Elon Musk's Starlink is part of a new wave of ventures by several companies to cover the globe with faster, better internet by using constellations of satellites that number in the thousands. At stake is the future of communications on Earth and in space.
Competitors include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Project Kuiper and startup company OneWeb, which not long ago filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of U.S. bankruptcy laws.
But the road to profitability is not navigated simply by launching scores of satellites at a single shot. Other factors come into play.
For example, Musk acknowledged recently that the cost of the user terminal is the biggest challenge for his project. He previously said he hoped to develop a terminal that would sell for under $300, but analysts say that will be difficult.
"Getting the signal to the customer [affordably] has always been the issue with new communications satellite service," said Hamed Khorsand, founder of California-based BWS Financial, which provides research on technology and communications companies.
"You can't just put up satellites and think that will solve everything. You have to have revenue," Khorsand said.
Both Starlink and OneWeb began in 2015. As OneWeb continued to develop, Starlink launched repeatedly. As of June 3, Musk's SpaceX has launched 480 Starlink spacecraft.
The company has said it anticipates to invest about $10 billion in Starlink, with a potential for $30 billion to $50 billion in annual revenue if the system becomes fully operational.
Musk said on Twitter recently that limited service could be tested by around August -- when SpaceX aims to have 800 satellites in orbit -- in what is called a beta validation. In technology development, beta validations attempt to demonstrate a new software of service to a limited number of potential users.
Enter Bezos, whose plans for space communications services under the Project Kuiper mantle, are shrouded in secrecy.
In the battle for funding, Bezos' deep pockets only grew deeper as the coronavirus pandemic sent more people online to shop. Analysts following the high-tech satellite slugfest say they have no idea how much Bezos -- who consistently ranks among the wealthiest people in the world -- is investing in Project Kuiper.
The Amazon, though, aims to launch more than 3,200 satellites, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But details of the constellation remain mostly under wraps as the company builds a new headquarters and prototype manufacturing laboratories near Seattle.
Like Starlink, OneWeb said it aimed to provide reliable internet service to remote regions. But OneWeb had only three launches and ran into funding trouble just as the pandemic took hold.
The company was testing and developing technology with 74 satellites in orbit and permits for up to 720.
In bankruptcy court, OneWeb reported assets of $3.3 billion, the most significant of which are radio-frequency licenses and licenses to receive signals in nations around the globe, while its debts and liabilities were $2.1 billion.
Despite the positive balance sheet, the company said financial market fallout from the pandemic interrupted efforts to raise more money for expansion of the satellite network. As a startup, the company had no significant revenue.
OneWeb, based in Virginia and London, continues to operate with a reduced staff since it filed for bankruptcy in March and laid off about 450 workers -- more than three-fourths of its payroll.
The satellite startup filed a new application with the FCC in late May to boost the number of planned satellites to 48,000.
OneWeb's move to seek more satellite permits is aimed at making it more attractive to a new owner, or for a sale of the existing satellites, analyst Khorsand said.
"It's really more about whether anyone can use the satellites that are up there already. I just don't know if they are compatible with any other company's technology, because most of the technology is pretty proprietary," he said.
Despite backing from major players like Airbus and Richard Branson's Virgin Group, OneWeb made its bankruptcy filing after a big investor, Japan-based Softbank Group, withheld additional funding in March as the pandemic spread and a recession took hold.
One veteran player had planned to join the fray, as well.
Intelsat, founded in 1964, has been reborn with new investments several times. It planned a communications satellite constellation, but filed for bankruptcy protection in May as financial fallout from the pandemic hit many industries. The company cited only "substantial legacy debt" in its bankruptcy announcement.
Observers of the satellite communications industry are well-acquainted with struggling startups and bankruptcy -- due to the high cost of getting underway and the time needed to become fully operational.
Costs increase more because federal and international regulations require thruster systems on the communications satellites to avoid potential collisions.
Khorsand noted that another firm in the competition, Iridium Communications, went bankrupt in 1999 after launching a communications satellite constellation. The company later emerged from bankruptcy and now provides service to major customers, including the U.S. military. It has 75 satellites in orbit.
With lucrative military contracts providing an enticement, SpaceX also is gunning for that market. The company said it already has worked with the Air Force to test the signal from Starlink.
SpaceX eventually wants to have an armada of satellites that would beam data around the globe, using laser optics in the vacuum of space that could move data close to the speed of light.
Iridium is the only commercial provider that presently uses such laser optics, said Chris Quilty, founder of Florida-based Quilty Analytics, an aerospace analyst firm.
Before such space laser connections can happen, Starlink will need a new generation of Starlink satellites, Quilty said. The current Starlink satellites in orbit aren't designed for that technology, he said.
"Starlink will have ground stations, but over the ocean, there are no ground stations, so it has to have a crosslink based in space to beam super-fast service around the world," Quilty said.
For Musk and Bezos, dominating the future of space communication also could benefit their long-term goals to explore the moon and Mars, Quilty said.
"You can't fund Mars exploration only on the launch business, especially if SpaceX is successful at shrinking the cost of launch dramatically, which is the company's goal," Quilty said.
"If Musk is successful at establishing a colony on Mars, a good communications link to Earth will be vital, and Starlink would help that."
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