While many satellite operators took hits during 2020, Iridium is reaping the benefits of its fully deployed Iridium NEXT constellation, with record subscriber growth in commercial Internet of Things (IoT) and its government business.
COO Suzi McBride has shaped Iridium’s evolution in numerous ways — from working as an engineer on the original Iridium satellite constellation as part of Motorola's Satellite Communications Group in the 1990s, to serving as an executive during development of the NEXT constellation. In this interview, she talks about how Iridium plans to deal with incoming competition, and how the operator will fit in with an evolving space industry.
VIA SATELLITE: 2020 was a rough year for some satellite operators, but Iridium had a record year. Were you surprised at the subscriber growth that Iridium was able to see in 2020, despite the pandemic’s effects on the economy?
McBride: We're a very resilient system, and we're used for a lot of critical operations, so I was not surprised. As it got more serious, no one could predict what was going to happen. But we kept our operations going and we kept watching what our customers were doing. As the year went on and we saw how people adapted quickly, it became clear that it wasn't going to be as big of a hit as people initially thought it would be. We had a great 2020, we added a lot of subscribers and we continue to grow. It's a testament to where we were in our business and where our partners are, and to the criticality of what Iridium does.
VIA SATELLITE: You've been with Iridium for a good portion of your career. What is it like for you to see the success of the Iridium NEXT constellation?
McBride: It's exciting. When I first came into Iridium in 2007, a lot of people doubted Iridium’s ability to do what we've done. I think it's a testament to the team we have, the resilience, and the innovation of figuring out how to make this work. It was a lot of hard work and sweat, but also a lot of fun times because we were leaning forward in innovative areas. I tell a lot of my younger engineers that are starting out — these are the days that seem chaotic and stressful, but years later you look back at what you accomplished with a lot of pride. You only remember the good stuff. It's exciting to see this all now working. It's also exhausting, because we have more work going on now than ever.
VIA SATELLITE: By ‘more work,’ do you mean new business opportunities or new products and services?
McBride: We have some strategic initiatives in the works. Because we have our platform and our systems, it's now about enabling all of those capabilities. We’re launching a product, the 9770, which is the smaller form factor of our broadband system. We are also launching our next IoT products. On top of that, our government team and government business is also growing with different engineering services.
VIA SATELLITE: People have been wary of constellation systems, saying they are too expensive and difficult to maintain. Do you think that your successful refresh of the Iridium constellation changed the narrative to show that constellation projects can work?
McBride: It all comes down to business cases. It's not just technology, it's about the business case. Iridium had a sustaining business. We had and continue to have a very strong and large ecosystem of partners. We’re a very niche market in that we don't compete with the other big broadbands. We complement the VSAT [Very Small Aperture Terminal], the big broadband players. For us, it was about having that strong base and knowledge on how we were going to grow in the right way.
Today, all these other companies that are starting, some have strong businesses. Others — time will tell. Although the technology is exciting, it's looking at the business. Will the business sustain the cost and the capital to build out these larger constellations and systems?
VIA SATELLITE: What trends are you seeing in IoT that are driving Iridium’s subscriber growth?
McBride: Our IoT business continues to thrive and grow. We grew 26 percent year-over-year, and I think that's going to keep going. There's obviously a big market in connecting things to things and critical messages.
One of our biggest pickups is personal communications. In the last quarter, we had record growth in our IoT subscribers, driven by personal communications. As people get off the grid and travel around the globe, they want to be connected. They want safety, and they rely on Iridium services.
In the broadband world, our L-band services, it's a focus on the right markets. We're not the big high-speed pipes, we compliment those. It’s about resilience, having service everywhere on the globe. If you're a ship or a plane, you want to make sure that wherever you go there's service when you need it. It’s ensuring that we're providing a service that gives them criticality of when and what they need to communicate at the right price points. Size is another differentiator, fitting on smaller fleets of ships that might not need big-bit broadband.
VIA SATELLITE: How will you keep that growth going?
McBride: I can't tell everything because that's part of our secret sauce. Because we have all this history, we know where and how things pick up, and which markets play well with our services and our niche market. For the most part, it’s about enabling our partners to continue to grow and build. We've expanded our partner base, and they just take off. They know these end customers well. The partnerships we've formed to allow them to have that innovation and creativity is what creates our growth rates.
We also have our own IoT products that we provide. The key for us in IoT growth is about ease, [customers being able to] quickly put the product on and start tracking or communicating.
VIA SATELLITE: A lot of startups are targeting satellite IoT and there are many broadband options coming online in the next few years. What is your outlook on competition and how will Iridium maintain its position amid the increased competition?
McBride: We're very different from some of those products that are coming out. They're going to have to prove their business case first and foremost. On the IoT side, there are a lot of startups and small players that are looking at “store and forward” [in which a message is kept and sent at a later time].
Our differentiator is reliability, because we have a fully meshed, interlinked satellite system with ground capabilities. We always felt like the unicorns in L-band — you want to get it fast, reliable, at a reasonable price, and you want to make sure it gets through all the time. We provide a better service especially for important messages.
With big broadband, we're a very good complement to those broadband systems. They clearly provide bigger pipes and that's needed. That’s like the back of the plane, for surfing the web. We're very targeted on the front of the plane, the safety services, such as getting critical weather data through to pilots. Our partners, especially our service providers, do a great job of packaging and putting these two together, so customers can pick and choose how they use those services.
VIA SATELLITE: What are the growth opportunities that you see in the next few years?
McBride: For Iridium, it's about keeping our focus on our markets. Creating greater capability for the different markets that we have, but keeping it in the same packaging. Portability is one of our main focuses. Keeping that mobility market as our sweet spot, but enabling them to have a little bit more capability. As we go into service IoT products, it's about giving the personal communication or the IoT devices the ability to send a picture or a video, versus just a message. While keeping the form factors as close as possible to these more mobile markets that keep us very differentiated from the other players coming into the market.
VIA SATELLITE: You've been back with Iridium for more than two years, after rejoining from OneWeb, what has it been like to come back?
McBride: I love being back. I love Iridium — we always say it gets in your blood. Taking that time at OneWeb and coming back has given me such a different perspective than I would have if I would have stayed. It gave me a lot more insight into the strengths of Iridium and this niche market.
I also have a much greater appreciation for what Motorola did [for Iridium] in the ‘90s. As a young engineer, I was manufacturing and building satellites. But having been a part of building a new network and what it takes to get that business rolling, I can understand what Motorola did — not only in terms of landing licenses and product certifications, but there is a lot to getting a business started in different countries.
VIA SATELLITE: Before OneWeb went into bankruptcy, there was an MoU for a joint service. Could Iridium resume a partnership with OneWeb, are there discussions in the works?
McBride: I can't go into details about any business relationships that we are involved in. But there are certainly partnerships that work between any broadband VSAT system and Iridium. There's always going to be a compliment there to our customers. For those new broadband players, their focus is getting their system launched before they focus on partnerships and ecosystems. But we are a great partner for all of these broadband systems. We'll be there to help our end customers when they are making decisions about how to give the best mesh network for the best services.
VIA SATELLITE: How have you seen the space industry change over your career?
McBride: I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and came of age when the space shuttles were hot and on the news. It struck a chord for me about loving space and wanting to be there. When I became an engineer in the ‘90s, the space race was picking up again with lots of innovation. Iridium was launching, other constellations were trying to launch, it was a shift from the classical government-run programs into commercial. In the late ‘90s, the bubble kind of burst and in the 2000s it went back to traditional space.
I think Iridium was ahead of our time in 2006 and 2007 when we started NEXT. We leaned forward with SpaceX. Back then, they were a little company no one really knew about. Here we are in 2021, and space is exciting and hot again, there is so much activity and investment. What we're doing now is setting the foundation for sparks and embers in all those little kids today, that they'll be us 30-plus years from now, keeping space alive.
I see more openness, creative ideas, and investment than in the past. Will all of these businesses survive? No. People need to do their due diligence with business cases. But I'm excited because it's at a point now that we've generated interest and excitement. I just hope that we don't kill it. If too many companies go down, it can have the same effect as in the late ‘90s.
VIA SATELLITE: Do you think that these companies are doing enough to recruit a diverse workforce with gender and racial diversity?
McBride: Not yet. I think 2020 opened up everybody's eyes and made us look at all of our diversity efforts. In general, the space industry has been a tight knit group and we tend to draw talent within our own networks. We tend to put a lot of weight on experience in space rather than looking at potential, diversity of thought, and new people from different industries.
Here at Iridium, I think we're doing a really good job. We have a diversity and inclusion council that is constantly pushing us to think about how we can make ourselves better and open that pool of candidates. Experience is another part of that diversity I think we all need. It's okay to bring somebody in from a totally different industry as long as they have some of those qualities.
We in aerospace have to do our part in getting out there in communities and grade schools. What can young girls look for in the future of aerospace, and how do we get a young black male to think about going into aerospace? At Iridium, it’s something we've been pushing hard on. We have teams that are out there and people are very passionate about it, which I love and encourage.
VIA SATELLITE: What are you excited about in Iridium’s future?
McBride: We are at an inflection point of growth and choosing our next path. There's a lot of interesting conversations we're having internally and we’re picking those paths right now. It’s not tomorrow's decisions, it's things that will impact us 10, 20 years out. We have a new CTO and we are now working on that long-term roadmap, which is exciting and challenging. VS