Thu, May 09, 2019 - Page 7 News List

New space race to bring satellite Internet to world

AFP, WASHINGTON

A man walks past the Northrop Grumman stand at the Satellite 2019 international conference in Washington on Monday.

Photo: AFP

Anxiety has set in across the space industry ever since the world’s richest man, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, revealed Project Kuiper: a plan to put 3,236 satellites in orbit to provide high-speed Internet around the globe.

Offering broadband Internet coverage to digital deserts is also the goal of the company OneWeb, which is set to start building two satellites a day this summer in Florida, for a constellation of more than 600 expected to be operational by 2021

Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX is equally active: It has just received a clearance to put 12,000 satellites in orbit at various altitudes in the Starlink constellation. Not to mention other projects in the pipeline that have less funding or are not yet as defined.

Is there even enough space for three, four, five or more space-based Internet providers?

At the Satellite 2019 international conference in Washington this week, professionals from the sector said they feared an expensive bloodbath — especially if Bezos decides to crush the competition with ultra-low prices.

“Jeff Bezos is rich enough to put you out of business,” Iridium Communications chief executive officer Matt Desch said.

Iridium knows all about bankruptcy. The company launched a satellite phone in the 1990s — a brick-like set that cost US$3,000 with call rates of US$3 a minute. Barely anyone subscribed at the dawn of the mobile era.

The firm eventually relaunched itself and has just finished renewing its entire constellation: Sixty-six satellites offering connectivity, but not broadband, with 100 percent global coverage to institutional clients including ships, airplanes, militaries and businesses.

“The problem with satellites, it’s billions of dollars of investments,” Desch said.

If “you spend billions and you get it wrong, you end up creating sort of a nuclear winter for the whole industry for 10 years. We did that,” he said.

“These guys coming in, I wish them really well... I hope they don’t take 30 years to become successful like we did,” he added.

Having Internet beamed in from space is more of a priority for isolated zones than it is for cities, where users have fiber-optic or cable connections.

With satellite constellations, it does not matter where you are in the world — an antenna is all you need to get broadband.

“It’s just like having a very tall cell tower,” said Al Tadros of Maxar, which builds satellites.

The other advantage of the newly announced constellations are their relatively low orbit, which is important for reducing latency, key in curbing lag in video calls or games, for example.

Isolated areas might be where the technology is required, but there might not be enough customers to make the endeavor profitable. That is why OneWeb has lowered its sights and would first target providing Internet services to airplanes or to ships, where there is a huge demand.

“The challenge in monetizing is being able to get through those first few years, where you have to put in all your capital expenses, but not being able to get enough revenues to keep you afloat,” Northern Sky Research senior analyst Shagun Sachdeva told reporters.

Sachdeva expected most of the companies to die off, saying that the market would eventually have room for “maybe two” firms and that space-delivered Internet services would not be commonplace for at least five to 10 years.

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