Satellite operators weigh strategies to compete against growing Starlink network

Geostationary satellite operators argue that low Earth orbit services like Starlink should not be seen as the only solution.

WASHINGTON – As SpaceX continues to expand its Starlink communications network and promote its services, established satellite operators are devising strategies to remain competitive.

During the Satellite 2021 Digital LEO Forum on April 6, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said the company is moving forward with plans to offer Starlink satellite internet services directly to consumers and is also considering the government. from the US as a customer.

Meanwhile, executives from commercial geostationary satellite operators argued that low-Earth orbit services like Starlink should not be seen as the only solution to solve customers’ communications problems.

SpaceX has about 1320 satellites in orbit and plans to launch hundreds more this year. This summer it will begin to deploy satellites in polar orbits.

Shotwell said that the The Department of Defense is now increasingly interested in communications services from low earth orbit and is building its own network. But he hopes the government will also buy commercial services.

“You can see that the government is starting to think about proliferating LEO capabilities on their own, so I don’t know how much they will end up buying from commercials,” he said. “We will be happy to sell commercial bandwidth to government clients.”

DoD has shown interest in Starlink and, in general, in the use of LEO communications services from other providers such as Iridium and OneWeb because data can be transmitted with minimal delay or latency, compared to services provided by geostationary satellites 22,000 miles above the equator.

Geostationary satellites also cannot provide continuous coverage in the polar regions due to the curvature of the Earth. Meanwhile, LEO satellites rotate at lower altitudes below 1,200 miles and provide continuous global coverage as the satellite moves.

Steve Collar, CEO of SES, said the company is offering a hybrid service that integrates multi-orbiting satellites.

SES operates satellites in geostationary orbits and a network of satellites in medium Earth orbit about 5,000 miles above Earth. Collar said the government needs access to a seamless network that takes advantage of having multiple orbits to route traffic based on customer demand.

Collar said commercial and government customers are confused by the different networks and providers. “Customers face this kind of fractured industry without consistent solutions,” he said.

A managed service that allocates network capacity based on demand is the answer, he said. “You need a sophisticated brain that is aware of demand.”

Pradman Kaul, president of Hughes Network Systems, said the company is also developing a hybrid strategy in partnership with OneWeb. Hughes would offer services from its own geostationary satellites and LEO connectivity through OneWeb. “We think we need a combined solution,” he said.

Mark Dankberg, Viasat CEO, said there are pros and cons that need to be weighed. Viasat operates geostationary satellites, but last year announced that it would build a constellation of almost 300 satellites in low earth orbit if you can qualify for grants from the US Federal Communications Commission to provide broadband in rural areas.

Dankberg insisted that geostationary satellite capacity is more cost-effective. “The outlook for the bandwidth economy strongly favors GEO,” he said. “Non-GEOs can provide lower latency and coverage at the poles.” However, the “big problem” with LEO communications is that the orbits are congested and it is an increasingly insecure environment.

“Geostationary satellites cannot collide and they do not interfere with each other,” Dankberg said. “In non-GEO, each constellation can collide with another constellation and each constellation can interfere with the others.”

Viasat in december asked the Federal Communications Commission to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX’s Starlink, arguing that the satellite system presents environmental hazards in space and on Earth.

SpaceX in the so called presentations Viasat’s complaint “Anticompetitive Gambling Skill”.

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