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OneWeb, Amazon, and Rivada Solidify Strategies to Differentiate from Starlink

By Rachel Jewett | September 14, 2023


From left: Declan Ganley, Rivada; Jonathan Hofeller, Starlink; Brian Holz, Mangata; Massimiliano Ladovaz, OneWeb; John-Paul Hemingway, SES, speak at World Satellite Business Week. Photo: Via Satellite

The conversation around satellite constellations like OneWeb and prospective operators including Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and Rivada Space Networks is driven by differentiating themselves to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

Starlink has “well over” 1.5 million subscribers including consumers and enterprise, and the number of people actually impacted by the constellation is likely in multiples of that, Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink Commercial Sales at SpaceX said Wednesday on a panel at World Satellite Business Week. That subscriber number is in line with what Starlink announced in May

SpaceX is no longer subsidizing the cost of the user terminal for customers, Hofeller shared. 

“We’ve been iterating on our terminal production so much that we’re no longer subsidizing terminals, which is a good place to be,” Hofeller said.

SpaceX charges consumers $599 for the user terminal. Two and a half years ago, the terminal cost SpaceX around $1,500 and the company was subsidizing it for consumers by selling it for $500. 

Wednesday’s announcement that SES will integrate Starlink into its offering with cruise lines indicated a shift in Starlink’s business model that it will partner with another satellite operator, which it has not done before. Starlink is sold through resellers and integrators like Speedcast, but SES is the first major satellite operator to offer that integration. 

Amazon is preparing to launch a direct competitor to Starlink with Project Kuiper, and its first two demonstration satellites will launch the first week of October, Naveen Kachroo, head of Product and Business Development for Project Kuiper, said during a Wednesday morning fireside chat. The satellites will launch on a ULA Atlas 5 mission

Kuiper’s core principles are affordability, reliability, and flexibility. Amazon has not shared any pricing strategy on Kuiper’s user terminals, but Kachroo said the proprietary terminals offer high performance at a low cost. The baseband modem, called the “Prometheus” chip is part of the spacecraft and ground terminals. “This is one of the key enablers that we’ve innovated to get the throughput that we need,” he said. 

One of Kuiper’s differentiators will be its access to Amazon and Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure. “We wanted to make sure that when traffic comes back down to the ground, we move it efficiently into public and private networks,” Kachroo said. “We get to take advantage of a lot of existing Amazon infrastructure through the Amazon Web Services on the fiber networks, so we are able to quickly move traffic in and out of our network into terrestrial networks.” 

Rivada Space Networks, which has a constellation contract in the development phase with Terran Orbital, plans to differentiate itself with a wholesale approach to selling capacity and service level agreements, CEO Declan Ganley said. He reported that Rivada has a multi-billion dollar pipeline. 

“They want service level agreements, they don’t want best effort service,” Ganley said of Rivada’s pipeline customers. “Best effort is good for consumer communications, [like] cell phone service. Sophisticated enterprise users want service level agreements, they want guaranteed rates. We’re seeing that low latency is valued. [Also] security, if you can avoid backhaul over certain areas, that’s something they see as having real value. There’s going to be a differentiation between best-efforts and service level agreements.” 

OneWeb is staying firm in its approach as a wholesale capacity provider. The operator is not looking to cut out its service providers and integrators, CTO Massimiliano Ladovaz said. While OneWeb will soon merge with Eutelsat, it has distribution partnerships with Hughes Network Systems and Intelsat as well. 

“We want to ensure that we are part of a solution. We will not remove business from customers,” Ladovaz said. “We want to work with them and make them grow. That’s OneWeb and we will stick on that path. I’m glad to see that Starlink as well is moving in that direction. Multi-orbit is what the customer wants.” 

Operators and would-be operators are confident there’s enough demand for low-latency connectivity to go around, and projects are moving forward. Telesat recently secured final funding and is moving forward with plans to manufacture Lightspeed, and Riavda is moving forward as well. 

Brian Holz, CEO of Mangata Networks, said the company hasn’t experienced any funding headwinds or investors pulling back due to Rivada and Telesat’s success. Mangata Networks is working to develop a Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) and Medium-Earth Orbit constellation, bundling backhaul connectivity with micro data centers. 

The company has outlined maritime as a major target market where it can provide differentiated service. The maritime market wants universal coverage, which is largely not available today, Holz said. 

“Merchant maritime is one of the biggest opportunities out there today, it’s largely untapped.  Operators today are charging way too much for capacity,” Holz said. “People are paying $4,000 [for] a couple of megabits per second. Starlink is going to help change that, and so will we, when we get into orbit.”