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COMMENT BEYOND20


Hypeandreality in the‘newspace’ race


INMARSAT’S CEO ON TEMPERING THE HYPE AROUND LOW-EARTH ORBIT SATELLITES


ering. While there is clearly a place for LEO sat- ellites – more on that in a moment – they are not the be-all and end-all of future space-based communications. A good place to start is with customers, and by asking whether LEOs are the best solution for their current and future needs. For consumermarkets, I know very well the


RAJEEVSURI I


f you have a reasonably long memory, you may recall the headlines in the 1990s during the last dash for space. Unfortunately, that


experience didn’t endwell for thenewentrants and a lot of investor capital was lost. But I’m not here to be a Cassandra. This


time it does feel different; this time, technology has seemingly caught up with ambition. And there’s no denying that there is an insatiable appetite for broadband connectivity among consumers and businesses alike, an appetite that terrestrial networks are currently strug- gling to satisfy – for reasons both financial and technical. The result is a new kind of space race in


whichmany tens of billions of dollars are being pumped into the creation of new low earth orbit (LEO) constellations of satellites. Some of the world’s brightest and most successful busi- nesspeople have jumped into the fray, putting their wallets and reputations on the line. The hype machine is in overdrive, declaring that there is a ‘new space’ that will provide revolu- tionary, world-changing benefits.


Reality vshype As is often the case in such situations, the excitement overshadows some inconvenient realities that are still very much worth consid-


48


power of connectivity and, inmyrole on theUN Broadband Commission, I am focused on new ways to connect the unconnected. Clearly, satel- lite services are one way to achieve that goal, particularly in the world’s remotest regions. Whether they will remain the best way over time, given the proliferation of both terrestrial and fixed mobile networks, is unclear. Certainly, formuch of the world today, particu- larly in dense urban environments, there are better options, and LEO constellations on their own are unlikely to add much in terms of new capability. For non-consumer customers – particularly


mobility users in governments and enterprises of all kinds – while they are hearing a lot of noise around the exciting new world of LEOs, one ‘look under the hood’ is enough to con- vince them that what’s being offered is a poor facsimile of the services they’re using; LEOs are simply not designed withmobility users’ needs in mind. It would be like an airline using hun- dreds of light aircraft to carry millions of pas- sengers across the Pacific: the customer service wouldn’t be there, the economics don’t add up and the journey would probably be a harrow- ing one. Of course, I may have skin in the game but


this isn’t just my opinion. Increasingly, inde- pendent voices (from McKinsey & Company to Naturemagazine) are questioning the perceived logic of the story being presented, and the assumptions being made about the technolo- gies, business models and customer experience – and even the environmental impact both in space and here on Earth.


TheGEOalternative In the rush to tell the shinynewLEO story,what is also being ignored is the tremendous devel- opments under way in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellites, such as those of Inmarsat. Not only are such GEO satellites specifically


designed for government and enterprise users, new state-of-the-art technologies are being


www.fDiIntelligence.com June/July 2021


Artwork by Sam Kerr


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