WASHINGTON — As SpaceX continues to expand its Starlink communications network and promote its services, established satellite operators are figuring out strategies to remain competitive.  

During the Satellite 2021 LEO Digital Forum April 6, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said the company is moving forward with plans to offer Starlink satellite internet services directly to consumers and also is eyeing the U.S. government as a customer.

Meanwhile, executives from commercial operators of geostationary satellites argued that low Earth orbit services like Starlink should not be viewed as the only solution to fix customers’ communications problems.

SpaceX has about 1,320 satellites in orbit and plans to launch hundreds more this year. This summer it will begin to deploy satellites in polar orbits.

Shotwell said the Defense Department is now becoming more interested in communications services from low Earth orbit and is building its own network. But she expects the government to also buy commercial services. 

“You can see the government starting to think about proliferated LEO capabilities on their own so I don’t know how much they will end up buying from commercial,” she said. “We would be happy to sell commercial bandwidth to government customers.”

DoD has shown interest in Starlink and generally in using LEO communications services from other providers like Iridium and OneWeb because data can be transmitted with minimal delay, or latency, compared to services provided by geostationary satellites 22,000 miles above the equator. 

Geostationary satellites also can’t provide continuing coverage in the polar regions due to the curvature of the Earth. Meanwhile, LEO satellites revolve at lower altitudes below 1,200 miles and provide continuous, global coverage as the satellite moves.

Steve Collar, CEO of SES, said the company is offering a hybrid service that integrates satellites from multiple orbits.

SES operates satellites in geostationary orbits and a network of satellites in medium Earth orbits about 5,000 miles above the Earth. Collar said the government needs access to a seamless network that takes advantage of having multiple orbits to route traffic based on customer demand.

Collar said commercial and government customers are confused by the different networks and providers. “Customers are faced with this sort of fractured industry without coherent solutions,” he said. 

A managed service that allocates network capacity based on the demand is the answer, he said. “You need a sophisticated brain that is aware of the demand.”

Pradman Kaul, president of Hughes Network Systems, said the company also is developing a hybrid strategy in partnership with OneWeb. Hughes would offer services from its own geostationary satellites and LEO connectivity through OneWeb. “We believe we need a combined solution,” he said. 

Mark Dankberg, Viasat executive chairman, said there are pros and cons that have to be weighed. Viasat operates geostationary satellites but last year announced it would build a constellation of nearly 300 satellites in low Earth orbit if it can qualify for subsidies from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to provide broadband in rural areas. 

Dankberg insisted that geostationary satellite capacity is more cost effective. “Bandwidth economics perspective strongly favors GEO,” he said. “Non GEOs can provide lower latency and coverage over the poles.” However, the “big issue” with LEO communications is that orbits are congested and it’s increasingly an unsafe environment.

“Geostationary satellites can’t collide, and don’t interfere with each other,” Dankberg said. “In non-GEO, every constellation can crash into another constellation and every constellation can interfere with the others.”

Viasat in December petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to perform an environmental review of SpaceX’s Starlink, arguing that the satellite system poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth.

SpaceX in filings called Viasat’s complaint “anti-competitive gamesmanship.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...