Starlink has won the race for LEO broadband – what now?

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, SpaceX, Spectrum at 10:06 am by timfarrar

Up until 2020, I was very skeptical about the LEO broadband opportunity, and whether any of the planned systems would be able to raise enough money and build out a constellation that could deliver a service that is competitive with existing GEO operators. That skepticism seemed entirely justified after the failure of LeoSat in late 2019 and OneWeb’s spiral towards a bankruptcy filing in March 2020. SpaceX had also given wildly over-ambitious forecasts for Starlink’s revenue and timing, with projections for $6B of revenue in 2021, rising to over $30B in 2025.

But over the last two years, Starlink has launched a consumer broadband service that has upended the industry by providing vastly more capacity per subscriber than Viasat and Hughes, with a simple, easy to install terminal, and as of June 2022 already served over 400K users. Successfully developing such a system is an extraordinary technical feat when so many previous broadband constellation plans have failed. And after raising over $6B in the last 2.5 years at ever increasing valuations, SpaceX has been able to launch thousands of Starlink satellites and build scale that competitors will struggle to match.

I didn’t think that SpaceX would pull this off, but they did, and today too many people in the industry, who are rightly skeptical of Elon Musk’s litany of unfulfilled promises, remain far too complacent and are continuing to dismiss Starlink as just a consumer service that won’t threaten other parts of the satellite market, or are even suggesting that the network remains economically unviable and is doomed to failure.

However, the dam is starting to break for acceptance of Starlink amongst professional users, with Royal Caribbean’s recent move to deploy Starlink representing just the start of disruption in traditional satellite verticals. And SpaceX’s latest $2B in equity funding should see the company through to late 2023, by which time I expect Starlink to have captured around 1M users and have reached cash flow breakeven (even accounting for ongoing satellite replenishment costs).

That doesn’t mean Starlink (or SpaceX more broadly) will offer a positive return to those recent investors at the ludicrous valuation of $127B, because satellite will remain a last resort solution compared to terrestrial fiber, cable modem and even 5G fixed wireless options, but it does mean that there’s no reason to suppose that Starlink will cease to be an enormous competitive threat to the satellite industry in the foreseeable future.

One largely unrecognized issue in the LEO market is that there are significant benefits to scale, due to the virtuous circle that comes from adding more satellites to a constellation, as shown in the diagram below.

With more satellites in the sky, the user terminal antennas don’t have to scan as far to find a satellite to connect to, so they can be cheaper, with fewer antenna elements. And the altitude of the constellation can be lower, improving the link margin and capacity, and allowing the user terminal to operate at lower power. Capacity provisioning also becomes more uniform, as traffic loading can be averaged across multiple satellites, improving the quality of service. Starlink has been designed from the ground up to minimize the cost of the terminal, unlike traditional satellite systems (even recent designs like Telesat’s Lightspeed), which optimize the satellite and treat the terminal as an afterthought. Cheaper terminals and more capacity attract more users and generate more revenue, which can be fed back into building yet more satellites, making it ever harder for competitors to catch up.

So now we’re in a position where Starlink has clearly won the race for LEO broadband (at least for the next 4-5 years, since Amazon’s Kuiper won’t be completed before 2026-27), and is likely to become the largest satellite operator by revenue within that timeframe. Our new report on LEO broadband and the future of the satellite industry forecasts what this means for industrywide growth in revenue and traffic, and analyzes how satellite operators, distributors and equipment suppliers are likely to respond to what for many will represent an existential threat. The outcomes will include an acceleration of industry consolidation, decisions to exit, and even bankruptcies. The report also complements our June 2022 Starlink profile, which analyzes Starlink’s technology and forecasts Starlink’s revenue growth by segment. You can order one or both reports using the form here, or contact us to discuss subscription options for all of our industry analysis.