World Satellite Business Week (WSBW) was back in force this year in Paris. Sessions and happy hours were packed, and many commented on the number of new faces at the show. While there weren’t any show-stopping mergers to come out of the week, it was a time to hear the industry’s thoughts on the latest developments. In this feature, Via Satellite shares its top 10 takeaways from the conference.
No News from Intelsat and SES
Rumors of a potential SES and Intelsat merger were one of the favorite topics of discussion at happy hours and in the lobby during the week. Then, SES Chief Strategy and Product Officer (CSPO) John-Paul Hemingway fanned the flames when he teased “something really exciting” and “big news coming” in a tweet. But the news turned out to be a Microsoft collaboration — and no such merger was announced.
Intelsat’s new CEO David Wajsgras applauded Eutelsat and Viasat for their bold moves with OneWeb and Inmarsat in his first appearance on a major satellite event panel, but was oblique about Intelsat’s own plans. Intelsat is looking at “transformation on multiple levels,” Wajsgras said. “The way the industry looks today with the core players may or may not look the same in the next couple of years.” His comments could be interpreted as Intelsat looking at potential consolidation, but he kept it close to the vest.
SES CEO Steve Collar did not address the rumors directly, but commented that the tighter capital environment is going to put a higher bar on the investments that get made. Now two weeks post-event, nothing has materialized, so it’s unclear if these rumors will become a reality. But if SES and Intelsat do announce a merger, the industry will look carefully at the rationale for bringing together two of the largest Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite fleets.
Telesat and Lightspeed: The Unanswered Question
Telesat has been one of the braver big players in recent times. Rather than go down the route of acquiring Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) assets like SES and Eutelsat, it is looking to build its own Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation. However its plans over the last few months have been subject of much debate. Earlier this year, the company confirmed it is reducing the numbers of satellites from a planned 298 satellites to 188 with 10 in-orbit spares, and the company is facing delays to raise the final capital needed.
So, what next for Dan Goldberg and Telesat? When asked about the future of Lightspeed and whether the constellation would still be built, Goldberg gave a very skilful non-committal answer to the question. He highlighted the billions of dollars Telesat had at its disposal, but hardly gave an emphatic answer to the question of its future. As operators continue to jostle for position, a lot of eyes are on Telesat and Lightspeed. Will it get built? Will Telesat get involved in industry consolidation? Certainly, after Paris, there will only be more discussion around Telesat’s future.
Berneke Wastes Little Time Making an Impact
It was clear when Via Satellite interviewed Eutelsat’s new CEO Eva Berneke earlier this year that she was eager to revitalize Eutelsat. Less than six months in, she has placed a very large bet on the acquisition of OneWeb, which at a stroke gives it a combined GEO/LEO offering, which it has craved for quite awhile.
While the jury is still out on the deal, Berneke and Eutelsat cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition. It seems whatever path it took, there are huge elements of risk. If Eutelsat does nothing, could a standalone GEO play survive and thrive? Or buy something like OneWeb and roll the dice and aim to become one of the biggest global players. It was and is a bold move.
Berneke revealed that Eutelsat will provide more details on the acquisition later in October, particularly as it relates to the second generation of the OneWeb system. For a CEO to come in and in her words hopefully make ‘a deal of the century’ in satellite in less than six months since joining, that requires strong resolve. If fortune favors the brave, then Berneke may just have done the deal that cements Eutelsat’s global position.
SpaceX Embraces Partners for Starlink
Not long ago, SpaceX emphasized its “going it alone” approach to its Starlink constellation, with vertically integrated manufacturing and a direct-to-consumer product. While Starlink is still sold B2C, SpaceX has changed its tune and is embracing partners and moving into enterprise markets. A week after Starlink’s landmark announcement for future direct-to-cell connectivity with T-Mobile, Jonathan Hofeller, Starlink vice president of Commercial Sales, said he has been driving partnerships for Starlink and we will continue to see more like this. Then, Starlink announced that service providers Speedcast and Marlink will integrate its LEO connectivity into its service, and Anuvu recently announced an integration as well.
Working with trusted service providers can be a foot in the door for enterprise markets with discerning customers. This should put fellow operators on notice, Starlink was never going to be just a direct-to-consumer competitor — Space is after the high-value, enterprise customers as well. It's early days, but it will be interesting to see if Starlink lands more large-scale deals like Royal Caribbean, or if it can usurp Intelsat or Viasat for large airline contracts.
Maxar and Airbus See the World in 3D
Satellite imagery to build a 3D world. It sounds like science fiction, but Maxar and Airbus are working to make it a reality. They spent a fair amount of time highlighting their initiatives in 3D during the Earth observation operator panel, and it is clear defense is driving the conversation.
Jon Love, vice president of Strategic Growth for Maxar, said the U.S. military is pursuing 3D models for synthetic training, and the technology is actually used in military theater for real operations. But in order to work, the data has to be extremely accurate, and Maxar is working to evolve its technology to meet the military’s needs. “Think about the importance associated with that — [for] a soldier in the battlefield relying on this data, it has to be accurate, timely, and refreshed with the latest updates. It has to be able to operate in GPS-denied environments,” Love said. “It’s the future. It’s coming fast and all of this capability being deployed today is going to feed into that.”
This is part of the evolving story of EO — instead of just images of the Earth, companies are monitoring change, and now even building 3D environments.
Satellite-to-Cell Makes Waves
On the back of SpaceX’s announcement with T-Mobile and news that the latest iPhone will connect directly to Globalstar satellites for emergency messaging, satellite-to-cell connectivity was an extremely hot topic of conversation. Operators agree it’s a large opportunity and are excited about the attention it is bringing to the satellite industry, but there are a lot of questions about spectrum and the business models.
Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg cautioned against satellite companies using mobile network operator (MNO) spectrum to provide services — the Starlink, AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global model — but of course the operator acquiring L-band spectrum rights would raise that concern. “Who’s going to be paying for it?” Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg asked. “It’s handy to have satellite fill in white spaces, but who’s going to take the risk?”
Meanwhile, the technical challenges are no small feat. SpaceX’s service depends on having the Starship rocket up and running to launch Starlink Gen-2, and Apple was extremely cautious in the level of service it promised. In the week after Paris, the FCC approved Lynk Global’s “cell tower in space” model, making Lynk the first operational player in the market. It’s clear this is an area of opportunity where it could still be anyone’s game — and it remains to be seen if any of the larger traditional operators will get involved.
Telcos are Tempered in Their Praise of Satellite
Satellite players are hoping to have a much bigger part of the overall telecoms ecosystem going forward. However, the relationship with telcos has been far from straightforward in recent times. At a panel in Paris, Jean-Luc Vuillemin, executive vice president of International Networks for Orange and Scott Mumford, CEO of Liquid Intelligent Technologies, weren’t exactly effusive in their praise of satellite players. When asked to score the satellite industry out of 10 (1 being bad to 10 being excellent), both only gave the satellite industry 6 out of 10, citing issues regarding price, flexibility, standards, and equipment holding the industry back. While the satellite industry continues to talk a good game, it still has a lot to do to convince the telcos themselves. While there was a sense of optimism and hope for better relationships in the future, the telcos speaking, particularly Vuillemin, believe the satellite industry is not hitting the standards its wants to see. It was one of the few occasions at WSBW where the momentum was somewhat punctured by a harsher reality of how telcos see things.
What's Next for Regional Operators?
Regional operators have gone somewhat under the radar in recent times. With so much talk about the big LEO constellations, and the potential consolidation in the sector, what does the future hold for some of these players? It is a difficult conundrum for them. There doesn’t seem to be a desire to build their own non-GEO assets.
It seems the partnership model is the way forward, with the likes of Arabsat, Hispasat, Turksat, and KT Sat talking about the possibilities of teaming up with LEO players and adding a LEO component to their offering. Abdulhadi Alhasani, vice president and Chief Strategy Officer of Arabsat admitted the company didn’t have $800 million “to bet on a constellation slot machine” but he sees a future in terms of a partnership.
The role of the regional operator in this future dizzying satellite world is still open to question. What we are likely to see is some partnerships with some of the bigger global players. The likes of Hispasat are likely to be cautious, given its previous investment in LeoSat. The question is what level of ambition we might see, and which regional players might differentiate themselves here.
The Cyber Era is Here and There is No Turning Back
There was more cyber-related content at World Satellite Business Week than we have seen in year’s past. Ruy Pinto, CTO of SES, perhaps said it best: “Cyber has arrived in space and is here to stay. What happened in Ukraine with Viasat means it is here to stay. We need to look at new approaches for legacy assets, and this is not an easy job.”
Certainly, Europe seems to place more of an emphasis on secure connectivity than it has in year’s past, and this year seemed to very much represent a call to arms for the satellite industry and how things need to really progress here, to provide Europe with a strong, secure, space based infrastructure.
However, putting together an all encompassing infrastructure that could involve up to 27 member states of the EU is far from an easy challenge. However, as Pinto said, we now live in a new reality. Europe now needs to come together to address these challenges. The Russian invasion has brought war and conflict to Europe. It needs a stronger cyber infrastructure more than ever. This year at WSBW only outlined this point.
Slim Pickings for Smallsat Spaceport Access
Launch access for small satellites is an ongoing issue, but smallsat launchers say they face another challenge — spaceport access. With so few options of places to launch from, they are not in the driver's seat to make decisions based on price, location, regulations, support, etc.
Marino Fragnito, senior vice president of Arianespace’s Vega business, frankly said that Arianespace has the goal to launch every day from CSG in Kourou, French Guiana, but the spaceport could not support that rate of activity today. Increasing flexibility on the site is a key goal for the launcher.
Smallsat launchers talked about the challenges of not having the support of military-operated spaceports in Europe like Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral in the U.S. With a number of spaceports in development in Europe, launchers hope these spaceports could eventually compete for customers on price and convenience. Instead of launchers having a small number of options, they could then offer customers a choice of where to launch from.
Astra CEO Chris Kemp touted the benefits of the private launch site Astra uses on Kodiak Island — yet while the company may have spaceport access, it will be a while until Astra launches again. These smallsat launchers are all working to get their rockets up and running, but having a convenient place to launch from is a key part of the equation. VS