TAMPA, Fla. — The arrival of SpaceX’s broadband service has transformed satellite communications and what customers expect from other companies in the market, executives on a panel of legacy operators said Sept. 11.

“The reality is Starlink has had a real impact on the market,” Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg told Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris.

The low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband network has transformed what customers expect from user terminals, Goldberg added, including what they look like, how much they should cost, and how much work they should be to set up.

Starlink’s popularity is also lowering what customers expect to pay for connectivity, increasing demand for ubiquitous coverage, and pushing the industry away from traditionally long-term contract commitments.

However, Goldberg said customers are calling for more competition in the market, which the Canadian geostationary operator hopes to provide in 2027 with recently funded plans for a LEO constellation.

Industrializing and bringing down costs in the launch sector was one of SpaceX’s biggest innovations, Eutelsat CEO Eva Berneke said, and operators need to adapt to a similar shake-up in satellite connectivity. 

Eutelsat is closing in on buying OneWeb’s LEO network as it seeks to meet the growing demand it sees for lower latency connectivity from space. 

Berneke agreed that satellite connectivity is not a “winner takes all” market because of the need for sovereign and redundant networks.

“On the other hand, I don’t think you’re going to have 10s or 20s,” she said. The spectrum these companies use is a finite resource distributed to first movers, meaning “it is going to be somewhat more painful to launch later with a lower priority.”

Berneke said the rush to get other satellite broadband constellations to non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) to follow Starlink and OneWeb will help define the industry over the coming decade.

“But we cannot do it without a supply chain that becomes super competitive with us,” Berneke warned, “and I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges that this industry needs to solve.”

Price erosion

Demand for connectivity is increasing but operators also need to be cautious about pricing pressure from a flood of capacity to meet it, according to Ruy Pinto, CEO of SES with satellites in GEO and medium Earth orbit.

“[W]e as an industry have had any issue of underestimating the price erosion, and the amount of capacity and competition that is hitting us every year,” Pinto said.

Instead of focusing head-to-head in areas with “almost predatory pricing,” he said SES is prioritizing regions where it can provide a differentiated service, such as through specialized government partnerships.

“I don’t think that retreating into segments that are protected is an enduring answer,” said Mark Dankberg, CEO of U.S.-based geostationary operator Viasat, which recently acquired Inmarsat of the U.K. to expand globally.

He said Viasat sees lots of opportunities built on heterogeneous fleets in GEO and NGSO. 

However, there are big questions about how much room there is in LEO and how those resources are shared, according to Dankberg, who said they can be partly solved by releasing more information on spectrum footprints and other details to help other operators and countries make more informed decisions.

Space sustainability is becoming an increasingly important topic for all satellite operators as the number of satellites in NGSO soars, Eutelsat’s Berneke said.

She called on the industry to come together to revise how companies should operate and share spectrum, rather than sit back and wait for regulators to step in on their behalf.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...