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Acquisitions in maritime connectivity

Over the last two months, the maritime and offshore satellite connectivity market has been sparked with a bout of merger and acquisition activities, writes Joshua Flood, senior research consultant at Valour Consultancy.

ViaSat to acquire Rignet
In late December 2020, ViaSat announced an agreement to acquire RigNet, an American energy connectivity provider for approximately $222 million. It is believed RigNet’s customer base in the energy market is of strong interest to ViaSat, with the upcoming launch of ViaSat-3, a new constellation of three satellites.

Founded in 2001, RigNet is a US-based service provider of connectivity services, applications and cybersecurity solutions primarily for the offshore oil, gas and energy market. The company is headquartered in Houston (USA) and also has offices in the UK, Singapore, Brazil and another US office in Louisiana. It employs roughly 650 staff globally.

In its latest publicly released financials, Q3 2020, the firm recorded revenues of almost $161 million for the first nine months of 2020, down by $18 million from the same period in 2019. RigNet recorded a net loss of $36.5 million for the same period in 2020, almost double of that in 2019. Not exactly a rosy trajectory over the last two years.

The company divides its business into four segments: managed communications services (MCS), applications and IoT, systems integration, and corporate with its biggest segment, MCS, suffering in 2020 compared to 2019.

However, not all is doom and gloom when RigNet, in October 2020, announced a multiple-year contract with an undisclosed offshore drilling contractor to provide fully MCS and global satellite access to its entire global drilling fleet. The new contract also includes RigNet's machine learning platform, Intelie, and other supplementary applications, intelligence, and network security solutions.

One key challenges the company has faced is the diminishing number of sites that it manages for MCS; a count in Q3 2020 noted 1,190 sites compared to 1,229 in Q2 2020. In Q3 2019, the firm held 1,386 sites.

Valour’s take
In Valour’s opinion, the justifications for ViaSat intent to purchase RigNet is not some paradigm leap in market growth or unseen grab of untapped assets.

The move is relatively simple one. RigNet provides a relatively steady business in an uncertain business environment, the energy sector, at the moment.

It allows ViaSat to slowly grow its nascent maritime connectivity proposition and meld it with RigNet’s well-known managed communications services business.

This business has a reasonable array of customers, 500 companies, which encompasses 369 offshore production sites, 173 maritime vessels and a number of other sites.

Finally, one of the main quotes of the great Warren Buffet, always try and buy under-priced assets. At the moment, most energy related companies are relatively lowly priced.

Marlink proposed acquisition of ITC Global
Marlink Group, owned by Apax Partners (France), has signed an agreement to acquire 100 per cent of ITC Global, a maritime and energy service provide owned by Panasonic. The value of the deal as yet to be disclosed, if it ever will.

My question is what value ITC Global brings to Marlink Group, the leading retail maritime service provider?

ITC Global
ITC Global is an American satellite-based communications provider which primarily serves the energy, mining, maritime, and NGO markets. The company was originally set up in 2001 and has its headquarters in Houston, Texas. Interestingly, the firm was acquired by Panasonic in 2015 and now operates as a subsidiary of the Japanese company.

In January 2020, ITC Global partnered with Inmarsat to expand its service to providing Ka-band coverage to energy, maritime and yachting customers. The five-year strategic partnership means ITC Global will act as a reseller for FX. ITC Global’s parent company, Panasonic Avionics, signed a similar agreement with Inmarsat in 2018 to provide inflight connectivity.

Valour’s take
Marlink Group’s potential acquisition of ITC Global is an interesting move within the maritime connectivity sphere.

Not to second guess Marlink’s case, the firm’s maritime satellite connectivity solution, SeaLink, has made remarkable progress in recent years. Over 2020, the firm increased its SeaLink vessel count by 1,000 from 2019.

That said, Marlink Group, in the past, has not been shy to purchase some key players; OmniAccess, Telemar Group, Radio Holland’s VSAT distribution business over 2016 and 2017. Nonetheless, Marlink has strategised a strong surge of organic growth since.

The proposed purchase of ITC highlights two things. Firstly, this period of organic growth has possibly to come to an end. In the Sigmoid Curve, there are critical phases. Development, introduction, growth, maturity and decline. To arrest the decline, it is vital to catch the next opportunity on the rise, before the current one fells. I believe we are in a spell of acquisitions and mergers within the industry with companies scoping out potential suitors and targets.

Marlink Group is very well known for its presence in the maritime connectivity commercial merchant market, and high-end leisure. As such, ITC Global’s strong maritime offshore energy, passenger and enterprise customer base provides Marlink group with a new market segment to master.

Looking at this from other side of the fence, in my opinion, Panasonic Group has conducted a thorough review of its business operations over the last twelve months. This will indubitably entailed picking which businesses and operations will see the group through, in the long term. Unfortunately, it would seem, Panasonic doesn’t see ITC Global as a long term fit for its business portfolio.

Finally, with the downturn of the energy sector, and speculating that Panasonic were looking for an exit plan in maritime, Marlink Group will likely achieve a very good deal price for ITC Global.

What’s next
It is predicted we will see three more notable mergers and acquisitions over the course of 2021.

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  • How much does a merchant ship pay for its VSAT communications?

    Many years ago and in another industry, not so distant from maritime connectivity… I wrote a piece providing viewpoints on “how much an airline would pay for an early release movie (early window content is the industry term). The piece got me into a considerable amount of bother, writes Joshua Flood, senior research consultant at Valour Consultancy.

    The fundamental issue being how secretive these negotiations were and Hollywood studios, airlines and their content service providers did not wish to shed any light upon the subject. Or I was terribly wrong in my viewpoints. I will stick to the former point.

    Now after many years elsewhere, (similar to Yoda in swamp planet of Dagobah), I have decided to return to one of my favorite types of pieces.

    To push myself further, I plan to write a series of pieces talking about how each type of commercial vessel (merchant, fishing, passenger, offshore and leisure) would pay for their connectivity solutions, typically VSAT and MSS.

    Merchant satellite subscriptions

    Addressing the title of this piece, merchant ships come in a number of shapes, sizes and purposes.

    Breaking out the merchant market from a bird’s eye view; there are roughly 150,000 MSS and VSAT satellite subscriptions in the market. This may confuse some, due to the popularly touted figure of 80-90,000 merchant vessels (depending on your source and classifications). Clearly, this number is less than the number of maritime satellite subscriptions.

    To quickly quash this, a significant number of large merchant vessels require multiple terminals for safety purposes. In addition, some vessels will also subscribe to a multitude of solutions for certain purposes. An example could be subscribing Ku-band VSAT services from Intelsat or Eutelsat, Fleetbroadband from Inmarsat and Certus from Iridium.

    Emergence of VSAT technology

    In the past, merchant operators were satisfied with just MSS (L-band) services, however, over the last decade the use of VSAT technology has become a dominant force within all commercial maritime vessels. There are around 20,000 VSAT merchant vessels active today.

    Looking into the key types of merchant vessels. There is an array of different variations. And when speaking about shipping, certain regions are known for their trade. Asia and Northern Europe for commodity and container vessels, as an example.

    Extra special LNGs

    One of my favourite research interviews of 2021 was with a Cypriot service provider. I won’t say which one or whom, however, it was most definitely one of my most entertaining.

    It was almost like having a conversation with the Cheshire Cat in Alice of Wonderland. I went through a list of vessel types with “the Cat” providing their average monthly airtime fees the company gets for connectivity airtime packages. Bulk carriers, a short grunt and allocated to the bottom of the list of data usage and associated ARPU revenue. MPP and ro-ro vessels followed in quick succession, just above bulk carriers. General cargo and container vessels pique his interest and were placed in middle position of the rankings. PCC and vehicle carriers excite Mr Cat further.

    Finally, we reached tankers, and LPG and LNG types cropped up.

    With a delightful purr, “Beautiful, Joshua! We love both, although LNGs are extra special. LNGs are our favourites!”

    I still chuckle at this answer.

    VSAT connectivity – let’s talk numbers

    Moving away from this abstract narrative, the merchant market is highly fragmented and different vessel types have a big difference in their respective airtime ARPU, depending on usage type, areas of coverage and congestion of such areas.

    In general, globally, the VSAT connectivity ARPU for a bulk carrier will just surpass $1,300 per month. An LNG tanker will be in the range of $3,000 to $4,000 per month with lucrative value-add service inclusions.

    As such, the customer type and their fleet of vessels are very important. Also, I will also state the more prestigious customers know how valuable their business is worth and therefore expect very good service and also heavy discounts. In fact, some prestige names are not as lucrative as some outsiders perceive.

    In 2019, Valour Consultancy estimated the average connectivity package per merchant vessel was around $800 (combining both MSS and VSAT services). MSS service per vessel are less than $500 per month generally.

    For Ku-band, this works out around $1,500 and Ka-band around $1,300. The latter will have gone up in 2020, too. For more information on the final point and our latest maritime connectivity research, please download our latest report brochure for more information here.

    Average Monthly Connectivity Revenues in Merchant Vessel in 2019

    MSS only

    <$500

    MSS & VSAT

    $800

    Ku-band

    $1,500

    Ka-band

    $1,300 (this will have increased in 2020 & 2021)

    Bulk Carrier

    $1,300

    LNG

    $3,000 to $4,000

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