OpEd – Old Space Past Clouding Better New Space

Las Vegas, Nevada & Washington DC – Over the past month I’ve been to two different in-person events, Satellite 2021 and IWCE EXPO, and heard similar messages from different communities.  Users who have been exposed to “Old Space” have an impression that satellite services – be it getting imagery (Satellite 2021) or broadband (IWCE) – are expensive to purchase and difficult to procure.   Most organizations seem to be unaware of the rapid changes that are taking place in the “New Space” world to lower costs and increase the speeds of implementation and service delivery.

At Satellite 2021, the imaging provider and analytics companies themselves were telling stories about how they need to educate businesses on the ways new earth observation constellations are providing access to imagery, using a web portal to input where and how companies want imagery, payable by credit card and data delivered within a day or less.  Some, like BlackSky, are offering free trials to enable companies to quickly experiment with the New Space way of delivering and analyzing imagery.

First responders have long memories with disruption of communications during Hurricane Katrina still vivid, according to Urgent Communications editor Donny Jackson.  Federal, state, and local governments all want backup communications when cell towers go down, but there’s a conservativism and deliberate speed-of-movement when it comes to the first responder community committing to a particular technology and approach.  Mistakes can cost more than simply money, impacting lives and property.

Satellite communications offerings have been an expensive backup plan out of the reach of most organizations, requiring upwards of $30,000 or more for a single mobile downlink terminal to delivery broadband services and additional funding to reserve and use satellite transponders on geosynchronous satellites.  Difficulties in using and affording satellite phones resulted in many local organizations turning them in prior to Katrina.

Awareness of new LEO broadband options from SpaceX and OneWeb is there, but with different impressions.  Everyone’s heard of SpaceX Starlink, but it’s difficult to find someone that has worked with the equipment and service and will talk about it in a public forum.  “We talked with OneWeb before the bankruptcy” was the refrain from a couple of resellers, indicating they hadn’t had contact with them since the company’s reorganization and securing billions of dollars to take them into production operations.

The bigger satellite broadband issues which aren’t getting discussion are the lower cost of equipment in the pipeline and potentially lower cost of services.  SpaceX Starlink currently charges $499 for its unruggedized equipment – the actual cost is around $1300 to build and expected to drop to $750-$800 by the end of the year. The Starlink dish is simply pointed at unobstructed sky, plugged in, and it does the rest, delivering an internet “pipe” through a low-cost router.  It’s not a ruggedized solution and there’s no indication how much the forthcoming mobile terminal will cost, but it’s a start. OneWeb hopes to have a similar integrated “pizza box” solution at around $2500 within a year, available around the same time the company should be able to provide full global coverage on a completed constellation of 648 satellites.

Lower cost equipment will open more business and government use, but there is a lot of work to be done to reset established beliefs on satellite services, be it earth observation imagery, broadband, or IoT.  On a macro scale, New Space companies are shifting the satellite world from a mainframe model to cellular phones in terms of cost and availability.  Services are more freely available, affordable, and accessible. New Space service providers are going to have to work to change status quo beliefs given the level of change we will see in the next 5 years.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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