Viasat CEO on ways satellite is relevant in the competitive, global broadband market

Industry leaders on panel agree satellite demand driven by its unequalled ability to reach almost anywhere


The Tuesday morning keynote at the SATELLITE 2019 conference gave satellite operator CEOs 90 minutes to voice their opinions on satellite’s evolving role in the global broadband market. Participating CEOs included Viasat’s Mark Dankberg among his peers from Eutelsat, Intelsat, SES and Telesat, alongside Mark Holmes, editor-in-chief of Via Satellite magazine and guest moderators from Southwest Airlines, Sprint and SigFox. The CEO panelists were engaged on issues around satellite’s perceptions and opportunities in mobility, 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The keynote, which drew hundreds of show attendees, gave the audience an “inside baseball” look at how these CEOs think satellite broadband can address real-world connectivity challenges. They also weighed in on how they plan to keep satellite relevant in a competitive, global broadband environment — where fixed and mobile broadband service providers are the perceived heavyweights.

Kicking off the session was Holmes, who, after he introduced Dankberg, asked if Viasat could help satellite move beyond niches and into the mainstream U.S. residential broadband market.

“There are over 2,000 ISPs in the U.S. residential market — and [Viasat] is in the top 20,” Dankberg said. “These markets are ranked by households covered — where we perform high — households served and speeds — where today we can offer competitive 100 Mbps speeds in specific areas [among other rankings]. In U.S. residential broadband we’re testing the market to build in ways to add higher speeds and even more data. We think we’re on the right track.”

Future opportunities in airline connectivity

The path for how in-flight connectivity (IFC) could meet customer expectations generated a good, healthy debate among the panelist set. With an aviation market that has mostly moved away from traditional air-to-ground connectivity to more satellite-based services, satellite operators have found new opportunities. Yet Dankberg cautioned that to monetize the opportunity, “the technology and economics must be there.”

“When we’ve worked with airlines interested in delivering IFC service to all passengers – and make it free – we’ve exceeded customers’ expectations for what’s possible,” Dankberg said. “It’s really dependent upon the bandwidth capabilities and having satellite systems that are productive.”

He continued: “We have the bandwidth and distribution to serve more devices than passengers on a plane … the next big thing for us is how to get passengers more engaged, so they see the benefit of the investments airlines have made in IFC.”

One way to do this, Dankberg said, is to add value.

“We’re working with airlines as well as media companies — who are eager to get access to an audience of passengers on planes. We find brands that are consistent with an airline’s image and then help create business models that let the airline deliver competitive services, profitably.”

5G presents different opportunities for different operators

While all CEOs on the panel agreed satellite has a role in the 5G ecosystem, the role each organization may play seemed somewhat fractured.

As SES CEO Steve Collar noted: “Satellite’s super power is instantaneous reach … and where satellite will be relevant — whether for 3G, 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi, it doesn’t really matter — is bringing [connectivity] services into places that are economically very hard to access.”

Other CEOs echoed Collar’s sentiments, and added that 5G services are still years away. An underlying theme, however, was that while many satellite operators on the panel are already “actively involved” with mobile operators in rural and/or developed areas, the business cases for working together continue to change as advancements in space and ground-based technologies evolve.

In talking about Viasat’s participation, Dankberg illustrated how the company is working to close the digital divide.

“We’re going into emerging markets — in very rural communities with a few hundred people — and delivering 100 Mbps peak speeds at price points that are affordable on prepaid service plans,” he said.

He noted Viasat’s past work with mobile operators, sharing details that it was difficult for those mobile players to get an economical return from these small towns — only making a few hundred dollars per month. Dankberg talked about where mobile and satellite operators could cooperate, but differed from the opinions of some other panelists, noting: “It is less about satellite operators providing backhaul … instead let’s look at what the key services are, and make roaming across those services as easy as possible — even if it’s a combination of 5G and Wi-Fi, which is way more suited to deliver those services to those very rural, emerging markets at affordable prices.”

The business case for satellite broadband and IoT

In switching to the final theme of the panel, IoT, the panelists once again presented differing opinions, based on each operator’s focus and engagement in the market.

In response to these differing opinions, Dankberg noted: “What we’re surfacing here is that there are various business models around IoT. One notion we’re looking at is what if every single device had its own subscription — a sort of fantasy of the wireless carriers as they would get a fee for each of those IoT devices. As a residential ISP, we think most of the IoT will be through Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee or some other network aggregated into some other pipe – where IoT is a relatively small amount of the total capacity of that network.”

Dankberg continued to say that for Viasat, the company is also interested in peripheral IoT use cases including cybersecurity for devices connected on the network as well as personalized cloud services, to name a few.

Wrapping up

The CEO panelists, and the companies they represent, are highly differentiated. They offer differing business models and go-to-market strategies (some sell direct-to-customer as in the case of Viasat versus selling capacity via a wholesale distribution model); they use different orbital regimes whether GEO, LEO and MEO; and they vary in target market interests — both vertically and geographically; to name a few.

But despite their differences and diverse opinions on the panel, one topic where they most certainly converged was that satellite broadband has a strong value proposition and should not be overlooked as a way to extend broadband services globally.

Without pause, each CEO noted the demand for broadband services — whether on the ground in metro or rural locations, in the air, or at sea — providing good momentum for the satellite broadband industry as a whole.