At the satellite industry’s annual get together in Washington, DC for the Satellite show, the challenges and opportunities in the broadcasting sphere are clearly not top of the agenda. In the much awaited Big Four opening session, in which the world’s largest satellite operators sit side-by-side and amid much collegial banter spell out their vision for their companies and the industry, TV barely got a mention. Rather, the industry’s top leaders – David McGlade, CEO of Intelsat, Dan Goldberg, CEO of Telesat, Michel de Rosen, CEO of Eutelsat and for the first time on the panel, Karim Michel Sabbagh, CEO of SES – spent more time discussing the prospects for the raft of new Low Earth Orbit broadband projects that have emerged onto the scene over the past few months, and what these new entrepreneurial initiatives mean for the global communications industry.

Headline grabbing multisatellite projects spearheaded by likes of SpaceX and Elon Musk, Google – with the most recent big-name investor being Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic – were broadly seen as being positive disrupting influences on the often stuck-in-its-ways satellite industry, but there was much speculation as to which of the many competing blue-sky projects would ever see the light of day.

Commented Sabbagh: “The most interesting growth opportunities still lie ahead of us. We’re here to truly democratise satellite connectivity. Our satellites cover 99 percent of the world’s population, but we don’t serve 99 percent of the population – why not?”

For McGlade, when you think about video it’s critical not to think of linear TV delivered to TV sets, rather, “it’s the proliferation of devices that consumer are consuming content on, not just in the US, Europe and some parts of Asia, but seeing programming proliferate through new devices in all markets more cost effectively.”

De Rosen highlighted that the operators have been in a constant innovation cycle, citing the example of Eutelsat’s Smart LNB “which will be a great tool for interactive non-linear TV, but also for broadband in emerging markets.”

Karim Michel Sabbagh makes his Satellite Debut
Karim: First appearance

The panel also discussed several new important technology developments which could fundamentally revolutionise the way satellites are ordered and built which could, depending on the industry’s willingness to embrace change – completely transform the way the satellite industry woks. New software programmable payloads could mean an end to the two- to three-year wait for a satellite to be built following an order from an operator. Satellite manufacture could become much more of an assembly line, with customisation of payloads being done as a pre-launch adjustment of a more standardised spacecraft. Several industry leaders likened the paradigm change to having satellites becoming more like mass produced Fords, rather than each spacecraft being an expensive handcrafted Ferrari. De Rosen highlighted the lead Eutelsat has taken in this area with the announcement of Eutelsat’s Quantum satellite: “We will be able to offer customers flexibility that they never had before. Without moving the satellite, we will be able to provide capacity where the customer wants it.”

The other big development for the satellite industry in the coming years is the emergence of high throughput satellites (HTS) ,which promise much more power while delivering dramatically lower cost per bit. The combination of HTS and a totally new way of much more speedily commissioning, building, launching and lighting up satellites all spell out good news for broadcasters – lower cost and faster time to market.

The row between the satellite industry and the world’s mobile phone players is clearly reaching new heights in advance of the WRC-15 conference in November at which the satellite industry will learn from global telecom regulators if it will be forced to share C-band – currently the workhorse of the global satellite and cable TV industry – with terrestrial mobile telephony providers. The big satellite operators have gone to great lengths to demonstrate to the ITU why this kind of spectrum sharing will devastate not only many TV businesses but also humanitarian aid operations worldwide, and will have a deleterious effect on many developing economies. But the mobile lobby stands accused by the satellite players as being guilty of a dirty tricks campaign, with de Rosen unhesitatingly alleging that the mobile providers are blatantly lying in order to win the day. The mobile lobby just this week issued a press release, said de Rosen, claiming that Arab states had declared in unison that they do not need to preserve C-band as satellite-only, and have effectively given these frequencies to mobile. “This is simply not true,” said de Rosen.

While TV remains a key revenue source for The Big Four – some 70% of SES’ revenues for instance – the leading operators offered much optimism about their newer business areas of maritime, aviation, oil-and gas and other B2B and government communications services, as well as bringing broadband to the underserved masses. Only Dan Goldberg name-checked ultra HD as the main reason to be excited about satellite’s immediate future.

The 2015 Satellite Big Four panel was David McGlade’s swan song at the helm of Intelsat. Next month Intelsat’s long time sales supremo Steve Spengler takes over the top role as CEO. But the event was the first time most conference attendees had the opportunity to see SES CEO Karim Michel Sabbagh in action. There was general agreement that he made a very good first impression, and provided a highly articulate, well-reasoned view of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead for his company and for the industry.