Intelsat, the world’s biggest geostationary satellite operator, is making a series of bets on companies that focus on handsets and lower orbits as the older industry players are trying to keep up with upstarts like Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
“We’re starting to place some strategic bets,” Intelsat CEO David Wajsgras said in an interview. “Bets on companies that are bringing new technologies to the industry: think direct-to-handset, think spectrum expansion, think new capabilities at the gateway level, terminal level.”
Intelsat has taken stakes worth between US$5-million to $25-million in four businesses focused on satellites in low-Earth orbit — with an altitude of less than about 2 000km — to offer new services, according to Wajsgras. That compares with its geostationary fleet, which are fixed over one longitude about 35 000km high.
Lower orbit offers faster connection speeds, enabling connectivity straight from space to smartphones. Intelsat is seeking to get a foothold in the technology that has gained traction in recent years, in part due to advances in chips. Apple began offering emergency texting via satellite on the iPhone 14 last year.
Two of the closely held companies Intelsat invested in specialise in direct-to-handset technology, according to Wajsgras, who declined to identify them. Intelsat is taking board seats and helping steer the firms’ technology to work with its own systems, he said before the World Satellite Business Week conference starts in Paris on Monday.
SpaceX has launched thousands of Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit using its own rockets, and prompted other satellite firms to bulk up. California-based Viasat acquired London’s Inmarsat this year and France’s Eutelsat is set to merge with British low-Earth orbit start-up OneWeb.
Intelsat launched the world’s first commercial satellite in 1965 and currently has more than 50 in orbit. In June, it called off merger talks with its Luxembourg rival SES to create a $10-billion business amid the wave of consolidation.
Its renewed ambitions come after Intelsat emerged from bankruptcy last year, restructuring to reduce its debt from $16-billion to $7-billion. It plans to cut debt further using half of an expected windfall of $3.7-billion from the US Federal Communications Commission after divesting of spectrum used for 5G mobile services.
Some of the remaining funds are being used to make venture capital-style bets as the company remains on the lookout for deals, according to Wajsgras.
“There are companies out there that could make sense for Intelsat to combine with, and I don’t think anything is off the table,” said Wajsgras. “But importantly, there are no ongoing discussions along those lines today.”