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Inmarsat eyes growth across the spectrum

08 апреля 2010

Andrew Sukawaty, chief executive of satellite operator Inmarsat, has been waiting for nearly two years for an event that may never happen.

Harbinger Capital, the investment fund controlled by Philip Falcone, said in July 2008 it was considering a bid for Inmarsat. Harbinger owns a 28 per cent stake in the company, which is close to the bid threshold. It also owns Inmarsat’s US peer SkyTerra and holds a stake in another, TerreStar.

Inmarsat’s share price – though on a long upward trend – twitches up and down as investors try to read the runes on whether a Harbinger deal is coming or not.

Following Harbinger’s announcement last week that it is planning to build a costly next-generation wireless network across the US, the likelihood of a bid for Inmarsat has receded. Shares in the company fell 5.6 per cent on the news.

Mr Sukawaty, an American who has spent the past 17 years in the UK, will not comment on a potential bid. But it is understood that a takeover attempt would not be welcomed by the management. Inmarsat has plans of its own, including the launch of its first hand-held satellite phone in June. The company has more than tripled in value from £1.12bn when it floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2005, to £3.55bn today.

“When I came in it was about accelerating growth and there is still a lot more we can do,” Mr Sukawaty said.

Inmarsat was founded by the UN in 1979 as the International Maritime Satellite Organization to establish a satellite communications network to cover the oceans. It went private in 1999.

Before it floated in 2005, Mr Sukawaty, a telecoms industry veteran whose CV includes time at Sprint, the US telecoms operator, was brought in to turn a staid, quasi-government organisation with sales growth of about 3 per cent a year into something racier.

So far, he has succeeded, with sales growth rates over the past five years averaging 20 per cent.

The shipping industry still accounts for more than half of Inmarsat’s revenue. However, it also provides broadband satellite connections to aircraft and the military, as well as to journalists and aid workers who use the company’s laptop-sized broadband terminals – which cost between $1,500 (£984) and $5,000 – in disaster areas and war zones where terrestrial telecoms networks don’t exist.

The big screen inside Inmarsat’s London headquarters shows exactly where the business is – Haiti, Chile and Afghanistan are highlighted, showing heavy activity. Events often show up early on this screen. In 2006, Inmarsat was alerted to the death of Anna Nicole Smith when the Bahamas suddenly lit up with scores of journalists reporting over satellite links.

The June launch of a hand-held satellite mobile phone will open a new market for Inmarsat, but Mr Sukawaty is keeping expectations modest. “It’s a niche market. The phone is targeted at maritime, aero and government customers. That is code for ‘it won’t fit in your pocket’”, he said.

“The global satphone market is worth about $360m and we are aiming to take 10 per cent of that within two years. It’s not the biggest opportunity known to man, but it adds up.”

Analysts say Inmarsat might have had more market share if the launch had not been delayed for two years by technical problems.

Now, it will face greater competition from Globalstar and Iridium, which are launching satellite constellations for mobile satphones. Because their satellites orbit much closer to the earth than Inmarsat’s, the calls on these systems may be clearer and cheaper.

There is also growth available elsewhere, with commercial airlines – such as Emirates – starting to install phone and internet access, and smaller ships, such as fishing fleets, beginning to install broadband. In a maturing telecoms market, such organic growth is rare.

In addition, Inmarsat still sits on potentially valuable spectrum. Though it may never make a bid, Harbinger will pay Inmarsat a $336m lump sum and $115m a year just to rearrange spectrum more conveniently between the two.

And in Europe, Inmarsat owns rare S-band spectrum across all 27 EU member states. The S-band sits next to the spectrum that mobile operators use for 3G, so it could be useful for them if they start to run out of capacity as 3G usage grows.

“Mobile networks are under stress and the only way to relieve it is to increase spectrum. Up to now there have been other ways to get spectrum, for example auctions in the US. But there isn’t any more spectrum being created,” Mr Sukawaty said.

Still, he wants to distance himself from too much speculation.

“There will always be people speculating, but you have to keep a level head. A shareholder recently said to me how pleased he was that we had always done what we had said we would. For me that was the highest compliment. Call us old-fashioned but there is some value in stability and delivery.”


Источник: Financial Times

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