Ask any 20 people on the street what they know about the mobile satellite communications business, 10 will say “you mean like Sprint or Verizon?” A few will ask “like Dish Network, you mean satellite TV?” A few more will just give you a blank stare. MAYBE you’ll find 1 person who has heard of Iridium…”oh yes, that handheld satellite phone gadget thing”? Hooray, thank you for not confusing it with the chemical element of atomic number 77.
The mobile satellite communications business really originated back in the late 1970’s when Inmarsat rolled out the first commercially available communications satellite. 20 years later, there were less than 1 million customers worldwide, today, still less than 2 million end users globally. Inmarsat, still the largest of all of the commercially available communications satellite constellations, did just over 250 million dollars in revenue last year…, not very much relative to other industries, especially when you consider the huge investment (billions of dollars) required to launch and maintain these very expensive and complex constellations (satellites)!
Mobile Satellite communications is the “definition” of a niche business. Almost without fail, if there is ANY other alternative available, cell phones, land lines, 2 juice cans and a string, smoke signals, you name it, it will be less expensive than satellite. Combine the “sticker shock” that generally applies to one’s first exposure to satellite communications with the “perceived” complexity of the product and you’ve gone a long way towards explaining the reason for the limited market. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that most people seldom if ever even venture into the realm where there are no landlines or cell phones available and therefore have no reason to ever be exposed to satellite communications.
So why is there even a satellite communications industry, if there aren’t very many customers and they don’t generate that much revenue? Because the people that need it REALLY need it, and they’re willing to pay for it because other options don’t exist. Mobile Satellite communications is always the choice of last resort for anyone who requires communicating in remote parts of the world, but nevertheless, it is a choice. It is the lifeblood of the shipping industry, oil and gas exploration and recovery, emergency and disaster relief operations, aircraft communications and navigation. It plays an absolutely vital role in military operations throughout the world. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that life as we know it today would be very different if it were not for satellite communications. It touches EVERYONE, whether they realize it or not.