Fragmented Asian Satcom Market Defying Easy Prediction

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WASHINGTON — Asian satellite operators and service providers said their region’s market remains so fragmented and packed with regulatory oddities that they are not sure whether there is overcapacity or undercapacity there.

That is not likely to change anytime soon, they said, meaning the market is likely to continue to produce surprises, such as the apparent decision by Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) to order two large Ka-band broadband satellites to cover the 2-3 percent of Australians that are beyond the reach of terrestrial networks.

“Two large satellites, with one being a backup for the other — it’s one hell of an investment for the 2-3 percent of the population that needs it,” said Patompob (Nile) Suwansiri, vice president for sales at Thailand’s Thaicom satellite operator.

Thaicom’s IPStar broadband satellite, which uses Ku-band links to its subscribers, has had substantial success in Australia and is far from nearing its capacity of 7 gigabits per second. “We thought our 7 gigabits was sufficient for Australia,” Suwansiri said March 16 here during the Satellite 2011 conference.

NBN, the Australian company created to deploy a nationwide broadband network including fiber and terrestrial-wireless links, has not yet ordered its two satellites but has announced plans to do so.

While it is not clear when the spacecraft will be in orbit, the prospect of massive Ka-band satellite capacity entering Australia as part of a government program is probably not welcome news for Thaicom. IPStar, which has been in service for five years, still has at least 10 years of in-orbit life.

Thaicom in late 2010 received regulatory approval to enter the Indian market, which always has been a principal target given its presumed pent-up demand for bandwidth.

India’s regulatory regime has been the subject of grumbling by satellite service providers for years and it remains a market that is difficult to penetrate. Foreign satellite operators must go through the Indian Space Research Organisation and its Antrix commercial arm to get access to the market, at prices that the Indian agency oversees.

Thaicom is nonetheless confident that IPStar will find a large market in India.

Speedcast of Hong Kong, a satellite services provider owned by satellite fleet operator AsiaSat, has been trying without success to get a license to operate a VSAT, or very small aperture terminal, satellite network in China.

Speedcast Chief Executive Pierre-Jean Beylier said Speedcast’s inability to win regulatory access to China stands in contrast to the current Chinese VSAT market, which he said is in disarray.

“There are between 42 and 45 VSAT providers licensed in China,” Beylier said. “One-half of them are not in operation, and a majority of the rest are losing money. In China there are only around 50 business jets for the whole country, so it’s fair to expect a substantial increase. And yet as a foreign company we cannot get a VSAT license.”

The difficulty in reading the Asian market for satellite telecommunications can be seen in the recent history of projects in the region. AsiaSat Chairman Peter Jackson said he thought it was foolish for Vietnam to launch its own national satellite system, Vinasat, because it would never find enough customers.

“I was totally wrong about that,” Jackson said. “I told them it would take years to get the satellite filled up. Then the government licensed four or five [services] operators, and the first satellite filled up. Now they are looking at a second satellite because the demand is there.”

Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) of Hong Kong is another example of a company that entered what appeared to be a crowded market with a single satellite but has managed to grow fast.

ABS Chief Executive Thomas Choi said March 14 that ABS has averaged a 61 percent annual growth in revenue in the past four years, one half of it from filling its satellite’s transponders, the other half from making agreements with other operators in the region to take over their aging satellites.

In other cases, ABS has struck so-called condosat arrangements in which its satellites are co-owned with partners. ABS has concluded such agreements with KT Corp. of South Korea and with SingTel of Singapore.

Choi said that by inviting co-owners in before the satellite is launched, ABS was able to limit the dilution of its current owners’ equity because it did not need to bring in new investors. Doing so reduced by one-third the capital the company needed to raise for its large ABS-2 satellite, now under construction.

“We do give up the upside,” Choi said, referring to the fact that ABS must forfeit some of the growth potential of the satellite by selling it to co-owners. “But we use that cash paid by condosat customers to invest in expansion to other orbital slots.”

Titus Yong, vice president and head of satellite at SingTel Satellite of Singapore, whose company owns Australia’s Optus telecommunications operator, said Asia’s chopped-up market — many operators concentrating on relatively small geographic markets — is not just government driven. Private-sector demand remains robust, he said.

Beylier did not disagree, but said recent talk of Mongolia purchasing its own satellite is difficult to fathom. “I wonder where the demand is to fill it up,” Beylier said, adding that Pakistan’s national satellite program has not seen the market success its managers may have predicted.

Yong said that the market’s current fragmentation into many bandwidth providers may offer a better service to consumers than a market that is consolidated into one or two large fleet operators.