Satellite operators hint at fear of SpaceX, Blue Origin becoming competitors

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WASHINGTON — Two of the world’s largest geostationary satellite fleet operators said March 10 that launch providers who compete with them by deploying their own constellations could influence their choice of rockets. 

Executives from SES and Eutelsat at the Satellite 2020 conference here said they are watching as SpaceX deploys its own Starlink constellation of broadband satellites, which could make SpaceX one of their competitors. 

Blue Origin could also become a competitor if it launches Amazon’s Kuiper broadband constellation, according to Eutelsat Deputy CEO Michel Azibert and Hughes President Pradman Kaul, since Jeff Bezos owns both Amazon and Blue Origin. 

“It’s a consideration,” Azibert said of the risk that launch providers could become competitors. Eutelsat, which operates around 40 geostationary satellites, has launched twice with SpaceX and reserved a launch slot on Blue Origin’s future New Glenn rocket, scheduled for first flight in 2021. 

“If in the end we have completely vertically integrated companies competing with us, it might affect, a little bit, the relationship,” Azibert said. 

SES has launched five times with SpaceX. In September, SES signed a contract for two more Falcon 9 missions. That SpaceX plans to launch 12,000 or more Starlink satellites hasn’t impacted its relationship with SES yet, but could in the future, said SES CEO Steve Collar. 

“We’ve had a very close relationship with SpaceX,” Collar said. “We were their first commercial launch [and] their first flight-proven booster launch. But at some point you’ve got to think about what’s the right thing for our business.” 

“At this point it’s not an issue, but could it become an issue in the future? Yeah, it could,” he added. 

SES, with around 50 geostationary satellites and 20 satellites in medium Earth orbit, operates one of the world’s largest satellite communications networks. 

Kaul said that Hughes and its parent company EchoStar will not be dissuaded from using SpaceX or Blue Origin for future launches despite the competitive risk.

“We look for the best product at the best price,” Kaul said. “I think that’s the dominant factor even though eventually once SpaceX gets into the service business, we will be competing with them, and same thing with Amazon.” 

Clay Mowry, Blue Origin’s vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience, said during a later panel discussion that Blue Origin is not guaranteed to launch Amazon’s constellation of roughly 3,200 satellites.

“We hope to compete for their business,” Mowry said. “Blue Origin is founded and owned by Jeff Bezos, but we are not the same company, and there is no connection there.”

Hughes is still deciding who will launch its next satellite, Jupiter-3, in 2021. Hughes won’t penalize SpaceX as a contender because of Starlink, Kaul said.