Oct 15, 2019 - Science

Satellite broadband's boom

Illustration of a quarter as a satellite dish.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

While satellite pay-TV services are in a death spiral, modern satellite-powered broadband services are raising big investments and a lot of high expectations.

Why it matters: Access to broadband is essential in today's economy, but roughly half of the globe's population still lacks reliable access to it. Companies well-positioned to build and deploy satellites see an opening to provide that service to a world hungry for fast connections.

What's happening: Historically, satellite communications services have been seen as a last-resort option for people in remote areas or, in pay-TV's case, for consumers who wanted a lot of channels.

  • But as more and more cord cutters are relying on all-purpose broadband connections and get the bulk of their small-screen entertainment via streaming options, satellite TV companies Dish and DirecTV are languishing.
Data: MoffettNathanson; Chart: Axios Visuals

What's new: As the pay-TV market dwindles, a new crop of satellites are being launched to beam down broadband services to wider swaths of populations on Earth.

  • The nascent services by SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and ViaSat are all planning to launch fleets of satellites aiming for the same goal — getting enough low-Earth orbit satellites into space fast enough to provide a broadband alternative to terrestrial services from the likes of Verizon or Comcast.

The catch: Launching satellites is an expensive proposition, and the market is getting crowded — as is space itself. It's unlikely all the companies will succeed in signing up enough subscribers to cover those expenses, let alone make a profit. Consolidation is all but inevitable, analysts say.

Between the lines: The satellite industry is undergoing a sea change.

  • Satellite TV was popular in the '80s and '90s as subscription channel bundles became more sophisticated — and before the advent of the consumer internet.
  • Now as streaming over super-fast broadband is supplanting pay-TV, the next generation of satellite fleets is banking on building a business by providing the same service that is ultimately killing its satellite predecessors.

How it works: There are different technologies involved. While satellite TV companies rely on expensive satellites in high orbits, the satellites designed by Amazon, SpaceX and others are expected to be small and in relatively low orbits.

  • But the closer the satellites are to Earth, the narrower the signal beam. So providers need more satellites to cover a broad area.
  • Even with more advanced launch strategies, deploying thousands of satellites is still a pricey and logistically complicated proposition.

The FCC is already issuing licenses for these new constellations.

  • SpaceX, which received its initial license in 2018, has since launched 60 of its Starlink satellites with another batch expected to launch as soon as this month.
  • OneWeb's plans were approved in 2017, and the company sent its first satellites to orbit earlier this year.
  • Amazon's Project Kuiper filed with the FCC earlier this year.

In theory, the designs of these constellations should allow the companies to provide high-speed broadband globally and give them flexibility in design and coverage.

  • SpaceX, for example, needs 400 satellites in orbit to provide partial coverage, but 1,000 satellites will make the constellation "economically viable," Elon Musk said in May. The company hopes to launch about 12,000 Starlink satellites.

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