How Space is Moving Toward a Democratized Future

The space industry is in the midst of transformation as the industry moves from a niche market to mainstream, industry leaders said on April 8 at the LEO Digital Forum. The satellite industry is often compared to the internet and PCs in the mid -90s, and still has a long way to go, said Theresa Condor, general manager of Space Services for Spire Global. Yet she believes that within the next decade, every company that wants access to data from space will be able to obtain it, with the growth of Space-as-a-Service business models.

“Every company is going to be a space company [in the next decade],” Condor said during the panel “The Satellite World in 2030: The Decade of Change.” “Every company, who wants to deploy applications to space [will be able to], because they no longer are going to have to worry about the infrastructure themselves. Space-as-a-Service can remove all of that complexity.”

One sign of how the industry is moving more into the mainstream is the growing influence of tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon. Microsoft, for example, began a partnership with SES in 2019, and moved into the satellite ground station business last year with Azure Orbital.

William Chappell, CTO of Azure Global said Microsoft hopes to play a role in the democratization of space by making its global compute substrate available to the space community so that companies don’t have to stand up their own infrastructures to get into the space game

Yet as space moves from a niche market to the mainstream, there is a race to harness the disruption to democratize the industry, versus letting disruption lead to chaos, Chappell said.

“The role of democratization should be front and center for the community,” Chappell said. “Historically, this is a relatively niche area, and when you have niche capabilities, people tend to try to keep a hold of their differential advantages. “As things become more available, you’ll see some of the same evolution that you saw on the internet and mobile that allowed democratization to happen. It’s a race to harness the disruption so that doesn’t turn into chaos [and] leads to democratization of function.”

Another form of democratization the industry is dealing with, is finding ways to democratize access to connectivity. Kyle Whitehill, CEO of Avanti, believes the satellite industry has an enormous opportunity to provide connectivity to Africa. Whitehill is the former CEO of African telco Liquid Telecom, and said satellite is the best solution because Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) struggle to deploy fiber due to a lack of population density and challenging terrain.

But it will take collaboration to achieve this, he said.

“There’s broadband commissions about Africa and people talking about investing into fiber, which I’m very cynical about. I think it’s about the space industry collaborating with each other. We can collaborate to build a network that’s across the whole of the continent,” he said. “Africa is the fastest growing continent for data today, but still with 50% to 60% of the population with no primary access to connectivity. I think that can only be [achieved] by great companies collaborating with each other.”

Condor and Chappell both spoke about how increases in processing power and technological capability are driving growth in the space industry. Condor says the increase in satellite capability is driving growth more than the decline in launch costs. Companies can now get much more commercial capability with their satellites through a single launch than years ago, when the focus was more on science projects.

“The driver [of growth] is really going to be the capability per kilogram that you can put into orbit. That has been increasing something like 10x every very five years, and this has led to this explosion in constellations,” Condor said.

Chappell also pointed to the tech changes coming in the next 10 years.

“Moving from bent pipes to actually doing processing in space is ridiculously hard, but it will happen,” he said. “At the same time you’re going to get fatter and fatter pipes. How do you use a global compute network in concert with what’s been done in space? I think the answer is a hybrid.” VS

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