Doing choreography … in space
The anticipated surge in satellite broadband deployments spells good news for users. It is likely that new applications will emerge, prices will decline, coverage and reliability will improve, and latency will fall. But several complications could slow the industry down. A much more crowded orbital environment significantly raises the risk of collisions, requiring higher levels of cooperation and coordination. At the same time, the various national, regional, and global players will likely continue to fight over spectrum, orbital slots, launch capacity, and access to terrestrial markets. Among the major competitors:
SpaceX’s Starlink: More than 2,600 working Starlink satellites serving almost half a million subscribers are currently in orbit.2 Beyond typical consumer use, Starlink has demonstrated its utility for emergency services in a number of recent natural disasters.3 Multiple airlines have begun exploring and testing the system for high-speed in-flight internet access.4 SpaceX also received FCC approval to provide mobile connectivity for boats, planes, and other vehicles, fulfilling one of the company’s early promises.5
Amazon’s (Project) Kuiper: Although none of its planned 3,236 satellites are currently in orbit, Amazon announced a multibillion-dollar agreement with three providers in April 2022 to launch most of these satellites over five years.6 But Amazon will need to hurry: It must have half of its satellites in place by 2026 and the entire constellation in orbit by 2029, or it will lose its FCC authorization.
OneWeb: More than two-thirds of UK-based OneWeb’s planned 648 satellites are currently in orbit, and the company is aiming to start global operations by the end of 2023.7 OneWeb also recently combined with France-based Eutelsat in a US$3.5 billion deal.8 The combined company intends to focus on enterprise and government connectivity by integrating Eutelsat’s geostationary satellites with OneWeb’s LEO network.9
Additional players include Canada’s Telesat, which plans to start launching its 188-satellite Lightspeed network in 2025.10 Another is Telco-backed AST SpaceMobile, which is planning a constellation of 243 satellites that will allow mobile devices to connect directly to its LEO network.11 And China, as part of a national plan, launched six test satellites in March 2022 for the private firm Galaxy Space. China’s network may eventually contain up to 13,000 satellites.12