Satellite IoT companies don’t see broadband systems as competitors

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Companies developing internet-of-things satellite constellations don’t see other broadband megaconstellations as direct competitors, but some see an opportunity to learn from them.

Executives working on smallsat IoT systems said during a panel at the SmallSat Symposium here Feb. 8 that they’re often asked to compare their systems, which use smallsats for low-power, low-bandwidth communications, with broadband offerings like OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink.

“I’m pretty sure that, if we talk over coffee, you’ll ask me, ‘What do you think about Starlink?’” said Flavia Tata Nardini, chief executive of Fleet Space Technologies, an Australian company deploying an IoT constellation. “Everyone asks it.”

She argued the systems serve different customers and needs, comparing it to traveling in her native, traffic-congested Rome. “You want to have a Ferrari to go on the hills and look good, but in the city, you want to have a Vespa, because a Ferrari would just get stuck.”

Fabien Jordan, founder of Swiss satellite IoT company Astrocast, said his company’s solution stands out from broadband services in several ways, such as the use of L-band spectrum, low power consumption and a small form factor. Astrocast has a strategic agreement with Thruaya to use its L-band spectrum. That antenna can also be used to receive GPS signals to further reduce the size and power needs of the receiver, and can operate for 7 to 10 years on a single battery.

“The best way to continue to be successful is to control the entire value chain, the infrastructure from the chipset all the way to the space segment,” he said, “and to make that infrastructure evolve as we grow to adapt to market needs.”

Jaume Sanpera, chief executive of Spanish startup Sateliot, took a different tack. “We are not talking about the best form factor, the best power consumption. We are talking about standards,” he said.

The company, which just raised 10 million euros ($11.4 million) in a Series A round, emphasized the use of 5G standards, working in cooperation with mobile network operators to extend their coverage. That gives them economies of scale over more customized approaches, he argued.

“We never want to make a chipset, but the chips that we use in our equipment cost two dollars, because it’s the chipset of all the industry,” he said. “The market will be driven by standards and the cost of customer acquisition.”

Fleet’s Tata Nardini said that companies in the IoT sector could learn from broadband services like Starlink. “The standard of the experience of satellite data is changing, driven by these players,” she said. “We have to do the same.”

Connectivity is becoming commoditized, she said, with falling prices for services. “How do you build a business plan that resists time and other operators and all the other things that are coming?”

For Fleet, that means developing satellites that can “potentially compete with the massive satellites of the incumbents,” she said. The company announced in December a new smallsat design, called Alpha, that will use 3D-printing technologies to enable increased throughput at lower costs. Those satellites will be built in a “hyper factory” at the new Australian Space Park in Adelaide.

She added that the company is looking beyond just new satellites. “We need to provide value to the customer with end-to-end solutions, not just commodities,” she said, or run the risk of having those broadband systems become competitors over time. “Who knows where SpaceX and OneWeb are going to go?”