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Some Standardization Seen Coming for Satellite Connectivity

The government and some major customers are going to start pushing for more standardization for satellite connectivity providers, constellation executives said Monday at Satellite 2023. Several said an open network architecture and interoperability is the route to tying into mobile networks. However, Mangata Networks CEO Brian Holz said there's never satellite industry agreement on standards, and systems have to be designed instead to be adaptable.

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No one satellite operator is yet leading the direct-to-device space, Northern Sky Research analyst Jose Del Rosario said. Iridium’s partnership with Qualcomm is huge but so are other partnerships like SpaceX/T-Mobile, he said. He said further major announcements are sure to come. He said Iridium service isn't being included on Galaxy phones yet, but “it’s just a matter of time.”

Iridium has “much lower barriers to entry” to the direct-to-device space, Chief Operations Officer Suzi McBride said, with Iridium already having spectrum licenses and services. But, she added, “We know others are coming for the space.” She predicted Iridium “will be a household name” this year because of its supplemental coverage from space (SCS) service. Iridium CEO Matt Desch told Satellite 2023 attendees that SCS hype is somewhat overblown (see 2303130023).

Mangata's Holz said satcom technology today allows pricing as low as 25 cents per gigabit, and is moving toward the ability to compete with fiber -- something challenged by Ruy Pinto, SES chief technology officer. Holz said as satellite capacity becomes more commoditized, in the next three or four years companies will move beyond connectivity providers to more services. He said geostationary orbit operators "will be in trouble" without other orbits because GEO can't support a distributed cloud architecture.

Eutelsat CEO Eva Berneke said it won't happen in the next year or two, but satellite's ultimate goal is to be head-to-head cost competitive with other connectivity providers, at least outside urban areas. She and other satcom executives said the goal isn't to compete with mobile network operators but to be alternatives to building another tower.

Asked about M&A in 2023, EchoStar Chief Operating Officer Paul Gaske said Hughes is “looking for a good opportunity,” particularly in the satellite broadband or backhaul space. John-Paul Hemingway, SES chief strategy and product officer, said SES wants to be broader and deeper in government. He said SES has made some small investments in new space applications. “The reasons for a horizontal [merger] remain sound,” he said. Aside from M&A, there could be more work to enable roaming across constellations, Hemingway said.

SpaceX’s Starlink is the biggest competitive threat to legacy satellite operators, with Amazon’s Kuiper emerging as one, and the strategy to compete with them will require bigger scale, Del Rosario said. The Big Four of legacy satellite operators -- Intelsat, Telesat, Eutelsat and SES -- could become the Big Three this year, “maybe even the Big Two,” he said. A theoretical SpaceX business failure also is a threat, Del Rosario said. He said a failed SpaceX initial public offering would likely scare off huge amounts of space industry investing.

On a satellite manufacturers panel, Chris Johnson, Maxar Technologies general manager-space, said geostationary orbit remains "a super-strong market" though its growth rate has slowed. He said medium earth orbit is getting increased attention. Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Thales Alenia Space executives said they're producing more small satellites than large ones. Jean-Marc Nasr, Airbus Defence and Space space systems head, said standardization is the route that makes up the lost revenue from producing smaller satellites.