I'm often surprised by how often people are surprised
to learn that there exists a large commercial space
industry. Historically, most space profits came from
companies working down in our industrial infrastructure,
which is mostly unseen by the general public. For example,
the distribution of TV programs from Hollywood and New
York to local cable providers has long been done via
However, more and more space
services deal directly with the public. Home
satellite TV, satellite radio, and GPS navigators have
become very popular.
We list here some of the broad categories of space
businesses. Surveys of the space industry include both
the space based part, i.e. satellites sending TV to
home receivers, and the ground based part, i.e.building
satellites and the systems to communicate with them.
We give here brief discriptions of several space business
categories and a short sampling of companies
in that area. For more complete listings of space companies,
see the list links
Note 1: Many companies span more than one category.
Also, many companies are involved in areas completely
outside of space. This is especially true for the big
Note 2: Privately held companies are also included
since they are often the most dynamic companies in a
given area. They might go public at some date as well.
If a spacecraft orbits the earth around
its equator at an altitude of 35,900km, it will move
at the same speed as the earth turns. Thus it appears
to hang suspended above a point on the earth. This orbit
is commonly referred to as Geosynchronous Earth Orbit
(GEO) or as a Clarke Orbit after Arthur C. Clarke who
first proposed this orbit for communications relays.
GEO is an ideal orbit for signal relays.
An antenna on earth points at the relay satellite in
GEO, which then sends the signal back to earth anywhere
within its "footprint" on the ground.
The strongest economic feature of GEO
is point-to-multipoint signal distribution. The best
example of this is the Direct to Home (DTH) broadcast
system. Here a satellite receives a programming signal
from a single antenna on the ground and then broadcasts
it to millions of small home dishes simultaneously.
It is perhaps less
well known that cable TV, the main competitor to DTH,
also relies on GEO satellites. The cable TV business
in the US until the 1970s was a small industry serving
mainly rural and mountainous regions with poor access
to over the air broadcasts. Distribution of programming
over groundbased transmission systems was limited and
TV History: Kansas State Univ.)
Commercial communications satellites came
along and provided the capability to distribute 30-40
TV channels from their sources in New York and Hollywood
to thousands of cable TVoperators around the country.
In fact, the price was cheap enough that independent
channels in some big cities began leasing transponders
and distributing their super-channel stations nationwide.
This is how Ted Turner began to build
his empire. He started with a local Atlanta station
and then used satellites to broadcast it around the
country (giving rise to the term "super-station").
Later in the early 1980s, TV distribution of news via
satellite was the key technology that allowed CNN to
compete with the big broadcast news organizations.
These companies run the really big money makers of
Their satellites, either owned or leased, provide
long distance telephone connections, TV distribution
for broadcasters and cable TV, data links for large
Even though construction and launch may cost up to
a couple of hundred million dollars, once in orbit they
usually last 10-12 years and pay themselves off within
a couple of years. From then on it is pure gravy.
These satellite companies in turn will lease transponders
to other companies who specialize in offering particular
services using satellites. See, for example, the following:
Direct-to-home satellite broadcasting appeared in the
1980s in large dish C-band servcies and in digital small-dish
services in the 1990s. The DTH market grew to over 31
million subscribers in the US by 2017 and tens of millions
Those two companies were built for a mass market that
never appeared and they went into bankruptcy proceedings,
from which they emerged as small private companies serving
niche markets. There are, however, two geostationary
satellite phone services, Inmarsat and Thuraya, and
they never experienced the bankruptcy traumas that the
LEO sat phones systems underwent.
The GEO sat phone had the advantage that they could
begin offering services as soon as the first satellite
was orbited while the LEO companies had to launch their
huge constellations before signing a single customer.
Inmarsat pioneered mobile satellite communications
with briefcase sized systems that quickly became popular
with journalists and workers in remote areas. The service
was always a premium one and not intended for a handheld
consumer phones. Company now has over 250k users.
- seeks to launch 3 GEO sats to supply integrated
communications links ranging from telephone to interenet.
In the spring of 2005, a telecom in South Korea began
to offer a high speed wireless service called DMB (Digital
Multimedia Broadcasting). It provides multi-channel
TV and other services. Both satellite and terrestrial
signals are used:
MSS - Hybrid satellite/terrestrial Systems
Combining satellite with terrestrial broadcasts to provide
seamless communications regardless of location or situation
(e.g. a hurricane disaster zone.)
MSS - Mobile Satellite Services is becoming
the standard term for a satellite communications service
that works in tandem with a terrestrial wireless network
(ATC - Ancillary Terrestrial Component). The ATC will
connect where the satellites cannot reach, e.g. in between
skyscrapers in a big city.
America, Inc.: "The Company is building an
advanced hybrid satellite-terrestrial system (“Hybrid
System”) designed to provide voice, data and Internet
services with handsets similar to existing cellular
phones. This system is expected to enable the Company
to offer integrated satellite and terrestrial mobile
services and is expected to be operational in July
Networks plans to orbit 16 satellites in a medium
altitude orbit (MEO) to provide broadband services to
developing countries. Service could begin in late 2013.
While the low earth orbit telephone constellations
(see below) are struggling
to gain a market, Inmarsat
has been offering moble phone systems for several years.
Although generally expensive and bulky, the sizes and
prices have been falling (see the Shopping
section on mobile phones.)
In-flight telephones have been available via satellites
for sometime and now internet will soon be available
24 channel satellite TV for every seat.
The quarter second delay to and from geostationary
sats was once thought to be a fatal problem for the
TCP/IP protocols of the Internet. But this problem has,
in fact, has been overcome with sophisticated packet
The apparent delay to the user is not usually very
significant considering the many other delays on the
Internet of the same order of magnitude. For interactive
applications, e.g. multi-user gaming, the lag is a big
minus. But otherwise, the high data rates (up to 2MB/s
in some current
services) are perfect for downloading large files
or for streaming video to large numbers of receiving
There are roughly 5 ways that satellites (so far only
geostationary ones) currently participate in the Internet:
High rate "backbones" - high speed
links between major Internet service service providers,
Direct-to-Business - until recently, the
VSAT business networks
used other types of protocols than the Internet's
TCP/IP. Now companies like Tachyon
are beginning to provide high speed (up to 45 Mbps)
Internet links directly to businesses from geo-satellites.
systems , which will provide both high speed home
and mobile links, are in development but none will fly
for 2-3 years.
One company, Datron Systems (via its ASA
Electronics division), has announced development
of a system to receive DirectPC from vehicles. This
grows out of from their other business of providing
mobile receivers for DBS TV.
Providing broadband internet connections directly
to homes and small businesses via satellite is often
given a poor chance compared to DSL and cable modems.
However, Hughes Network Systems reports the following
survey of consumers:
21 percent are "broadband
rich" and currently have access to cable and DSL;
18 percent are "broadband
limited" and currently can choose from cable or DSL,
but not both;
24 percent are "broadband
waiting" and will not have access to cable or DSL
for 3 to 5 years;
37 percent are "broadband
never" and include areas that don't have -
and most likely will never have - DSL or cable.
So there is certainly a market available for satellite
broadband in areas in the "broadbanc never"
category, i.e. rural regions. However, Direct-to-home
TV not only found a big market in rural areas, it also
has done surprisingly well in suburbs among consumers
unhappy with their cable providers.
Satellite internet will also find a suburban market
if the prices are similar to terrestrial levels. (Note
that, unlike the failed satellite phone systems such
as Iridium, DTH prices are very competitive with the
alternative, i.e. cable TV.)
DirecPC , a spinoff
of Hughes DirecTV,
was the first to provide Internet links to the home
in the US but it is only a 1-way satellite connection.
The satellite only provides the downlink segment. Uploading
from the user is still by telephone modem. The downlink
can be up to 400kps.
Now, Hughes is offering 2-way broadband via its HugesNet
program. The cost will be around $60 per month plus
the one time cost of a dish and installation fee. The
monthly cost is comparable to the current $50 range
for DSL and cable broadband.
The large number of projects that rose up to provide
satellite broadband for 2-way direct-to-home & small
business internet services have been hit hard by the
telecom recession. The ones with satellites orbit are
adding subscribers but not as fast as hoped. Those without
satellites in orbit are trying to stay alive while the
launches are delayed.
The services that are currently available use satellites
that are in GEO orbit (so there are noticable delays
in response) and use lower frequency Ku band transponders.
The systems were not designed for providing large numbers
of users with broadband 2 way communications.
Newer Ka band satellites with higher bandwidths would
have been launched in the next year or so but with the
financial crisis they may be delayed indefinitely.
Here are some DTH internet companies and projects:
- in addition to their mobile phones, Inmarsat also
offers some attache case sized Internet systems. Too
expensive for home use but good for your sailing boat
or summer house in the mountains.
-this VSAT company
received investments from EchoStar and Microsoft for
this 2-way broadband internet system that began in
2000. It has about 40k subscribers as of Spring 2002.
EchoStar pulled out of the company to focus on its
merger with DirecTV. This caused major disruption
in its operations and it had to go into bankruptcy
to re-organize. However, it appears to be a temporary
condition and service continues.
While light fiber ground lines are offering faster
and faster speeds, your net downloads can still grind
to a crawl if the server of the information you want
is overwhelmed by requests.
One approach to solving these slowdowns
is to distribute copies of the latest versions of these
popular pages around the Internet. Then the page can
be retrieved quickly from the local site.
Preferably the caching takes place as
close to the user as possible (or as close
to the edge as they say) , typically at an
ISP or a large intranet.
of web pages is offering opportunities for third party
companies. These companies will maintain the ISP cache
banks for a fee.
The startups listed here are using satellites
to distribute the web data to the caches at ISPs. They
take advantage of the point-to-multipoint capability
of satellite communications cheaply to distribute pages
to many sites at simultaneously.
of video and audio, e.g. RealMedia, also takes up lots
of bandwidth, especially for live events where many
users require service simultaneously. Satellite distribution
of streams is therefore another market that these companies
This service became a hot area towards
the end of the dot.com area but at this time (2009),
I can't find any firms specializing in it.
This space communication business, which opened in
the US in the autumn of 2001, provides CD quality digital
radio to subscribers. In the US the service is aimed
primarily for mobile applications.
Worldspace aims at the developing world with digital
radio. It relies on public radio and advertising based
services rather than subscription.
[Note that the 3 Sirius satellites are not in geostationary
orbit but in large ellipitical orbits. The sats are
spaced along the orbits so as to keep at least two satellites
always visible from North American. This type of orbit
puts the sats at apogee at higher latitudes than the
geosats, which must reside directly above the equator
and so from North American are visible towards the south.]
As of the summer of 2008, total subscribers to the
two US serves totaled over 18 million. Despite this,
neither company had been profitable due to the high
cost of recruiting new subscribers and paying very high
fees for big name personalities, sporting broadcasts,
etc. So the two companies decided to merge and use the
resulting elimination of redundant capabilities to reach
profitability. After more than a year of regulatory
review, the merger was finally approved in July 2008.
+ Support Space Businesses
- information & links concerning businesses that
rely on satellites in low and medium altitude orbits.
Also, links to various businesses, such as those that
build ground stations, that support the systems based
Space Businesses - information
about newly developed space businesses outside of
the telecommunication area such as remote sensing.
Also, info on proposed space businesses such as lunar
and asteroid projects.
Business Resources - various
resources related to space businesses such as links
to space investment sites, research reports, etc.
Total world space revenue
Int. Govt Budgets
Commercial Space Products & Services
In the late 1970's people driving in the US countryside began
to notice strange bowl shaped objects appearing on lawns and
hillsides. About 3 meters wide, the dishes pointed blankly
at the sky.
Taylor Howard, a former Stanford professor, created in
1976 the first home-built system for receiving satellite transmissions.
He found that he could pick up the TV programs distributed
to cable TV companies (see below) as well as other signals
in the so-called C-Band. His innovation grew into an industry
as tinkerers, hams and electronic hobbyists began to build
their own satellite TV systems. Eventually companies arose
to provide general consumers with off-the-shelf systems.
Distribution of TV programming via satellite had revolutionized
the cable industry in the 1970's. It allowed Hollywood and
New York media centers to provide dozens of channels to the
cable companies who previously could only obtain a handfull
of channels via terrestrial microwave transmissions.
Initially, the home C-band hobbyists who were grabbing these
programs were treated as pirates. However, most of the receivers
were in rural areas without access to either cable or broadcast
TV. Eventually the number of C-band users reached about 2
million in the US.
Seeing this large market, companies such as Hughes and Echostar
were motivated to begin their Ku band direct-to-home (DTH)
TV satellite services, which provide hiqh quality digital
signals via small dishes of less than a meter wide.
There are now more than 30 million DTH satellite TV subscribers
in the US.
The number of C-band users has dropped significantly but
continues as a hobby (see the TVRO
We should thank such hobbyists for spawning the hugely successful
DTH industry in the US and around the world.
We hope to see many more such industries arise from space