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SATELLITE 2029: Women in Satellite Predict the Future

Go to any major satellite trade show, and you will see that the audience is still predominantly male. While things are changing, the change is slow. But, as we look out to SATELLITE 2029, we ask a number of women in the satellite industry what the industry might look like.

Each passing year seems to be a momentous year for the satellite industry. Ambitious constellation and satellite plans, new launch vehicles, as well as satellite’s role in the communications ecosystem are all regular topics for discussion. However, rather than preview SATELLITE 2019, we brought out our crystal ball to preview SATELLITE 2029. In this male dominated industry, we instead selected women as our interviewees — from established C-Suite executives to rising stars.

How Many Satellites?

With so many ambitious plans, particularly in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), one of the main questions facing the industry over the next ten years is: how many satellites will be launched into orbit? Some talk of hundreds, some talk of thousands, but what will the number actually be? Natalya Bailey, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and co-founder of Accion Systems — and one of the most high-profile women in the satellite industry — estimates that there will be 10,000 satellites in LEO in 10 years time, which is consistent with other estimates. She adds, “One major mega constellations of roughly 2,000 satellites, plus 10 constellations of 100-200 satellites each, then another 5,000 or so of one-off spacecraft or small groups.” Theresa Condor, Executive Vice President (EVP) of business development and co-founder of Spire added, “Commercial satellites in LEO could be in the thousands. A large number could come from one of the mega constellations that have been announced successfully reaching full size, along with an ongoing number of companies that have raised smaller amounts of capital. This will be driven by two things — launch availability and capacity to develop satellites on a regular schedule. Two recent developments make these more likely. RocketLab successfully launched their latest test rocket and can move into regular launches in 2019, and possibly weekly launches after that. This should have a big impact on launch availability and hopefully schedule reliability, not to mention all of the other newer launch companies that are starting to catch up. On the manufacturing side, it has still been tricky for companies to reliably churn out satellites on a regular basis due to supply chain issues, specifically related to the nanosatellite form factor.”

ABS Chief Commercial Operator (CCO) Carmen Gonzalez-Sanfeliu added that while many players are filing for LEO constellations, there are significant hurdles to overcome from raising financing to securing anchor clients to on the ground infrastructure, and to establish an accurate market forecast to make a business case. “Perhaps a few hundred satellites from two to three constellations will emerge,” she says.

Opening General Session: SATELLITE 2029

By and large, the Opening General Session (OGS) at SATELLITE has been relatively stable with SES, Intelsat, Telesat and Eutelsat appearing regularly over the last few years. But how will the flagship panel evolve over the next 10 years? Intelsat Principal Business Solutions Engineer Beatriz Martinez Diaz-Caneja went a stage further and believes that the SATELLITE show may not even be called the SATELLITE show in 10 years time. She said, “Will there be a SATELLITE 2029? Maybe this is just called CONNECTIONS 2029, or CONTENTS 2029 (or hopefully something catchier). Bit operators will start moving down the value chain in order to survive in the all-connected world offering value added services on top of megahertz. I envision alliances and even mergers between different telecom, networking companies, and content providers. In a world where the expectation is to have everything connected, we need to cooperate in order to survive. So, we might see an “Satamazon” or “Googlesat” on the opening general session in 2029.”

Gonzalez-Sanfeliu thinks it would be good to see other operators join the panel. She adds, “We may see some consolidation of smaller operators and perhaps a few of the larger ones as the current model and number of operators cannot be sustained and justified commercially. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see new names on the stage of companies that are not a typical satellite operator.”

Levels of Capability

Over the last few years, the satellite sector has been changing rapidly as companies build more technologically advanced and flexible satellites. With some such as SpaceX threatening to launch game changing constellations, the levels of capability could see huge increases over the next few years. But, in ten year’s time, what kinds of satellite could be in the pipeline? Inmarsat Government Senior Vice President (VP) Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch said, “For users, peak bandwidth will get to four gigabits per second as optical links and W-band enters the picture. The high demand for anytime/anywhere information will dictate new solutions. The imagery markets — driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI) — and weather forecasting will emerge as major gamechangers. To support these various solutions, we will see constellations of diverse satellites and other space vehicles for new kinds of capabilities, like orbital servicing, manned space exploration and other ‘killer apps’ not yet envisioned.”

Condor believes nanosatellites will be doing interlinked communications that make their operations real-tim. “While this capability exists in a research setting, in the future it will be standard. That means constant connectivity anywhere at lower cost and constant access to fresh data at any time, across a much wider variety of datasets. Signals intelligence will be much more widespread, compared to the focus on earth observation (imaging) today,” she adds.

Diaz-Caneja believes there will be flexible satellites that are able to adjust completely to customer demand. “Customers can be on Earth or they might be travelling to another planet, and the satellite should be able to meet this demand via flexibility in terms of frequency, antenna pointing, beam-reshaping, power concentration, etc. It will be possible to retrieve a satellite easily, so the satellite can be brought back to Earth if any major change that can’t be done remotely is needed,” she says. “These satellites will be highly efficient, providing Gbps to meet the increasing demand for data from users all around the world and beyond.”

Satellite Manufacturing: A Changing Paradigm

With so many satellites launching but Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite orders potentially on the wane, one of the big issues will be how satellite manufacturers will generate revenues in this new era. Ten years out, the picture could look very different. Condor says she believes the business model is moving towards space as a service. “Pure manufacturers, specifically those in LEO, will move more into the service space where more than one satellite at a time is the usual, and where operations of the constellation is complex and the ultimate ability to deliver on the use case is where the value lies,” she says.

Diaz-Caneja added that she thinks satellites will have turned into very sophisticated and yet cheap devices that are able to do much more than they do today. She believes while there will be some contracts for huge GEO satellites, most of the business will come from LEO satellites with new capabilities (for example, storage in space and satellites that are used as hard drives protected from any type of cyber-attack). She thinks that satellite manufacturers won’t just be specialists on traditional satellites, but will need to incorporate sophisticated networking knowledge to offer the value-added services that customers will be requesting.

Gonzalez-Sanfeliu thinks satellite manufacturers will streamline their production and will become more automated. “We have seen nanosatellite and cubesat manufacturers producing clones of a very limited number of specific satellites. This process will eventually make it possible for the larger GEO satellites to be more cost effective for roll out,” she adds.

Bailey thinks satellite manufacturers will need to move to a Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) model and move away from the custom components and pieces in order to make satellites more affordable.

Future of GEO

Most tend to agree there will still be a GEO market, even if it a little different to what we have seen before.

Bailey says she believes some things are still better done from GEO, and that new applications will continue to grow. In terms of her prediction for the market, she says that “the traditional GEO telecom market will be bigger by the late 2020s. There will be growth in LEO relay, as LEO will be used for transmission the internet and other data networks. In terms of Earth observation, Earth observation and remote sensing from GEO will be used mostly for national security rather than consumer interests. When looking at Space Situational Awareness (SSA), similar to Earth observation, it will be mostly under the domain of governments for activities such as missile warning systems.”

Cowen-Hirsch believes that there will be a greater number of LEO and GEO satellites in orbit than are in operation. These satellites, in whatever orbit, will be predominantly commercial, with even more nations becoming space-faring, she adds. “However, with the increase in satellites, it will be incumbent upon us to have a clearly defined, understood and accepted norms of behavior that insure our ability to operate freely through space. This will require a more comprehensive approach to space traffic management,” she says.

Broadcasting and Data Revenues/New Verticals

Over the last decades, major GEO satellite operators have seen their revenues mainly come from broadcast, rather than data and other services. But, things are on the cusp of changing. We are already starting to see this with the likes of SES, whose SES Networks’ division is seeing strong growth compared to its broadcasting business. But, what might things look like in 2029? Cowen-Hirsch believes the proportions will flip, so that the mix in the future will be more 70 percent data and 30 percent broadcast. She explains why. “AI is the game-changer for people, businesses, and governments. It is also the game-changer for satellite communications, as AI will unlock the potential of what will be distributed via satellite networks,” she says. “Today, increasingly sophisticated applications drive the need for global mobility. As a result, we see legacy Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) operators investing in upgrading their systems to become more mobile, a strategy that Inmarsat has embraced since its beginning. We will see the mobility model continue to evolve to the point where satellite-enabled information is ubiquitous.”

Diaz-Caneja goes a step a further. While at the moment, the traditional split is around 70 percent broadcast and 30 percent data, she thinks it could go to 10 percent broadcast and 90 percent data. She thinks when talking about pure broadcast, it will be mostly limited to live events (sports, major concerts, and events). She says we are all seeing how the TV consumer habits are moving uncontrollably to Video on Demand (VOD) versus live TV. She envisions a limited short life for live TV. Most of the remote locations currently using satellite to get TV service will most likely using this connection for data services (including VOD). She adds, “If we go one step forward and think about how the consumer habits might change in 10 year’s time, there might be a shift on how contents are generated: consumers might also become content creators, which would mean an even more dramatic decrease in the broadcast communications and a change in the asymmetry of traffic. It would also be interesting to see how the percentage changes between broadcast vs multicast vs unicast downstream vs unicast upstream as compared to today. Also, the expansion of Internet of Things (IOT) and the commoditizing of high-speed internet everywhere (land, sea, sky) will contribute to making the data percentage even higher.”

With all these new satellites and broadcasting models flipping, new verticals could open up. But, which ones? “I think there are actually very few verticals where there is not some activity already happening related to satellites. This is probably more true related to earth observation and LEO satellites. Sectors that I think will use it more and more and for an increased variety of use cases is insurance, power/energy, and mining,” says Condor.

Bailey says she expects the combination of AI and higher resolution satellite images to lead to some interesting climate change-related applications. Tracking species at risk, as is now being done with whales, or the risk of fires are examples that Bailey cites.

Cowen-Hirsch believes satellites will contribute greatly to the new phenomenon through unleashing the potential of AI, making data/information consumable for a myriad of purposes, such as space weather monitoring, 3D, and quantum imagery — significant advancements in mobility communications. She also believes satellites will play an important role in manned space, such as lunar cities and space tourism. She adds, “with the advent of new entrants to the well-established satellite operators, one can certainly envision markets for orbital debris cleanup and satellite servicing verticals.”

Diaz-Caneja adds another interesting perspective. She says, “I see big growth in the secure communications market. Satellite communications will allow the establishment of separate and private networks. In a world where cybersecurity is a major concern, this can play a key role for corporate and even private users.”

NewSpace 2029

The NewSpace movement has been one of the most intriguing subplots in the satellite sector over recent years. However, one of our interviewees believes we should enjoy it now, as she does not expect to see it again in 10 years time. Bailey believes the space industry had been in a stasis since its inception. While she talks of “some dabbling” in small satellites in the 1990s, Bailey says she is very confident that we won’t see another NewSpace movement in 10 years’ time. “The current climate is due to convergence of several factors at the same point in time: Internet pervasiveness, Moore’s Law, influx of capital, NASA pulling back on funding, other countries' interest in accessing space, and advances in AI and machine learning. This is a wonderful time for a new company to be entering the market because these inflection points don’t happen very often,” she adds.

Let’s Start a Band

Over the next few years, we could see the satellite industry move beyond Ka-, Ku- and C-band as they look to exploit new bands. However, what might some of the satellites of the future look like and will they be in these new bands? Cowen-Hirsch says, “Isn’t ‘E-band’ just a trendy name for what the radio people have always called W-band? … Yes, there will be other bands as well as optical — for cross-links, though, not communication to the ground. That said, as good as we expect to be ten years into the future, physics is physics. In space, we will use the right tools for the right jobs, and change lives for the better.”

Diaz-Caneja believes an efficient regulation on the use of that spectrum is also needed, so a lot of work for satellite component developers, ground technology companies, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). But, she believes that the need for higher bandwidths is here. “We need to open the range of frequencies that we use. I see Q-Band and V-Band on satellites on 2029, but not e-Band yet.” Gonzalez-Sanfeliu is more circumspect when looking at these new bands. “It takes a long time to adopt and embrace new bands. The Ka-band movement started in the 70s and is only now achieving a reasonable traction,” she says.

AND THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION OF ALL WHEN LOOKING AT SATELLITE 2029

Over the last decade, there has been one constant on the opening general session at SATELLITE. As CEOs have come and gone, Dan Goldberg, CEO of Telesat, (and seemingly ageless) continues to take his seat on the panel and has now clocked well over a decade of experience. But, will Dan get to 2029 and be the veritable veteran of the year? The women of the satellite industry speak on this burning issue. Cowen-Hirsch says, “Sure (he will be at SATELLITE 2029). But he will show up as a hologram. Though, I would hope to see a Danielle Goldberg there as well!” Diaz-Caneja adds, “He will (appear at SATELLITE 2029) but travelling in an interplanetary capsule taking him to Mars or further beyond. He will be showing the satellite capabilities past the 36,000 kilometers from Earth.” VS