NewSpace and Silicon Valley get most of the attention, but perhaps the most dynamic, fast-moving sector in the space industry right now is mobile satellite services, where companies are scrambling for a share of the maritime and aeronautical markets.
Sensing that when the music stops there are likely to be more players than chairs, these companies are locking up satellite bandwidth, antenna-builder exclusivities, airline commitments and maritime fleet contracts as they steel themselves against the coming shakeout.
In the meantime, it’s one helluva show that is all but certain to benefit customers and operators of commercial and business aviation and merchant and cruise-line fleets.
Satellite operators are adding high-throughput capacity with an eye to the mobility verticals. At least one in-flight-entertainment veteran, Panasonic Avionics, appears poised to take the plunge and purchase its own satellites.
Panasonic’s move, partially unveiled the week of March 7 at the Satellite 2016 conference, is to build extra-high-through put satellites, in Ku-band, over the Americas and Europe first, with East Asia to follow.
What is most striking at this point in the drama is the lack of consensus about the basic business model.
Who pays for what between service providers, hardware manufacturers, airlines and shipping fleets?
Will bandwidth providers be forced to subsidize equipment installation on customer platforms?
Who owns the end customer?
Among the airlines, is passenger connectivity a Pepsiand- peanuts service embedded in the ticket price, or an extra for which passengers are expected to pay?
Will Netflix or Amazon Prime stick to streaming only or will they allow on-board caching of their entire libraries on airlines that, given the drop in data-storage costs, are able to do this?
Do tomorrow’s airline passengers want to use their own devices, or will they prefer the larger, clearer versions of seat-back screens now under development?
The service providers — among them Gogo, Global Eagle Entertainment, Panasonic, Thales Live TV, Inmarsat, ViaSat/Eutelsat, Hughes Network Systems, Harris CapRock and EMC — are divided on all these issues.
Some may be prisoners of their corporate business history. If you’re making money providing in-flight entertainment gear, the bring-your-own-device model is a mortal threat.
For now there appears to be a consensus that, as is the case on the ground, so it is in the air: Customer take-up plummets if you ask for even a small cash payment, and rises substantially if the service is free. How substantially will be a key performance indicator.
If JetBlue says it is attracting more customers and generating more passenger revenue per available seat mile by offering killer WiFi on board, that offers a hint of where the value proposition meets the revenue tarmac.
Another: Airline and cruise passengers are a demographic that should appeal to on-line advertising. Fashioning video packages to appeal to them as they make their way to what they want — video streaming or live television or Web browsing — should not be difficult.
And the same bandwidth that provides Netflix videos also provides engine-health and other data to the airline and the cockpit as we move to the connected aircraft. The revenue potential there may be even bigger than the airline-connectivity market, according to some estimates.
The major satellite fleet operators, and even some regional fleet owners, look at mobility as a cool rain on an otherwise dry landscape of stagnant revenue. They are divided on whether Ku-or Ka-band is the better solution over crowded air and sea routes, but they are investing to beat the band.
It is an extraordinary show, while it lasts.