AsiaSat Chairman Jue Wei Min’s August statement to shareholders that the Asian satellite telecommunications market features “increasing competition [and] fierce pricing pressure” could have been said a year ago, and even 10 years ago.
So it goes in the world’s most competitive market, where the pride of having a national satellite operator obliterates business logic, and where hopes for industry consolidation go to die.
When a nation like Laos, with a total population less than that of Hong Kong, launches its own satellite, you know you’re in a rough neighborhood for making a living selling satellite capacity.
But LaoSat-1 was entered into service early this year after Laotian authorities demonstrated enormous determination coordinating frequencies with neighboring operators, and signaled their commitment by taking out a $259 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.
Can Myanmar, Nepal and Mongolia be far behind?
Recent trends in satellite transponder pricing nonetheless hold out at least a slim possibility that the Asian situation may be about to change. If it does, it will be thanks to China, where investors are showing a new interest in satellite telecommunications.
ABS of Bermuda, which does most of its business in Asia, is being sold by its private-equity owners, led by Permira. ABS Chief Executive Tom Choi is quick to point out that this is not a fire sale, but only the normal cycle of financial investors who book their profit and then invest in some other promising industry.
Industry officials have said ABS’s owners began shopping the company at prices that the market found too rich at a time of slow growth for many fleet operators.
In addition to ABS, Hong Kong-based AsiaSat is said to be considering a change of direction. Measat Chief Executive Paul Brown-Kenyon, who in recent years has been a strong voice for Asia’s satellite sector, has announced he would be leaving the company this fall.
Israel’s Spacecom was to have been purchased by Beijing Xinwei Technology Group of China before Spacecom’s Amos-6 satellite was destroyed in the Sept. 1 explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Industry officials said the Chinese company, which continues to negotiate with Spacecom, has a growth strategy in the satellite field that likely includes rolling up assets in Asia and elsewhere.
Chinese investors are said to be among those looking at Avanti Communications of London, whose financial distress is well-known.
As in many areas of life in Asia, the most interesting question for the region’s satellite market may be: What does China want? It has shown signs of opening its market, at least partly. AsiaSat, after knocking on the door for nearly a decade, in 2016 was granted access to China’s mainland and is already showing an uptick in China-based revenue.
While the industry speculates on China’s endgame in the satellite operations field, it has seen what has happened in Indonesia, where three satellite operators are launching a total of four telecommunications spacecraft.
It would be difficult to imagine a geography better suited to satellite connectivity than a nation of 13,400 islands, which is why satellite builders have spent so much time courting the market in recent years.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology told the United Nations in late 2015 that 34 non-Indonesian satellites were operating on Indonesian soil as of late 2014, an extraordinary figure even after accounting for Indonesia’s territory and its population of more than 250 million people.
That compares to just 22 satellites with landing rights in Indonesia in 2013, 18 in 2012 and 10 in 2011, the ministry said.
Is it possible that all these operators are making money in Indonesia? Whatever the answer, Indonesia’s Bank Rakyat Indonesia decided it could use its own satellite and ordered BRIsat from Space Systems Loral. The satellite was launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in June.
Indonesia’s PT Telkom has two satellites on order, Telkom-4 from Space Systems Loral and Telkom-3S from Thales Alenia Space.
Pasifik Satelit Nusantara (PSN) has ordered PSN-6 from Space Systems Loral, scheduled to launch in 2017.
It will be interesting to see how many of those 34 foreign satellites stick with the Indonesian market beyond 2018.