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Meh Sustainability Marks

Space Deployment Milestones Crunch Seen as Increasing Concern

A growing number of space operators are going to face difficulty meeting their milestone deadlines for deployment, and the FCC needs to craft a policy response, said space lawyer Patrick Campbell of Milbank Tuesday at Satellite 2023. The problem is licenses given before the pandemic facing delays due to COVID-19 and supply chain issues, plus a launch supply bottleneck and needing more time, Campbell said. The ITU’s deployment milestones similarly will likely come up at the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23), said Audrey Allison, senior project leader, Aerospace Center for Space Policy and Strategy.

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A draft order about sharing spectrum among entities in different processing rounds should come within the next few months, said Kalpak Gude, Amazon Kuiper domestic regulatory affairs head. Having rules governing that is “critically important” to the satellite industry being able to continue to attract capital and investment, he said. Use of shot clocks to try to move license application reviews along in the FCC would be “nice to have” but wouldn't solve the underlying problem of entities sharing common resources, he said.

There can be too much focus on individual systems to the exclusion of their aggregate effects, said John Janka, Viasat chief officer-global government affairs and regulatory. “Our orbital resources … are not unlimited,” he said. There needs to be more policy attention to ensuring a few systems don’t consume all the spectrum or orbits, he said.

But keeping spectrum fallow so later applicants can have use of it hurts consumers, replied Gude.

A large amount of satellite capacity is coming to market in coming years, but multiple satellite operator CEOs expressed optimism there's demand to meet it.

It's "simply accepted by everybody" there's a market for satcom connectivity, Eutelsat's Eva Berneke said. She said the price point where satellite connectivity is competitive with telecom "is not that far away," and would open up much bigger market opportunities than satcom has now. The planet's unserved and underserved populations are "a compelling opportunity," as is participation in markets like 5G, and agriculture, said Intelsat's David Wajsgras.

Others were more tempered in their expectations. The satellite industry could bring connectivity to the globe’s 3 billion unserved, but the hang-up is the business case, Globalstar's David Kagan said. Viasat's Mark Dankberg said countries' interests in national security and sovereignty is a hurdle for major multinational operators.

All the CEOs gave the satellite industry poor to mediocre scores in how it handles sustainability. Wajsgras said cybersecurity used to be an under-recognized threat but eventually government, industry and academia jointly moved to tackle it. He said space sustainability needs the same kind of approach "and we're not there today."

Dankberg said there's a lot of angst about orbital sustainability but less focus on quantifying issues like orbital carrying capacity. He said it "makes no sense" to think good behavior by satellite operators would allow them to put an unbounded amount of mass in orbit, since so much orbital debris is untrackable. He said momentum is growing for national regulators using market access to their countries as leverage to require constellations to conform to certain constraints. Responsible behavior won't negatively affect most constellations, but low earth orbit doesn't have a lot of room for mega constellations, Dankberg said.

Satellite 2023 Notebook

SpaceX's Starlink and Amazon's Kuiper are big competitive threats to legacy geostationary orbit operators, Northern Sky Research (NSR) analyst Jose Del Rosario said. Combined, they're expected to account for 74% of all comsat launches between 2021 and 2031, and will flood the market with cheap capacity, he said. The result is thinner profit margins for other operators, and capital being attracted away from other players, he said. GSO's advantage is that it has a large install base and penetration in key markets, he said. Del Rosario said the nature of LEO orbits means lighter coverage around equatorial regions such as India and parts of Asia, which could be a GSO opportunity. Telcos also increasingly see some operators, like SpaceX's Starlink, as competition, said NSR's Chris Baugh.

The first two Kuiper satellite prototypes are set for launch in May on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket, said Amazon Senior Vice President-Devices and Services Dave Limp. He said Kuiper's competitive differentiation from Starlink and OneWeb will include Amazon's expertise in consumer electronics manufacturing and applying that to mass production of its Kuiper customer terminals and satellites. Limp unveiled a pair of its flat-panel core antennas, including an LP-sized one for residential use with 400 Mbps capacity and cost to manufacture of around $400, which he said is half the price or less of competitors' antennas. Amazon also showed a "significantly" cheaper antenna the size of a hardback book that delivers 100 Mbps that could be a big inroad into the unserved and underserved market, he said. Limp said Kuiper has 77 launches booked with Blue Origin, ULA and Arianespace and should start production launches in earnest in 2024. Kuiper's intent is to have half its constellation in orbit by mid 2026, and will start beta testing commercial service next year, he said.

Kuiper buying so much launch capacity is causing a launch capacity bottleneck, with launch prices starting to climb because of the lack of supply, said Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis. Compounding the issue is so many new launch vehicles like Blue Origin's New Glenn and ULA's Vulcan coming to market, with many operators waiting to see how they perform, he said. Ellis said consolidation among launch companies isn't likely because so much of their technology is bespoke.

In part because of national sovereignty issues, there always will be a variety of launch providers, with nations not wanting to depend on a big launcher or two, said Daniel Metzler, CEO of German launcher Isar Aerospace. There are many launch providers today, at least on paper, but also a lot of pent-up demand, said John Rood, CEO of in-space transportation services provider Momentus Space. Pushing that demand is the plummeting cost of launch and the rapidly growing amount of computing and sensing power that can be packed into a small payload, he said. Rood said ultimately maybe 10 launch companies will survive. He said some government backing is being provided to launchers in Europe and Asia to launchers there but not enough to support a broadly more diverse launch ecosystem. Rood said there are some near-term price increases for launch, with SpaceX's latest mission user guide containing higher prices, but longer-term pricing should continue to decline. SpaceX remains cheaper than other providers "by a significant margin," said Rood, noting newer launch entrants aren't increasing their costs, seemingly as they price to get market share.

Equipment vendors like Apple, with its Globalstar partnership (see 2209070016), and Bullitt's announced partnership with Skylo, are leading early commercialization of the supplemental coverage from space (SCS) market, NSR's Lluc Palerm said. He said when direct-to-device service becomes more seamless, MNOs will then take the leaderboard. The hurdles to that include regulatory OKs and spectrum access, he said, but if those get solved, SCS will be a "very big market" with 374 million monthly users by 2031.