SEOTY Winners Talk Industry’s Past, Share their Vision of the Future
Every year at the SATELLITE show in Washington, D.C. Via Satellite presents its Satellite Executive of the Year award, a recognition of an executive which Via Satellite feels has made a big, positive impact in the industry that year. Besides being one of the highlights of the SATELLITE show, the award has been going for almost 30 years itself. The winner is seen as a visionary in our industry and someone that has made a difference.
Via Satellite’s Satellite Executive of the Year winners are in a unique position to examine the state of the industry. In a special round table, we bring together Romain Bausch, ex-CEO of SES; Dan Berkenstock, head of product and partner development at Terra Bella at Google; Tom Choi, CEO of ABS; and Jean-Yves Le Gall, director general of CNES and ex-CEO of Arianespace, to talk about their recollections of the industry over the last 30 years, and where they feel it goes next.
VIA SATELLITE: Was there one news story that you remember, one event that happened in this industry that made you stop when you first heard it. What was it and why did it have that impact on you?
Berkenstock: I read an article a few years ago about a high school building and launching a cubesat. Here is something that 50 years ago could only be done by the world’s most advanced governments, and is now within reach of high schoolers. That’s amazing. What that means to me is that the pool of ideas is expanding exponentially. At one point there were so few people that understood satellites, that innovation was limited to the ideas of that group. Today, nearly anyone can develop and build a satellite. With such a broad diversity of ideas coming into the community, who knows what we’ll see next?
Choi: I guess there are many events that I can mention here but I would like to speak about the announcement made by someone who I admire the most in our industry, Mr. Mark Dankberg, CEO of ViaSat. What I love about Mark is that he is a true innovator and he has shown success time and time again. He has achieved unparalleled success as a technology provider, a satellite service provider and now a satellite operator. His recent announcement of the ViaSat 3 constellation has stunned the industry and has made them reexamine what they are doing.
ViaSat 3, if and when it is implemented, represents a quantum leap in the amount of capacity that an FSS satellite can have and how low cost each Mbps will become. This has upset more than one CEO of FSS operators but for me it is a stroke of genius. With ViaSat 3 Mark has made all other HTS that have been built and are currently being built irrelevant in terms of cost per bit. He has set the bar and everyone else has to either write off their existing HTS Ka-band investments or make new plans. I really welcome the challenge. Whatever we do in the future, we need to meet and beat that standard he has created.
Le Gall: To be quite honest, in this industry there are events happening all the time that we’re convinced are going to be the next really big game changer… until the next one comes along. I suppose that’s also what makes it so attractive. From a more personal point of view, I will always remember the thrill of seeing Philae land on its target comet in November 2014 and of course my Satellite Executive of the Year award in 2005. When Via Satellite called me to announce the award for myself and through me the entire European launcher community, which was coming off the back of some really tough years with the return to flight of Ariane 5, I couldn’t believe it. And the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. in front of the world’s space industry remains one of the high points of my career.
Bausch: There has been more than one striking news story over the past 30 years; the one I may pick is when I first read about Greg Wyler’s idea of launching a Mid Earth Orbit (MEO) satellite constellation in space in order to provide a fiber-like broadband network to the unconnected regions and people in the world. After I met a couple of times with Greg, we tasked a team to undertake an in-depth assessment of the feasibility of such a low latency, high throughput, Non-Geostationary Earth Orbit (NGEO) satellite-based network and a year later SES decided to join this start-up named O3b as a strategic investor with a path to control.
VIA SATELLITE: When you look at the overall industry, do you believe it has been slow to change, particularly when you compare it for example to the wireless industry?
Bausch: The slower speed of change results directly from the long CAPEX cycles, which characterize our industry. As a satellite project takes roughly 20 years from the drawing board to the end of life of the satellite, it is obvious that you cannot move from one technology to the next one within a couple of years. Therefore, people working in the satellite universe have to be patient and the strategic plans of our companies have to take into account the financial framework, which is inherent to suchlong investment cycles.
Le Gall: I would say yes and no. Yes, because the space industry is global and its large, unwieldy structures and capital requirements make it hard to achieve strategic agility. It has suffered from this failing for years and certainly missed opportunities to diversify as a result. And no, because the revolution driven by NewSpace has brought new ways of working and established new public-private partnerships, thus combining the best of both worlds and fueling space’s current run of success.
VIA SATELLITE: With the likes of Google, SpaceX, and Facebook entering the industry, will the pace of change speed up? Did the industry really need this injection of new thinking from companies outside it?
Bausch: It is far too early to tell what role internet companies will play in the satellite industry. Some of them are exploring other technologies in parallel like high altitude balloons and drones. It is also not the first time that such large companies are trying to enter the satellite universe. Bill Gates, with Teledisec, is probably the most prominent example.
I am deeply convinced that Google and Facebook will become important users of satellite solutions, but it is premature to speculate whether this will be as customers, partners or competitors of the incumbents. Their involvement will help our industry to develop, but innovation does not rely on them.
Choi: I really welcome the entry of these players into our industry. The FSS industry did so much and the mobile industry did much more to connect the world. There are still billions of people not connected to the internet today and unless something new and innovative is introduced, those people will continue to stay unconnected. Obviously Google and Facebook require connected people on the internet to expand their businesses. Since the developed economies are saturated, the only way for them to grow in a meaningful way is to get unconnected people connected. However there is no simple solution to this problem, otherwise the people would have been connected already.
Do I believe a network of floating balloons drifting uncontrolled in the jet stream will solve this problem? No; nor do I believe it is feasible to have solar drones solve the problem either. How many drones would you need to cover every inch of Africa? How many airstrips would you have to build and how many logistical centers would you need to operate and how much manpower and support would you need going into areas with no roads or rail let alone fiber backbone which would be needed to connect the drones to the end users? Have they done that math?
Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 men and returned suffering 95 percent casualties because he didn’t plan his logistics. I would argue the logistical challenge of using drones to cover the surface of Africa would be much more challenging than what Napoleon faced. This does not mean that their ideas are dumb nor their desires unrealistic.
These innovations are going to be a part of the story that gets everyone connected: a story, which has to include the use of satellite systems. I strongly believe that their attempt at those innovations is a rebuke of our industry. They simply believe we are too stodgy and dumb and our services to be cost prohibitive so they are experimenting with ideas. However, I think they are coming to a realization that future satellite systems, which can significantly reduce the cost of the service to the end user will have to be incorporated into the strategy of connecting the billions of people who remain out of touch with the rest of the world. As the recent announcements have confirmed, these firms will be working with members of our industry to connect the rural masses. Let’s hope their efforts will lead to everyday consumers living in those rural areas believing that satellites will play a meaningful role in their lives.
Le Gall: We are today seeing a paradigm shift from a top-down approach, in which the space industry invented new systems and offered them to potential users, toward a bottom-up approach in which industry listens to end-users and then designs and develops the systems they need. We can credit these new entrants for applying this new approach that in my view is giving the space industry a new lease of life.
VIA SATELLITE: What do you think has been the biggest technology advance in the industry over the last three decades? What would you highlight as a genuine game changer?
Berkenstock: I believe the biggest technology advances have been outside the industry and the game changer has been integrating those capabilities, instead of attempting to recreate them at great time and expense. Space is hard because it’s a tough environment; you can’t send a repair team to replace a failed component, and it takes a rocket to get deployed. But there are a lot of hard problems on the ground, too. It’s hard to build a device that can be used daily by 100 million users with low failure rates, it’s hard to build a data center that can support billions of queries seamlessly. Integrating the technologies that have fueled solutions to these staggering terrestrial challenges has been the real game changer in my mind.
Bausch: Over the last three decades there has been continuous technology progress in our industry. This is true both for the space segment (on board processing, phased array antennas, flexible payloads, launch mass) as well as for the ground equipment. The genuine game changer has been the introduction of digital, which has allowed for many of the technology advances to happen.
VIA SATELLITE: What do you love most about working in the satellite industry? How does it compare to other industries you have worked in?
Berkenstock: I love the exhilaration of launching satellites and the community of people who do it for a living. There really is no feeling like watching something from your own clean room accelerating to 17,000 mph aboard a controlled detonation. It’s a moment that reminds you how small our planet is, how incredible it is to break beyond its bounds, and how incredible are the scientific advances of the last 100 years. I also love the people of our industry — we are all passionate, which can lead to very strong opinions, but also joined by a sense of shared experience and culture. That’s a special thing to be a part of.
Choi: What I really love about our industry is that it is highly technical so it is led by mostly technical people including operators, service providers and vendors. Engineers are trained to strive for the truth. How correct an engineer does his work determines if the projects fail and lives are lost.
A gallery owner can convince an unsuspecting art-collector that a dubious piece of art is genius. However a civil engineer that cannot design a dubious bridge without it falling down. Thus, I like our industry where people in general speak the truth and have very high levels of ethics and integrity. Of course you can find the rare outliers but in general it is good industry to be working in. Beyond this important point, I really like the fact that we make a real difference in the world. More often than not, we are the last line of communications in a rural area and we deliver the television channels that entertain people and enrich their lives. In my early career I dabbled in commercial real estate, retail and consumer marketing. The satellite industry is the most rewarding by far because we strive to improve the world we live in.
Le Gall: I would say working with international partners is the best part of the job for me. I believe I’m incredibly lucky to be working with contacts on all five continents, sharing technologies, approaches and cultures; it’s a constant source of inspiration, both from a career point of view and from a more personal perspective. It of course makes big demands on my time, as it involves a lot of traveling, but the benefits are huge!
VIA SATELLITE: Hopefully this edition of Via Satellite will be read by one of my successors in 30 years time. Can you give me a prediction of something way out there that we might see in the industry over the next 30 years?
Bausch: Thirty years ago satellite DTH television was not yet launched; mobile communications, broadband networks, digital technology and the Internet did not even exist. As I am convinced that innovation will continue at a speed that will even be faster than what we have experienced over the last 30 years, it is clear that the industry will offer things we do not yet know today. I am thus afraid that I have to disappoint you regarding such a prediction. Nonetheless, I believe that the role of satellites will remain relevant. This should thus be a good reason for Via Satellite to continue to be the reference magazine for our industry in the 30 years to come!
Berkenstock: Thirty years ago the World Wide Web didn’t exist and I think it would have been impossible at the time to fully appreciate the transformational effect it would have on our lives, so I’m reticent about predicting the future. However, it was clear at the time that computers were becoming smaller and networked and that would increasingly become a part of everyday life. Today I see a similar dynamic with sensors. We’re still often tethered to our cameras and fitness trackers by USB ports and cables. Soon, more and more data will just flow in real-time regarding our health, environment, transportation, and everyday options. I don’t know if we’ll ever see space elevators or solar electricity derived from orbit, but I do believe we are only at the tip of the iceberg in capturing data from space that will better inform real time decisions on the ground. So, hopefully in 30 years we’ll know exactly which path a hurricane will take when it makes shore and we’ll spot forest fires before they threaten homes, and we’ll pay less for goods because global supply chains are so much more efficient. None of those are “way out there” on their own, but their summation could be just as revolutionary for our lives as many of the advances of the last 30 years.
Choi: In 30 years I would love to see satellites become integral to communications and as ubiquitous as GPS is today providing seamless networking between terrestrial wireless and satellite broadband services at cost levels on par with terrestrial alternatives. I also see intra and inter planetary satellite communications networks that connect human beings living on the Moon, Mars and other areas in the solar system. Although we may have minutes of delay but we may yet communicate with our grandchildren on FaceTime via inter planetary communications networks. I also see that we will see members of our FSS industry venturing and expanding into other space fields of not only communications but also exploration and mining in space as well as human transportation and habitation systems. Space is the universe and satellites represent humanity’s toe dipping into the limitless possibilities beyond our planet. People of our industry will be serving as the foundation of that inevitable expansion in 30 years time. Perhaps by then you would have rebranded your magazine to call it “Via Space.”
Le Gall: Logically, your successor should probably be reading this edition en route to Mars. And s/he will compare notes with friends back on Earth with whom it will be possible to communicate on every corner of the planet — a planet made all the more beautiful thanks to satellites. VS