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Goonhilly CEO Ready for Aggressive Expansion

By | January 28, 2019
Goonhilly satellite station. Photo: Gemma Garner (Flickr)

Goonhilly satellite station. Photo: Gemma Garner (Flickr)

Goonhilly Earth Station has been making waves, quite literally, with its deep space antennas. The U.K.-based “gateway to space” has been around since the 1960s, but its new leadership team acquired the historic site from BT and began a new chapter in 2014. The company has been expanding its efforts — including new funding, offices, and even making an appearance at the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam last September.

Via Satellite spoke to Goonhilly Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ian Jones at IBC 2018 about what’s been happening over at Goonhilly, and what’s to come. Since the conversation with Via Satellite last September, Goonhilly has expanded its engineering capabilities with the opening of a new office in the U.K., and also joined a new Australian research center initiative.

VIA SATELLITE: How are things shaping up for Goonhilly now that you have a few years under your belt?

Ian Jones: We’ve just stocked up with a $31.7 million (24 million British pounds) investment from Peter Hargreaves. When we talked to Peter about his investment he was really keen. He looked at our original business plan, and was keen that we really excel in what we do, and make a big mark. We already were a very long way into the negotiations with the European Space Agency (ESA) to convert Goonhilly 6 (GHY-6) into a deep space antenna — these two things concluded around the same time.

When we put our business plan together, we looked at five different areas of the business that we wanted to expand. One was deep space communications, so that’s expanding on the work we’re doing with ESA now. And, we’re going to expand globally. So, we’re planning to open a ground station in Australia, and one in California, and then we’ll complement the NASA deep space network and the ESA Estrack network. Since moving into that area, we’ve found that we’re collaborating very closely with both ESA and NASA, who are very interested in supplementing their own networks with our systems.

We’re also talking to private companies who are going into deep space. So that was one area. We’re also interested in traditional satcom and we call that “near space,” as opposed to deep space. But we called it near space because there’s a merging area of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and constellations. We already host antennas for a couple of companies who are doing LEO satellites and we have the traditional Geostationary Orbit (GEO) business, of course. We’re expanding on those plans as well – we’re going to be building more tracking antennas, and now we’re looking at the model for how we can create a global networking for LEO tracking.

VIA SATELLITE: Who do you see as your main customers?

Jones: For LEO, it’s the emerging companies that are starting to appear. We’re very interested in how we can influence that growth and try and find the right business model. I don’t think many have found a good model yet, because essentially, you need a constellation of ground stations. That’s expensive, and you have to get this balance between the quality of a ground station and the price point. I don’t think anyone has got that balance right. So whether the right way to do this is to have a coalition of partners that can contribute, or go down the route of system operators trying to operate their own systems — in which case you host systems — or, you try to create an independent network that you offer for lease. All of those are potential ways forward. We’re interested in being in the mix there, to make sure we’re part of it.

VIA SATELLITE: You mentioned ESA, and obviously we’re heading toward crunch time for Brexit. Do you think a no deal Brexit would have an impact on your plans, particularly going forward?

Jones: Well, ESA is entirely separate from the European Union (EU) and has a completely different set of membership — well, many are in common — but it’s a different organization, So we’re not directly affected by Brexit in terms of the ESA relationship. The U.K. will continue to be a contributor to ESA. Clearly, some of the programs like Galileo, which are EU programs — there’s a big debate as to what will happen. I mean personally, I was absolutely against Brexit — it was an absolutely crazy idea. As a company, if the worst scenario happens, ironically, I think we’ll do pretty well, actually. It will open up a lot of opportunities, and Goonhilly is well placed to meet those opportunities. But I don’t think everybody will benefit, which is why I think it’s a bad thing overall. We would do fine if we stayed in the EU, but I think we’re well placed to make the most of the opportunities if things go wrong.

VIA SATELLITE: Are you in the process of actually building out these ground stations in Australia and California?

Jones: We have the funding in place. We’ve got the blueprint, the designs of what we want to do. We’re currently in the process, and a bit more advanced in Australia than in the U.S., at the moment. We got the office set up and we’re starting to looking around at different sites. I think it’s interesting that Australia is coming along so quickly — the new space agency is really interested in the investment in Australia and working with the growing space business there. I think we’re coming at exactly the right time. We haven’t decided exactly on the location yet — I think there’s some decently obvious ones, but we wanted to keep our options open until we’ve had a good chance to look around at all the different options.

VIA SATELLITE: When do you expect to finalize these plans?

Jones: I would say over the next few months. We’re very busy doing the first upgrade for the GHY-6 antenna, and we’re recruiting more staff to meet the demand there, and to get all that work done. The plan is to do a phased approach to get a site sorted out for Australia, as we’re doing the upgrade for GHY-6, and then as we start to build that out in Australia we’ll be looking for a site in America.

VIA SATELLITE: How do you plan to differentiate yourself in the U.S. market? What unique perspective does Goonhilly bring?

Jones: I think that the whole “going into space” thing is very exciting – companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Orbit are finding new ways to get into space, and lowering the cost. On the back of it, there are companies defining new missions and new ways of monetizing space, that isn’t just telecommunications, like Earth observation and exploration and things. They’re also thinking about the missions that they want to do, but I think one of the things that’s overlooked is how you communicate back to Earth. For all the cost and all the money that’s spent in the space sector, unless you can communicate that data back, that’s a problem.

To our knowledge, there aren’t organizations that have taken the same route as us. There are companies who are providing communication links — obviously there’s all of the commercial satcom, but they tend to be with smaller antennas, maybe in the 15-meter range. We’re really looking to meet that same spec as the big deep antennas. But to do it from a private perspective, and to make it cost effective. So, in the same way that SpaceX is bringing the price down by order of magnitude, we’re looking to do the same.

VIA SATELLITE: Does that mean you’re primarily interested in Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO)?

Jones: For deep space, we’re looking at the Moon and Mars — there’s some really interesting missions being planned by ESA at the moment. There’s an L5 mission being planned for solar weather monitoring. I think that’s a really interesting mission because that’ll become a critical monitoring location for space weather. That’ll need 24/7 coverage with quite a service level agreement behind it. I think that’s where our background in providing telecom services, with a very strong service level behind it, is useful. I think that could be a great mission for us.