Whose hands are the world’s communications satellites?
Tons of video, voice and data. The large communications satellites guarantee the transmission of all these signals from space and are dominated by an exclusive club that brings together some of the most powerful companies in the world.
exist about 1,830 communications satellites in orbit. More than 80% are controlled by corporations and their declared use is exclusively commercial. All the others are generally either directly controlled by the states or among their main customers. Its uses can be civil, military and even mixed.
One of the most exasperated questions that can put a telecommunications engineer is what are those very expensive devices that orbit the Earth for. But what are they for, he will say. For you to talk on the phone, send your political memes on WhatsApp, watch football and, increasingly, connect to the internet when you telecommute from your grandfather’s house in a lost town.
What are they for
With more patience and detail, Juan Enrique González Laguna, director at Everis Aerospace, a company of the NTT Data Group, it divides the services of the communications satellites into video and data. Those that offer video, he clarifies, “are the most veteran”, and include “broadcasting by satellite (TV and radio channels, directly to homes through the parabolic antenna on the roof), live broadcasts (for example, from sporting events) and some other cases of distribution in certain environments and operators ”.
And what about those who offer data? Well, he says, “they are more innovative and are in full growth.” And among its services stands out the “direct Internet access to the backbone network, either to individual homes, WiFi HotSpots or, with enormous future projection, through the Internet of Things (IoT); communications with mobile elements (trains, airplanes, ships); bandwidth to mobile operators, particularly in remote areas (backhaul & trunking); emergency services or for certain types of companies with special needs and corporations and, finally, those that require very specific government and defense communications “.
Gustavo Alonso Rodrigo, professor at the ETSI Aeronautics and Space at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and director of the UPMSats program, recalls that “The provision of satellite communications services was the first space activity to be privatized, in the sense that private companies took advantage of the technology developed by NASA or the European Space Agency and began to design, build and launch their own satellites with the aim of commercially exploiting their services ”.
Like any other space activity, he adds, “the communications satellite industry requires large investments, with generally long development times, and with no small technological and commercial risk. In addition, the sector is global ”. For this reason, he acknowledges, “it has traditionally been concentrated in a few agents, although it is true that this has begun to change in recent years, thanks to the fact that technology allows reducing both investment needs and, above all, development times. ”.
Who ‘exploits’ the satellites
Vicente Boria, professor of Telecommunications Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), points out that “the operators that operate these satellites are, on occasions, heirs to the old government institutions (such as the American Intelsat, the British Inmarsat and the French Eutelsat), which have been privatized ”. Some of them, he continues, “have part of government capital” such as the Spanish Hispasat. And something similar could be said of the Thai Thaicom or the Chinese AsiaSat.
The private operators are the most common in the world, and its brands include, for example, the European SES, Telespazio and Arqiva or the American EchoStar Satellite Services and Global Eagle.
Amazon hasn’t launched a single satellite into space yet
Within the communications for mobile usersThe industry royalty, the American giants Iridium and Globalstar, the innovative bourgeoisie of OneWeb (controlled by the British state, but with a 45% stake in the Indian industrial conglomerate Bharti Enterprises) and the young revolutionary forces of Starlink (founded by Elon Musk under the SpaceX umbrella) and, in the short term, Project Kuiper, owned by Amazon. Kuiper, it is true, has not launched a single satellite yet, something that is about to change.
Who launches the satellites into space
Naturally, to send a huge object thousands of kilometers, you have to have someone throw it. Only a handful of multinationals can build these dizzying catapults, which require, as recognized by the professor of Telecommunications Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, “a very cutting-edge technology related, at least in its origins, to the military environment in the field of rockets and missiles ”.
Therefore, he clarifies, “It is not surprising that the development of this industry emerged in the United States and the Soviet Union, two countries that have had various companies in the sector such as the American SpaceX, Northrop Grumman or International Launch Services ”. In Russia, the market is now dominated by the public agency Roscosmos. The formerly prestigious ISC Kosmotras company (a consortium founded by Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan) was left half dead after Putin shattered relations with Kiev by annexing the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
In recent decades, the old powers of the Cold War have ceased to exercise overwhelming dominance in satellite launches. One reason could be the Soviet Union’s own implosion and Russia’s inability to continue herding its former members. It is also worth adding the relative decline of the United States, especially after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the last great financial crisis, which have accelerated the transition to a multipolar world.
The European Arianespace consortium is one of the world leaders
Vicente Boria believes that Space multipolarity has been greatly influenced by the evolution of the European Space Agency, which joined forces with France to create the Arianespace consortium. This consortium has reached, according to him, “a significant share of the world market for launching large satellites, using, among others, its own launchers from the Ariane and Vega series.”
The power of China, India and Japan cannot be underestimated either, which, as the expert points out, “have also burst into the space race”. China launched in February your fourth orbiting satellite and start building your new space station this year.
However, American and, to a lesser extent, European influence is still enormous in the communications satellite sector. And it shows in the names of the main companies that create them.
Empires that create satellites
Adriano Camps, scientific coordinator of the María de Maeztu CommSensLab-UPC Unit, director of the NanoSat Lab of the UPC and also a researcher at the Institut d’Estudis Espacials de Catalunya (IEEC), divides these empires into two groups: those that are mainly concerned with the large geostationary satellites that fly at 36,000 high and those that are dedicated to much smaller ones (they can weigh hundreds of kilos) and travel at a maximum height of 2,000 kilometers. These seconds, as we have already mentioned, are usually used to offer communication services for the internet and mobile users.
Camps recalls that “traditionally satellite communications have been carried out by means of huge, complex geostationary devices, designed for lives of 15 years or more, and that cost fortunes”. This imposed the need, he qualifies, for “large companies, typically or state-owned, or with large public or defense projects.”
The The main multinationals that continue to dominate this territory are, fundamentally, Americans (Boeing Defense, Space & Security; Lockheed Martin; Northrop Grumman; Raytheon y SSL) and european (Airbus Defence & Space, Thales Alenia Space, OHB SE).
The main satellite producers are the US and Europe
The companies of the second group, those that create smaller devices and that fly somewhat ‘low’, include, according to Camps, from satellite communications networks such as those of Iridium or Orbcomm, still operated by large corporations, to mega-constellation projects such as those of OneWeb, the production of satellites still of moderate dimensions as in the case of SpaceX or the new creators of nanosatellites for IoT (internet of things) applications such as [la relativamente diminuta startup] SatelioT ”.
Beware China, India (and Russia)
Although the vast majority of the headquarters of the multinationals that we have mentioned in this report are located in Europe or the United States, that does not mean that giants like China and India will not have a lot to say in the coming years.
Almost half of OneWeb’s capital is owned by Bharti Enterprises (based in New Delhi) and both the Indian (ISRO) and Chinese (CASC) space agencies are accumulating dizzying and formidable experience in the production, design and launch of satellites. In parallel, There are challenges that can move the pieces of power in the sector and, most likely, the two Asian giants will use them to displace their Western rivals.
Vicente Boria, professor of Telecommunications Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), recalls that it is necessary to “equip the satellites with the capacity to reconfigure, while they are ‘in orbit’, of their land coverage areas, as well as of the frequencies, bandwidths and power levels of the emitted signals ”. In addition, it continues, it is necessary to “increase its performance (quantity and quality of the services offered) by transmitting data with speeds of terabits per second”.
To top it off, still we do not know who will dominate the new and immense market of the great constellations of hundreds and thousands of small satellites that will allow us to offer internet connection of high quality, at a moderate cost and anywhere on the planet. Who will be the Indian and Chinese rivals of Amazon (Project Kuiper) or Elon Musk (SpaceX)? Can anyone imagine Vladimir Putin sitting around waiting to lose the next space race?