LEO and MEO Execs Discuss Collaboration and Differentiating Services

Satellite executives are at a critical juncture in many ways in terms of determining how they will move forward with so much recent development with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) services

Satellite executives are at a critical juncture in many ways in terms of determining how they will move forward with so much recent development with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) services. To be precise, 11 new Ku- and Ka-band Non-Geosynchronous Orbit (NGSO) systems have been filed at the FCC. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean all of these executives are necessarily pitted against each other.

Much of the discussion at Wednesday’s SATELLITE 2017 “LEO and MEO Focus: Critical New Developments for Low Earth and Medium Earth Orbit Services” panel was, in fact, focused on how different companies can sometimes collaborate or differentiate themselves within the field.

“The challenge with LEO is business-based,” said O3b Networks CEO Steve Collar. “Everybody knows [that]. And all of these guys have got different solutions, so I think it’s hard to speak generically about LEO. I think having hybrid infrastructure that you can leverage the right kind of traffic and for the right kind of customers is very important. We sort of stopped thinking of ourselves as a satellite operator a long time ago and started thinking about ourselves as kind of a data network company and how do we deliver the service and quality of the experience for the customers we serve and the infrastructure has almost become secondary.”

Collar drew laughs from the packed room a few times during the panel, including with the comment of infrastructure becoming secondary, noting how it’s probably not a comment one should make at a satellite conference. The humor, though, highlighted how these executives were for the most part friendly with each other and even if they had a few disagreements along the way, they tended to view the industry as having room for multiple players.

Telesat Senior Vice President Michael Schwartz said his company looks at LEO to provide a number of competitive differentiators from GEO and was upbeat about the near future. “If you step back and see what’s driving us, it’s what’s happening with data,” he said. “The explosion of data … has been fundamental over the last 20 years. There’s going to be no one modality to solve everything. LEO plays an important role. When we look at things that keep us up at night, these systems are complex. We don’t focus on demand and we don’t focus on competition, but we think there’s a lot of room for a lot of different solutions.”

OneWeb General Manager Scott Sprague said his company is already embracing the future, referring to OneWeb’s recent merger with Intelsat and noted there were certain markets that were ripe for hybrid solutions and areas where networks could be combined. “I think [we] all have a different approach to how we’re looking at markets … but one thing is clear, the growth of the data market is driving this demand,” Sprague said. “There are still plenty of underserved markets in the world … We are not looking to replace what folks are doing today, we’re looking to complement it in certain market segments.”

LeoSat CEO Mark Rigolle also spoke of how companies could compliment one another and how they could differentiate themselves from the pack, such as his company’s focus on offering premium products. But he also, like others, talked of the need to be open-minded about the future. “Don’t be surprised if there’s an announcement one day that we’re combining,” he said, which drew some friendly banter from Collar and a laugh from the audience.

Iridium Communications CEO Matt Desch also played up the importance of differentiating, noting features of his company, especially its focus on safety. “My strategy has been to avoid commoditization at all costs,” Desch said. “I see everybody trying to focus on different segments, and I think that’s smart because, look, it’s not just GEO vs. LEO, it’s versus all communication types. While there is demand for broadband, what you have to understand is falling prices for broadband — especially as they fall by an order of magnitude in the next five to 10 years — are not really great for satellite business. Our view is to try to go where the elephants aren’t so you don’t get trampled.”

Desch, in a more deadpan way than Collar, used humor a few times to draw laughs from the crowd, but also to underscore his points, including a quip early on how it wasn’t many years ago at a similar panel that the subject was the death of LEO, a panel which certainly wouldn’t have predicted the sort of interest on display on Wednesday.

Also discussed in some detail at the panel was regulation. “The regulatory issues are very complicated on all of us,” said Schwartz. “We just filed with the FCC different comments … The [International Telecommunications Union] ITU has a very simple and effective system and says everyone makes their filings and then go back and check with people above you. We think that process would be more effective than some regulator trying to give technical guidance on these complex and unknown constellations … that would be the most efficient way to get a public benefit.” A similar issue brought up was the number of regulatory agencies in the field.

Different companies weren’t in total agreement on the emphasis that should be placed on the possibility of lost satellites, however, with Desch, in particular, citing the concern. VS

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