A blog post by Matt Graydon, Graduate Student

Every year, the satellite industry comes together for a major conference and trade exhibition where the latest trends and technologies shaping the field are promoted, discussed and debated. Over the course of four days, the vast Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington D.C. transforms into the hub of the satellite world, with Silicon Valley upstarts competing for attention alongside industry veterans.

GMTaC Director Prof. Lisa Parks and I had the opportunity to attend this event, SATELLITE 2018, last month as part of the lab’s research on satellite internet technology and its potential to connect the billions of people worldwide who still lack reliable internet access.

In recent years, the satellite industry has been disrupted, to use one of Silicon Valley’s favorite terms, by new players including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. These companies are building and operating launch vehicles, with grander plans for satellites and manned spaceflights in the near future. At the conference, it was impossible to ignore the central place in the industry that these relatively young companies have taken, with floor-to-ceiling posters promoting Blue Origin’s new rockets dominating the convention hall and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell winning Satellite Executive of the Year.

The abundance of new, more affordable launch service providers has created opportunities for launching a variety of innovative satellites, from remote sensing units the size of an iPhone to a new generation of mass-produced communications satellites. These communications satellites, their creators’ promise, hold the potential to allow anyone, anywhere in the world to have high-speed internet access.

As discussed in a previous blog post, reaching the unconnected corners of the globe has been an industry goal since the early years of the internet, but it is only recently that companies like O3b, OneWeb and SpaceX have put plans in motion to launch communications constellations ranging from dozens to thousands of satellites.

During our four days in Washington D.C., Prof. Parks and I wanted to see if the rhetoric of providing global connectivity to underserved populations actually matched the reality in the industry. We attended a variety of seminars and forums, toured the exhibition halls and met with industry leaders, researchers and other experts.  

We found that while progress has been made in the field, particularly with the ability to mass produce and launch relatively inexpensive communications satellites, there are still substantial hurdles remaining. While the satellite part of the equation has been addressed, many of the experts we spoke with told us that an underreported issue is the lack of ground terminals that can meet the complex requirements of communicating with Low/Medium Earth Orbit satellites for a price that is within the means of private consumers, particularly in the developing world.

Even if an affordable ground terminal can be produced (and many companies are working hard on this), there is the larger question of whether companies can actually make a profit by connecting the developing world. Speaking at a forum, the CEO of a large satellite company told the audience that connecting people who make only a few dollars a day is simply not a realistic business plan. This was a stark admission, but perhaps more honest than the utopian rhetoric that is often seen in the industry.

Both the Silicon Valley upstarts and the established pillars of the satellite industry insist that they have the formula for connecting the world, but without a breakthrough in the cost of ground terminals and major shift in business models, the “unconnected and underserved” consumers the industry is trying to reach might be superyacht owners instead of rural farmers.