Satellite industry leaders struck a cautiously optimistic note about the industry’s future at the Tuesday morning Opening General Session at SATELLITE 2023, hailing innovations fueling the space economy, while cautioning industry stakeholders about looming threats that must be addressed.
Throughout the hourlong, conversational panel, moderated by Mark Holmes, Via Satellite Senior Editorial Director, five satellite leaders representing small startups to large international operators covered a breadth of topics, from multi-orbit systems and strategies to risks and sustainability in space.
At the top of everyone’s minds: With thousands of satellites going up, who is going to buy all this capacity?
“You’ve got the underserved and unserved populations, geographically around the world … that’s a compelling opportunity and necessary opportunity that all of us here will participate in serving,” said David Wajsgras, CEO, Intelsat. “You have traditional markets that are growing substantially. If you talk about enterprise and mobility in general, and then new markets, 5G markets … rolling out globally. Then there’s new verticals that are going to demand the type of service we offer, more so than in the past. Think agriculture, think energy, different types of industries. At the end of the day, you have basic global economics 101. From everything that I’ve seen and read, the demand is continuing to outpace the supply.”
Eva Berneke, CEO of Eutelsat agreed, noting that the one question she gets no pushback on is the question of whether there is a market out there.
“That there is a market is simply accepted by everybody,” she said. “Is it going to be $16 billion or $25 billion by 2030 is a good question. If we as an industry can make satellite connectivity at a cost level where we can start competing in the telecom world, that’s where it’s a real difference. It’s not that far away. If we can get it there, then the market is probably 1,000 times bigger.”
But Mark Dankberg, CEO of Viasat, struck a slightly more cautious tone, in predicting how space and satellite will — and should — meet future needs.
“One of the first things we all have to remember is that it isn't just a business problem,” said Dankberg. “For a lot of countries, space is about national security, it’s about sovereignty … the notion that a very small number of dynamic companies are going to go into a country and say, ‘Here’s your answer, just let use all the resources [for] space,’ that’s going to be hard. Just because you make a service available, connect your cell phone to these satellites, doesn’t mean a country wants that to be done by an outsider to them or for them. I think these are going to have a significant impact on the way the market develops.”
At the same time, the launch market is constrained and supply isn't meeting demand, which Tim Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Relativity Space, addressed.
“Certainly every company we talk to is very worried about medium to heavy lift, specifically,” said Ellis. “Really in the years 2024 to 2027 is the period we talk about the most. There’s a lot of people that are trying to hit specific deadlines.”
He also noted that constellations such as Amazon Kuiper are buying out a lot of capacity at competitive pricing, causing some issues.
“What we’re seeing is overall launch prices are being escalated to some extent,” he said. “We also have a lot of vehicles that are unproven … Ariane 6, New Glenn, to ours … a lot of people are waiting for those vehicles to get into service. But what’s going to be very key isn’t just getting into service. It’s what launch ramp rate can you do and, effectively, how many hundreds of thousands of kilograms per year?”
While every speaker made a nod to the benefits of a multi-orbit business strategy, they also acknowledged the downsides of growth, particularly space sustainability and the overcrowding of Low-Earth Orbit, which raises multiple risks.
“The sustainability issue is real from multiple organizations [that] are weighing in,” said Dankberg. “The aggregate amount of mass in space affects astronomy, risk, reentry. What we’re looking for at the moment is something that allows Low-Earth Orbit to be developed in a rational way. The work we’re doing around LEO is, ‘How do you reuse that resource efficiently?’"
In a telling moment, when Holmes asked speakers to rank the satellite industry’s success in the area of space sustainability from a scale of 0 (the worst) to 10 (the best), results ranged from a flat-out zero to a five.
“If you go back 50 years, no one was talking about this,” said Wajsgras. “But as cybersecurity became a nation-state problem, people started to give it some mindshare. Then it was an all-hands-on deck approach. I think that’s the same approach we need to get there with space sustainability but we’re not there yet.”
On the positive side, the proliferation of commercial satellite innovations into mainstream conversations has been a promising development, said David Kagan, CEO of Globalstar.
“Even if it’s within a given market or a given region, if it’s seamless capacity, customers don’t care where it comes from,” said Kagan. “They just want their data when they want it, and regulators will just get over it. I think that’s where we’re headed.” VS