Space should fare better against coronavirus than other industries, report says

Space

WASHINGTON — Many services space companies provide have strong demand drivers that are not curtailed by the coronavirus outbreak, an attribute that may protect the industry compared to other sectors, according to a report released March 18.

Government customers in defense and emergency response have robust needs for satellite connectivity and geospatial data in times of crisis, and commercial demand for connectivity remains strong, Quilty Analytics wrote in its “Sizing COVID-19’s Impact on the Space Industry” report. 

“While by no means immune from the broader economic downdraft, we nonetheless expect the Satellite & Space industry to fare somewhat better from a demand perspective than the economy-at-large,” the report said. 

Space companies are already reporting varied impacts from the coronavirus pandemic. 

European launch provider Arianespace paused missions from Europe’s South American spaceport following the French government’s call for limiting non-essential activities to curb the coronavirus pandemic. 

OneWeb, which launched its first large batch of broadband internet satellites in February, still plans to conduct its next launch March 21 before taking a pre-planned April break. While the February launch lifted off from Europe’s now-idled Guiana Space Center, the upcoming launch will lift off from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which had only 44 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of March 19, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launch remains scheduled for March 26 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, because the U.S. Space Force considers the mission’s payload — the Advanced Extremely High Frequency AEHF-6 satellite — essential since it provides highly secure, nuclear-hardened communications to military forces. 

German satellite and rocket hardware builder OHB said March 18 it is not revising its 2020 revenue forecast despite the outbreak thanks in part to its backlog of largely government contracts. However, in-flight connectivity provider Gogo, which uses capacity on 34 satellites, avoided issuing financial guidance this month and said it was seeking price concessions on satellite capacity leases as airlines ground flights amid travel bands. 

In an interview, Chris Quilty, president of Quilty Analytics, said space firms with substantial government business are likely to fare the best during the COVID-19 pandemic, while service providers focused on aviation and maritime will be hardest hit. 

Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst at Teal Group, agreed. 

“This industry in my view would be not totally isolated from the crisis, but not one of the most highly affected ones, like the airlines,” Caceres told SpaceNews. “If this turns out to be a long-term crisis, then all the more demand there will be for telecommunications services.”

Quilty Analytics, in its report, wrote that the COVID-19 crisis could drive demand for residential broadband — benefiting companies like EchoStar and Viasat — and stem cord-cutting that has winnowed subscriber numbers for traditional satellite television.

Quilty Analytics expects investors may hold back on putting capital into new companies, which could cause poorly funded startups to struggle. But venture capitalists are “sitting on record levels of dry powder” that they can still use once markets stabilize, the report said. 

Government support?

Quilty said the space industry may not benefit from federal stimulus packages Congress and the White House are rushing to finalize to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus, which has battered stocks in the space industry and at large. 

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said March 19 that the government is working on a $1 trillion stimulus package that includes $200 billion in loans “to airlines and for other critical industries” impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This is an unprecedented situation where at the government’s direction, we shut down parts of the economy, and now is the time that we provide government support,” Mnuchin said in an interview on Fox Business

Though some parts of the space industry are being affected, Quilty said it is “unlikely that the space industry would rise to that level” to receive newfound federal support. 

One area the space industry is watching is any stimulus funding focused on expanding broadband connectivity. 

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks advocated for a “connectivity stimulus” in a March 19 New York Times Op-Ed. Starks also called on U.S. broadband providers to keep Americans connected, including those needing low-cost options, while people telework and spend more time at home to limit their risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus. 

Three members of the Satellite Industry Association — AT&T, EchoStar and Hughes — agreed to participate in the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected initiative. Under the pledge announced March 13, U.S. telecommunications providers agreed to waive late fees and defer service terminations for financially challenged customers through May 12.

Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association, said that the trade organization is not lobbying for a part of the stimulus package Mnuchin described, but is watching for other coronavirus-related programs that may be related to connectivity. 

“If there’s going to be an infrastructure package, we have recommended that it include broadband and that it be technology neutral,” Stroup said. 

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