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How Narrow is Your Niche?

By | September 28, 2022

      Screenshot via YouTube/SSPI

      For all of its history, the satellite industry has been a business of niches. Broadcasting, maritime, energy, internet, cellular backhaul, military and civilian government. If you’ve been around a while, you know them all.

      Niches have high value. It is a proven success strategy to burrow into your niche, build deep understanding of what customers want and need, and service the heck out of them. If you execute well, a niche surrounds you with the “moat” that venture capitalists so admire, limiting your exposure to competition. A narrow but big-spending niche is a satellite industry executive’s dream come true.

      Niches, however, can be like canyons. Down at the bottom, you can only see the canyon walls. You certainly can’t see what might be coming at you from beyond your narrow line of sight.

      In 2019, the National Broadband Network of Australia began internet service over two Sky Muster Ka-band satellites to reach remote areas beyond its fiber network. Soon after, a colleague working for a satellite operator told me that he was fielding queries from Australian mining companies about switching their high-bandwidth critical satellite communications over to the Sky Muster service. “How are we supposed to compete with a 75 Australian dollar consumer service?” he complained.

      The answer, of course, is to make sure the customer understands the difference between a 75-dollar, best-effort internet connection and a high-bandwidth managed service on which the success of the operation depends. But there is another answer as well: the customer is signaling that things are are happening beyond the canyon walls that deserve your attention.

      That fact has not been lost on Speedcast, which recently aired an interesting video showing their team testing Starlink terminals for maritime service. Maritime and cruise are major niches for the company. It has responded to potential competitive threat by testing the Starlink service and developing ways to integrate it into a managed service solution – one that can deliver on service level agreements while taking advantage of the cost and latency advances of the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) service.

      Another way to protect a valuable niche is by innovating sideways. That means creating new capabilities that meet urgent customer needs, whether or not those capabilities are in your wheelhouse. Or as a CTO of a systems integration company once put it, “If the monkey wants the banana with the skin still on, you give it the banana with the skin on.”

      ITC Global operates in many of the same niches as Speedcast, including downstream oil and gas. When the pandemic sent that business into a tailspin, the company saw opportunity in adversity. The industry it served had long made serious commitments to data-driven operations. Data comes from seismic studies, from sensors down the well and in every part of the operation.  Rigs in dozens of places are tied together by data networks, so that operators in central control rooms can help solve problems.  That lets them produce less expensively with less impact on the environment. As companies struggled through the downturn, this advanced technology became the key to survival.

      They needed to bring new technology to their rigs for remote monitoring, predictive maintenance and troubleshooting. More technology meant much more data flowing through the network to deliver real-time insights into production. And it all had to get done with fewer people and tighter budgets.

      To meet those needs, ITC Global became its customers’ information technology partner. It evaluated new systems that promised to deliver more data at a lower total cost, and it managed the vendors delivering them.  It upgraded cybersecurity to keep networks safe and provided tech support to bring users up to speed. These capabilities did not come out of thin air. The company had developed them to optimize its own systems and operations – and discovered that they had gained new commercial value in a time of crisis.

      Will satellite ever stop being a business of niches? Perhaps. Private investment and government policy may eventually turn today’s visions of a space economy into future reality. Until then, our industry will keep guarding the niches in which we operate – and will hopefully keep eyes peeled for the opportunities and threats that lie just beyond the canyon walls.


      Robert Bell headshot. Robert Bell is executive director of Space & Satellite Professionals International.  SSPI produces the Better Satellite World campaign, which dramatizes the immense contributions of space and satellite to life on Earth.  More at www.bettersateliteworld.com