Key takeaways from EchoStar Corp.’s May 11 earnings call:
— EchoStar and Hughes have begun work on a Jupiter-3 satellite, also for coverage over the Americas, with a tentative in-service date of 2021.
— U.S. broadband subscribers fell slightly, but total sub count rose thanks to 40,000+ in Brazil. Jupiter-2/EchoStar-19 satellite entered service in March.
— The EchoStar-23 satellite, launched in March over Brazil, is in service at 45 degrees W for Ku-band, but no partners yet. Use of its Ka- and S-band is pending clarity on Brazil’s ITU status.
— No M&A news, company still sitting on $3.2 billion in liquidity.
PARIS — EchoStar Corp., in the latest sign of its faith in the long-term viability of a U.S. consumer satellite broadband market, on May 11 said it had begun work on a Jupiter 3 Ka-band satellite to be in service in 2021.
The company’s Jupiter-2/EchoStar-19 satellite, with 220 Gbps of throughput, entered service in March and is expected to return the business to subscriber growth by relieving the stress on Jupiter-1/EchoStar 17, which is sold out in certain coverage areas.
Pradman P. Kaul, president of EchoStar’s Hughes division, said the company has been giving priority access to Jupiter-2/EchoStar-19 to existing HughesNet Gen4 customers who want to transition immediately to Gen5 service offered by the new satellite.
In recent weeks, Kaul said, subscribers being loaded onto Jupiter-2/EchoStar-19 have been evenly split between upgrading existing customers and new subscribers.
EchoStar is nothing if not deliberative, and Kaul has said in recent months that the company was in no rush to begin work on a Jupiter-3 despite the lack of in-orbit backup.
That has now changed.
“We have been designing Jupiter-3 for a potential 2021 service launch with significant additional capacity in the Americas,” Kaul said. “The design includes several new technologies and we expect to make a final design in the next few months.”
The contrast with competitor ViaSat Inc. is stark. ViaSat’s ViaSat-2, whose launch was delayed by rocket-related issues, is now scheduled to be orbited on June 1 aboard an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket. But ViaSat began work on a ViaSat-3-generation model more than a year ago, with a launch tentatively set for 2019.
CEO Dugan: No need to rush on Jupiter-3 design
EchoStar Chief Executive Michael T. Dugan said the company has been well-served by its caution and added a surprise comment about electric propulsion.
“I am very pleased we took the time we did on Echo-17 and made the right decisions there, and then on Echo-19, we got that into service much quicker than people predicted,” Dugan said.
“A lot of those things have to be clearly considered as we look at bigger, more-powerful satellites. I don’t want to launch and then come back and tell you, ‘Well, it will be another year before I get into service because we’ve got to to electric orbit-raising. That’s one of the things that complicates this.”
Substituting chemical propulsion for electric propulsion does mean waiting several months after launch before the satellite is in its geostationary-orbit operating position. But it also saves up to 50% of a satellite’s launch mass and can result in equivalent savings on launch.
With Jupiter-2/EchoStar-19 not in service until the end of the reporting period, EchoStar reported a slight decline in its U.S. consumer satellite broadband subscriber count that was more than compensated by a surprisingly large increase in its Brazilian broadband business.
U.S. subscribers down, but a surprising success in Brazil
EchoStar had reported 20,000 Brazilian subscribers as of Dec. 31, short of its goal. But the company said in March that the figure had risen to 40,000.
No updated figures on Brazil were given during the conference call. EchoStar said that its total consumer broadband subscriber count, which includes the U.S. and Brazilian markets, was 1,043,000 as of March 31, up from 1,036,000 as of Dec. 31.
Stripping out the Brazilian effect and it appears that the U.S. subscriber count dropped.
“In terms of subscriber acquisition, I think we’re doing better than our plan,” Kaul said. “I expect we’ll be very pleased with the results of our Brazilian business at the end of the year.”
EchoStar and Hughes plan to start a consumer satellite broadband service in Colombia by the end of the year. Other Central American nations will follow later on.
Satellite broadband service in Canada and Mexico is handled on a wholesale satellite-lease basis with service providers in those countries and is not part of the subscriber count of EchoStar.
EchoStar-23 all set at 45W, but business model is cloudy
The EchoStar-23 satellite was launched in March into EchoStar’s new 45 degrees West orbital slot, won at a Brazilian slot and frequency auction. But for the moment, it appears to be all dressed up with nowhere to go.
It’s Ku-band payload has been formally placed into service under Brazilian regulatory rules, but to date EchoStar has found no partners for a direct-to-home television or other service.
“Things have been very challenging down there,” Dugan said.
EchoStar-23 also has an S- and Ka-band payload but these frequencies are caught up in a discussion of whether Brazil has priority rights to operate them at this orbital location since other satellites are ahead of Brazil at the International Telecommunication Union.
Anders Johnson, president of EchoStar Satellite Services, said the company is working with Brazil’s regulator, Anatel, to seek “clarifications as to what exactly Brazil’s status is from an ITU priority standpoint. We are hard-pressed to launch the construction of new satellites using those frequencies at that orbital position until a number of fundamental coordination matters are settled vis-a-vis filings of higher international priority.”
EchoStar-21, for European mobile service, to launch within weeks
The EchoStar-21 satellite, carrying an S-band mobile services payload for Europe under a European Commission license, is scheduled for launch in the coming weeks aboard an International Launch Services Proton rocket after a year’s delay.
Johnson said European regulators appear to understand that the delay was beyond EchoStar’s control. The other licensee for European satellite mobile communications services, Inmarsat of London, is just as far behind schedule, also for launch-related reasons.
Johnson said EchoStar’s EchoStar Mobile Ltd., based in Dublin, Ireland, has “established all the necessary terrestrial infrastructure and hired people and created devices to use the network, once it’s up and operating.”