The Tuesday morning session “Global Satellite Operators: The Future is Now” opened with a futuristic video starring a team of space scientists using 3D computers to — presumably— plan launches and monitor satellites orbiting the Earth.
But whether (and when) this type of utopic vision laid out by operators, satellite providers, and a community of innovators will match up with end user expectations and budgets remains uncertain. Many factors, from C-Band spectrum allocation to the sophistication of launch technologies, will play a role in its materialization.
Leaders from satellite operators Eutelsat, SES, Viasat, Telesat, Intelsat, and SES engaged in an important dialogue around these uncertainties throughout the 90-minute session, which drew hundreds of SATELLITE 2019 participants. In turn, they also emphasized the importance of focusing on leveraging satellite technologies to address real world challenges, including the lack of basic internet connectivity in many parts of the world.
The session also featured three moderators from three businesses that are interested in expanding their relationship with satellite operators: Southwest Airlines Associate Manager of Product Development Tara Bamburg, Sprint Director of Internet of Things (Iot) Strategy and Partner Management Akther Javid, and Sigfox Vice President (VP) of Europe Emma Park.
SES President and CEO Steve Collar stressed the importance of focusing on the next stage of innovation. “It’s really made a difference in the service we provide, and the quality and economics,” said Collar. “We’re in a robust time in our industry … and we’re looking for the next generation of satellites that can deliver the right performance to our customer, while continuing to deliver on the economics.”
Eutelsat CEO Rodolphe Belmer noted that video represents 60 percent of the company’s revenues — which is a positive thing, considering some of the market challenges of video has endured. “It is a very profitable business,” he said. “We expect it to continue over the next few years ... our video business is very resilient ... and we are achieving results in Direct-to-Home (DTH).”
When asked by Southwest’s Bamburg how organizations are approaching market opportunities for In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) in a competitive landscape characterized by rising consumer expectations, Viasat Chairman and CEO Mark Dankberg admitted that striking a balance between cost and technology is tricky.“It’s easy to make IFC on one airplane, because the real problems don’t come until you have hundreds of planes,” said Dankberg, noting that servicing markets such as flights to and from Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) present an enormous challenge for airlines hoping to meet customer expectations. “How do you do this in a way that the customer is engaged, so they see the investment you make in airline connectivity?”
While satellite operators seemed enthusiastic about the technological advancements of in-flight service, maritime and other markets, Sprint’s Javid expressed concern over the business case for satellite for 5G rollouts. “What we’ve seen at a citywide level or countywide level is the need for 5G is growing,” said Javid. “So my question to the panel is: How should carriers think about working with you when thinking about rollout plans?’ How can we work together?”
Collar suggested that the satellite industry is uniquely positioned to rapidly deploy 5G into places that are, economically, very far away.
Additionally, Spengler said that satellite is ideal for ensuring blanket coverage where cell networks can’t penetrate. “We play a key role in mobile networks in the underdeveloped world, and the developed world as well,” he said. “We [support] key advancements in space and in the ground. What’s changed is business cases that mobile operators couldn’t close before, they can close now.”
Belmer said that a lot of future partnerships — and the rollout of services such as mobile internet — are contingent on what happens with C-band spectrum. Throughout the conference satellite operators have expressed deep concerns over frequency allocations. “The dispute on the frequencies is a very strong concern for our industry,” said Belmer. “If we are to provide internet … we need to be able to operate on these frequencies. If we can’t continue to operate the C-band frequency when we need to … there will be no bridging of the digital divide.”
A discussion around the perception of satellite operators among end users elicited interesting feedback from all speakers. Speakers suggested that the satellite industry’s reputation as a purveyor of expensive goods and services has been a barrier to opportunity. “There is a perception that our services are niche and expensive,” said Telesat CEO Daniel S. Goldberg. “You can shatter that perception by making it look like a layer 2 Ethernet service.”
At Sprint, “we think of satellite in terms of backhaul,” said Javid. While there have been a couple of instances where the wireless telco wanted to explore satellite partnerships, the business case just didn’t stack up. However, Javid said she is excited by some of the innovations she’s seeing in the industry.
Meanwhile, at Sigfox, Park stressed the need for “low power, low throughput, low cost” IoT solutions for her organization. “We see a lot of objects connecting to our network today, and are doing point-to-point tracking,” she said. “So, we believe there’s an opportunity for a strong partnership.” VS