes generated $444.6 million in revenue for the last three months of 2018, counting for the bulk of parent-company EchoStar’s $530.6 million in total revenue. EchoStar recorded $2.1 billion in full-year revenue, with Hughes counting for $1.7 billion of that total.

EchoStar executives declined to comment on whether the company would make another go at buying British fleet operator Inmarsat after last year’s failed attempt. EchoStar Chairman Charlie Ergen said last year that EchoStar needs greater scale and that opportunities besides Inmarsat also existed.

EchoStar has the means to facilitate such merger and acquisition activity thanks to its war chest of $3.2 billion in cash, cash equivalents and current marketable investment securities as of Dec. 31.