Home >> May 2013 Edition >> Near Earth LLC Analysis — The M2M Landscape
Near Earth LLC Analysis — The M2M Landscape
By John Stone, Partner, Near Earth LLC

Back in September of 2009, we published an article (See www.nearearthllc.com/analysis/presentations/vol5.9.2.pdf) on the incipient growth of the M2M sector, beating the drum that an array of factors ranging from slowing wireless handset revenue growth to better geospatial data to cheaper chipsets would revitalize its investment thesis.

Three and a half years later, I thought it worthwhile to look back and see how far we’ve come, and where we might be going.

Let’s start with an overview on the structure of the sector. Here at Near Earth, we view the M2M value chain as consisting of the following functional subsectors, with the respective players operating in one or more of them.

StoneFig1 As you can see, we’ve noted that the overriding strategy thrust transitions as one moves across the value chain, with scale being the emphasis at one end while specialization rules at the other. In addition to guiding the strategy for the players in a respective vertical, to date this has also tended to result in the respective market participants focusing their attention to one or more immediately adjacent portions of the chain. However, as we discuss below, this tendency is weakening over time in our view.

Looking across the landscape, let’s take a look at each sub-sector in turn, with the idea of forming a holistic view of M2M overall.

Carriers—As we presaged in our prior article, more recently M2M has become much more important to the carriers, which heretofore were much more focused on selling phones and plans to consumers and businesses. Each of the wireless and satellite carriers now has substantial human and financial resources devoted specifically to M2M. Each has retooled their data offerings to be more attractive to M2M users directly, rather than focusing on a reseller strategy. And, most tellingly, there have been some impressive investments made to acquire capability in the M2M sector through inorganic growth, reflecting both time pressures as well a shortage of expertise as M2M has grown overall.

Perhaps most spectacular was Verzion’s acquisition of Hughes Telematics for $612 million for a whopping 7.9x revenues—reflecting their view of the potential for tapping the market of consumer vehicles as subscribers (penetration of M2M amongst fleet operators, while still growing rapidly, is relatively more mature).

Over time, we expect this trend to continue and even accelerate as the carriers find that more and more of their “subscribers” don’t have flesh and blood. Consider that industry forecasters Analysys Mason expect the number of connected devices to grow to 1.2 billion by 2021—a compound annual growth rate of 36 percent—dwarfing revenue growth from conventional cellular traffic. In other words, starting now, the growth engine for the carriers is M2M.

In the satellite world, where M2M was early to garner carrier interest, we’ve seen the carriers invest heavily in expanding across the value chain—with a substantial investment in SkyWave in Inmarsat’s case and no fewer than four acquisitions by pure play M2M carrier ORBCOMM [including MobileNet, where Near Earth LLC advised]. In both these cases (and through Inmarsat’s Stratos and Ship Equip acquisitions—which focused on non M2M traffic), the satellite carriers are transforming themselves into one stop shops pushing along the value chain all the way to the end user. We expect this trend to accelerate going forward for both satellite and terrestrial carriers that increasingly become much more than providers of commodity bandwidth.

Nearearth_ad_SM0513 Mobile Virtual Network Operators—M2M first came on the scene when the adoption S curve for the cellular market was steep and carriers were racing to build out their marketing, distribution and communications infrastructure—and frankly didn’t want to be bothered with a tiny upstart technology. Capitalism being what it is, MVNOs filled the niche with repackaged airtime into more M2M friendly formats, provided higher levels of customization and customer service and generally aggregated the initially small demand to levels where carriers were willing to talk. But, as M2M traffic has grown exponentially, pure M2M MVNOs are becoming increasingly unneeded in our view. Consequently, we expect the carriers to appropriate their strategies, disintermediating the MVNOs in the process, and where the valuations are compelling, acquiring them as well. This mirrors the earlier case of the voice (principally prepaid) MVNOs, which have largely become captive brands of the incumbent carriers (e.g., Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, etc.).

Alternatively, the existing MVNO’s will respond by transforming themselves, both organically and through acquisitions, into operations that capture more of the M2M value chain. We, therefore, expect today’s leading MVNO’s will look very different in the next few years—or they will have different owners.

Device Manufacturers—Compared to the mature space of the carriers, the M2M device space is very much the wild, wild west. In this sector, manufacturers ride the wave of exploding demand, while trying to hold back the forces of commoditization and price erosion. New standards (e.g., 802.11p, LTE, Weightless 1.0, etc.) come on to the scene, each requiring substantial nonrecurring engineering and each running the risk of being stillborn like Ultra Wide Band or WiMax. Similarly, as old standards (think AMPS, 2G) stop being supported, it is forcing everyone from hardware vendors to end users to jump through hoops, allegedly for their own good.

In this sector, as well, we are noting expansion across the value chain. Some home grown examples include Digi’s iDigi Device Cloud (effectively a captive MVNO) and Telit’s m2mAIR offerings (bolstered by the Crossbridge acquisition), while CalAmp recently expanded into this sector with its acquisition of network operator Wireless Matrix. Of course, as noted in our diagram, going big is also an advantage in this subsector, so we have seen acquisitions that are more to build scale rather than expand beyond devices (e.g., Telit/Motorola, and others). We expect both acquisition trends to continue.

Network Operators—With less pressure to grow for growth’s sake and the ability (or is that a luxury?), therefore, to specialize to a greater degree, the M2M Network Operator space has the largest number of players in our universe. Here the growth emphasis has largely been organic, taking advantage of the relatively low penetration (and concomitant growth opportunities) that most M2M subsectors have. In cases where relative market maturity (e.g., truck fleet monitoring/tracking) restrains growth, or, alternatively, where capital is cheap (such as for Fleetmatics, which recently bolstered their cash reserves with a $192.5 million secondary), we expect operators will be more acquisitive. On the disposition side, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a spinoff or IPO of General MotorsOnStar unit, which could be valued north of $5 billion, a number that we doubt is fully reflected in its parent’s stock price.

Application—With the ability to scale software alone, such can provide the freedom to work with a variety of hardware vendors using different interfaces—we have been bullish on building block application providers such as Axeda and Sensorlogic for some time. While we remain so for the future, to date this sector has been more promise than practice. We believe that this largely reflects the immaturity of the subsector, and in particular limited experience with end users and integrators. As M2M blossoms and end users and integrators need less hand holding, we expect this issue to disappear with time. While we may be somewhat early in our call, we remain committed to our bullish view.

Integrators—As noted previously, end users are still trying to figure out how to take advantage of the rich data and remote management opportunities that M2M offers. This is where the integrators come in.

With end users focused on ROI, skilled integrators that can deliver it via M2M solutions are thriving. With low capital requirements (the main assets here are human capital, not plant and equipment) and many niches to fill, this subsector offers opportunities for competitors small and large. Many firms focused elsewhere on the value chain are finding that captive integrators can be profitable as well as serving as a sales channel for their parents. Likewise, independent integrators may make tasty acquisition targets for firms that wish to add or augment their captive operations.

With close customer ties (and thus, market knowledge) and a plethora of market participants, we expect the integrators (independent and captive) to lead the continued expansion for M2M.

There you have it—a bit of a review of how we got here, with a few predictions thrown in for good measure. Let’s check back in couple of years and see how this all turns out! In the mean time, here at Near Earth, we’ll be helping to make it happen.

StoneHead About the author
Mr. Stone brings a wealth of finance and industry experience to the Near Earth team. In addition to his background in corporate finance and as a senior research analyst for both equity and debt securities, John also has an extensive background in science and engineering. As a consequence, his efforts for the group reflect a combination of financial acumen, broad technical knowledge and a scientist’s rigor. Prior to joining Near Earth, Mr. Stone worked in the corporate finance unit of National Securities, where he was involved in sourcing, banking and distribution of private placements for early stage technology companies. From 2000 to 2002, he worked as a senior equity and debt analyst at Ladenburg Thalmann and Company. At Ladenburg, he covered satellite and cable broadcasting equities, and satellite/launch vehicle manufacturer and the debt of a networking company. While primarily dedicated to research during his tenure at Ladenburg, Mr. Stone also worked in a support role for the company’s corporate finance activities.