Geostationary satellite operators argue that low-ground circuit services such as Starlink should not be seen as the only solution
WASHINGTON – As SpaceX continues to expand its Starlink communications network and promote its services, incumbent satellite operators are figuring out strategies to stay competitive.
During the Satellite 2021 LEO Digital Forum on April 6, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX President and CEO, said the company is moving forward with plans to offer Starlink satellite Internet services directly to consumers and also keep an eye on the US government as a customer.
Meanwhile, executives from commercial operators of geostationary satellites argued that low-ground circuit services like Starlink should not be seen as the only solution to solve customers̵
SpaceX has about 1,320 satellites in orbit and plans to launch hundreds more this year. This summer, it will begin deploying satellites in polar orbits.
Shotwell said The Ministry of Defense is now becomes more interested in communication services from low ground and builds its own network. But she expects the government to buy commercial services as well.
“You can see the government starting to think about scattered LEO opportunities alone, so I don’t know how much they end up buying from commercial,” she said. “We will be happy to sell commercial bandwidth to public customers.”
DoD has shown interest in Starlink and generally using LEO communication 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 continued 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 offers a hybrid service that integrates satellites from multiple orbits.
SES operates satellites in geostationary orbits and a network of satellites in medium-sized Earth orbits about 5,000 miles above the Earth. Collar said the government needs access to a seamless network that benefits from having multiple lanes to direct traffic based on customer demand.
Collar said commercial and public customers are confused by the various networks and providers. “Customers face this kind of broken industry without coherent 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 mindful 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 connection via OneWeb. “We believe we need a combined solution,” he said.
Mark Dankberg, Viasat’s CEO, said there are pros and cons to be weighed. Viasat operates geostationary satellites, but announced last year that they would build a constellation of almost 300 satellites in low-ground circuits if it can qualify for a grant from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to provide broadband in rural areas.
Dankberg insisted that geostationary satellite capacity is more cost-effective. “Bandwidth economic perspective strongly favors GEO,” he said. “Non-GEOs can provide lower latency and coverage across poles.” However, the “big problem” with LEO communication is that lanes are congested and that it is increasingly an unsafe environment.
“Geostationary satellites cannot collide and do not interfere with each other,” Dankberg said. “In non-GEO, each constellation can break into a different constellation, and each constellation can disrupt the others.”
Viasat in December petitions the Federal Communications Commission to conduct an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s Starlink and claims that the satellite system poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth.
SpaceX in archiving called Viasat’s complaint “Anti-competitive gaming team.”