TAMPA, Fla. — After taking the helm of SES in February, IT veteran Adel Al-Saleh plans to draw on his AI and terrestrial network expertise to position the geostationary and medium Earth orbit (MEO) operator to meet future broadband needs.

His appointment comes at a critical juncture for an industry facing a lack of capacity to insure innovative, multimillion-dollar satellites following a string of high-profile failures.

SpaceNews caught up with Al-Saleh as SES prepares to start services from O3b mPower before the end of April, despite power issues affecting four of the initial six satellites in its next-gen MEO network.

SES CEO Adel Al-Saleh. Credit: SES

What’s your take on the space market as a former industry outsider?

What’s very clear to me from being here for such a short period of time is this is a very fast-evolving industry and that we must change. Doing things the way we did them for decades is not going to work anymore. 

The demand is growing and the customer sophistication around it is growing. It’s moving away from just basic capacity consumption into applications. Being able to allocate more bandwidth to users on an aeroplane who need it more, for example. If you have somebody doing emails versus someone streaming a video, it’s about differentiating and monetizing that somehow. 

This is coming to our industry and we need to be ready for it.

How is your terrestrial and IT background helping here?

Using AI and a software-based approach for designing, building, and running things is second nature to me. The satellite industry has a lot of data. While there are some cutting-edge companies that are beginning to train AI on that level of data to automate, they are not as advanced as I think they can be. 

How are you leveraging AI in space? 

Our first priority is using AI internally for how we run the company, such as automating workflows and using decades of data to anticipate events.

AI can also help us recognize how there are different groups of users among our customers and enable us to adjust our network for their needs. We don’t need to know who the individual end users are, and we shouldn’t rely on them raising their hand — we should anticipate and cater to their needs in real-time and offer to enhance their experience with an upgrade.

What are other near-term challenges facing the industry?

It takes us too long to develop satellites. We are a very risk-averse industry, and that’s understandable. We spend several hundred million dollars to develop and launch a satellite.

The industry needs to get comfortable with learning fast, failing fast, but then improving very, very fast. It’s not just the satellite operators, but manufacturers and technology providers all have the same challenge. Disruptors like Starlink are showing how to do it. 

Operators typically insure costly satellites, but the insurance market is reeling from a bad spell of big losses — including a $472 million claim from SES for the first four O3b mPower satellites. What impact will this have?

It lowers the capacity available to insure things, but we haven’t decided to stop procuring or launching satellites. We just have to live with it.

Because the first four O3b mPower satellites have been impaired, we had to take the risk and launched the fifth and sixth satellites without insurance. It’s not something we typically do but we had to do it. Most of our upcoming launch insurance coverages are already negotiated, and we will continue to monitor and optimize our insurance coverage and insurance premium.  

So we haven’t seen big constraints yet, but we see it coming.

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...