Companies who have proven the technological viability of broadband satellite megaclusters now confront a more difficult task: proving the commercial justification. Industry executives and spectators expressed persistent pessimism that constellations of thousands and hundreds of low-earth-orbit satellites will produce enough money to cover the expense of deploying and replenishing those systems during talks at the Satellite Innovation event here.
The continuous deployments of systems by SpaceX and OneWeb, according to Carissa Christensen, CEO of BryceTech, are a “proof of concept of the economic models of proliferating LEO systems” and a critical inflection point for the broader sector. However, she felt that proof of concept was insufficient for success.
“What we’ve seen is the deployment that has been aided by investment.” “That’s not the same as revenue-supported business activities,” she remarked during a panel discussion on October 5. “The result of those corporate initiatives will be the most significant turning point within the next five years.” This includes earning enough revenue to sustain operations as well as raising extra funds to extend such systems.
The ability to refill such constellations is also a factor. Unlike the geostationary communications satellites, which have a typical life span of at least 15 years, LEO constellation satellites are designed for a fraction of that time, due to propulsion requirements to maintain orbits and change direction in a more crowded environment, as well as a desire to update technologies. That replenishment is not free.
Simultaneously, several constellation companies with venture capital backing will be migrating to public marketplaces. On the same panel, Rizwan Parvez, who serves as the senior director of Maxar’s space capture team, said, “Now, the anticipation from the investment community, and the risk assessment, is going to start to alter.” This will have an impact on those corporations’ capacity to generate funds to refill their fleets, which may be in the billions of dollars. “How simple is it going to be to acquire board instruction to conduct another massive refresh as you transition from the venture capital-backed firm to a public market company?” he said. “Does the money from the business justify it?”
Some conventional satellite operators are unconvinced that constellations can make a profit, at least as stand-alone businesses. During an October 6 panel, Intelsat’s chief commercial officer, Samer Halawi, said, “The challenge with constellations seems to be that you have to possess everything out there on the first day to start monetization, then you have a small period of time to monetize.” “You need to fast increase your revenue and do it before you have to replace your constellation.”
“It’s practically impossible,” he concluded, “particularly given the enormity of the investments going into those constellations.” The concept of “multi-orbit” systems, which combine GEO satellites with ones in LEO or even medium Earth orbit, was championed by Halawi and others at the event, including SES Chief Executive Steve Collar.