Operator CEOs Accelerate Plans to Compete With SpaceX’s Starlink
PARIS — Leading satellite operators CEOs speaking on a World Satellite Business Week panel on Monday said they are building out multi-orbit networks and partnerships to deal with competition from SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.
Intelsat CEO David Wajsgras said his company will likely decide whether or not to make a potential investment in a Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) constellation in about six months. Intelsat issued an RFP to the industry this summer, and is currently gathering market and customer feedback and analyzing the business case.
Wajsgras sees the biggest growth areas for Intelsat in commercial aviation, government aviation, and land mobility. He said the operator is seeing increased demand, and that is paying off financially. Intelsat is seeing its second year of top line growth, which the operator hadn’t seen in over a decade, Wajsgras said. Intelsat is no longer publicly traded and therefore does not report its finances.
The operator is focused on broadening its managed service capabilities as it builds out its ‘Unified Network’ strategy. “It really is about the ecosystem. Any company that thinks they’re going to fly solo is delusional,” Wajsgras said. “It’s all about partnerships and alliances and working together to serve whoever our customer is.”
Viasat is still assessing the anomaly on the flagship ViaSat-3 satellite, and CEO Mark Dankberg addressed the issue during the panel, calling it “enormously disappointing.” There is some possibility Viasat will have some capability on the satellite, but Dankberg said the company expects an update early next quarter.
“Now it’s really a question of assessing what the exact state of that array is before we can estimate the performance. But we do expect that we’ll get the key capabilities and coverage areas, beam-hopping capacity, [but] not necessarily for the entire satellite. We’re not making any predictions.”
The ViaSat-3 satellite was supposed to give much-needed capacity over the Americas for aviation and consumer broadband, to give Viasat more tools for the consumer broadband market in the U.S.
Dankberg sees a large opportunity in the potential for direct-to-device. He said coordinated satellite spectrum will be an important ingredient to scale the market, and Viasat is looking at how it can bring a service together at scale.
“We have to get out of the mode of only serving people that are outside of terrestrial. You need to overlay a space capability with a seamless transition from terrestrial to space, and back to terrestrial,” Dankberg said.
Fresh off the new manufacturer announcement for Telesat Lightspeed, Goldberg was bullish on LEO, and not concerned about the constellation’s delayed entry to market. He said Starlink’s success has shown just how hungry users are for low-latency broadband connectivity outside of terrestrial networks.
“Starlink has had a real impact on the market and what people expect in terms of a user terminal and what it costs, what the cost of a bit should be, ubiquity,” Goldberg said. They brought something to the market that clearly customers want. But customers don’t want just one subscriber. If there’s anything we’re hearing, it’s that we want more competition in the market. Our challenge for Telesat is moving as fast as we can to get Lightspeed up and running.”
Goldberg is skeptical of multi-orbit antennas, because those antennas still must be designed to connect to GEO, the least efficient link. He believes the market will be driven to cheap, flat panel user antennas that work with LEO satellites.
Eutelsat CEO Eva Berneke also credited Starlink with shaking the industry up and encouraging innovation with industrialization, and bringing the price of connectivity down. But she strongly believes there’s room for multiple players in LEO, and that the need for multi-orbit connectivity largely depends on the use case.
“Connectivity is not a winner take all market,” Berneke said. “Sovereignty, security, and redundancy of networks means you will have multiple constellations. On the other hand, I don’t think you’ll have [that many]. Because of the way spectrum works, it’s going to be somewhat painful to launch later with lower priority.”
Without getting into specifics, Berneke called for the supply chain to be more competitive to keep pace with the innovation the industry is pursuing.
Eutelsat is nearing the close of its merger with LEO operator OneWeb, after more than a year of pursuing more than 40 regulatory approvals, Berneke said.
This was one of the first satellite trade show panel appearances for EchoStar’s new CEO, Hamid Akhavan, who recently was part of the deal to combine with Dish Network to plan to bring together satellite and terrestrial technologies to gain an advantage in the 5G ecosystem.
EchoStar subsidiary Hughes Network Systems recently saw the launch of its Jupiter-3 satellite, and it will be in service by the end of the year, Akhavan said.
On the acquisition, Akhavan pointed to the value of bringing EchoStar and Dish’s S-band spectrum assets together for global coverage. The company sees enterprise services as the area for future growth, with differentiated products beyond pure-play connectivity, he said.
SES CEO Ruy Pinto also emphasized the idea of sovereignty and secure communications as a driving source of demand in the industry. He pointed to niche markets like government and cruise as ways that O3b mPOWER specializes, to protect SES from price erosion.
Pinto confirmed the next launch for O3b mPOWER is set for October, and service will start early next year.