SpeedCast: Satellite business growing off global military spending increase

SpeedCast is seeing growing government uptake of its satellite communications services thanks to increasing military spending across the US, the UK, Europe, and Australia.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Satellite communications service provider SpeedCast has said that as military spending increases under governments throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia, it sees an opportunity to grow.

While Australia has not been a big area of growth for the company over the past few years, due to the industries of mining, oil, and gas being depressed, growth across the government has been accelerating and will continue to do so, particularly in terms of military spending, SpeedCast CEO Pierre-Jean Beylier told ZDNet in an interview.

"Government spending had been declining for some years; they're now on the rise. It's the case in Australia, it will be the case in the US with the new president, and Europe will follow -- in the French presidential elections, both major candidates have stated they would increase the military budget," Beylier told ZDNet.

"The US is putting pressure on their NATO partners to get to that 2 percent spending target, most of them are committing to get there, so we're going to see government spending and military spending back on the rise and that's good news for us.

"We need to strengthen our presence in the [US] government sector, and then NATO partners ... we think we're going to see some interesting growth in the next few years in Australia and elsewhere."

SpeedCast is now providing military satellite communications to the US, UK, Australian, and New Zealand governments under a multimillion-dollar six-year deal signed in November with defence contractor Airbus Defence and Space.

Under the deal, SpeedCast designed, built, and provides onsite maintenance and management of the Skynet East anchor station at SpeedCast's teleport -- a facility equipped with large antennas for satellite traffic to land -- in Adelaide; and provides training, and security and infrastructure management of Skynet East.

"We signed a partnership with Airbus Defence and Space, we built two large X-band antennas, a frequency that is used only for military use, for a satellite called Skynet 5A, which they moved from Europe to over the Pacific, and which is being used by the UK government, US government, and then we hope Australian possibly New Zealand governments," Beylier said.

"So we built the antennas, we're hosting them at our teleport, we are maintaining and operating those antennas, but we also have an agreement to distribute services on that satellite, so we're in discussions with various governments but primarily the Australian government to see how that highly secure X-band service can complement what the Australian government already utilises."

Similarly, SpeedCast is working with Australian Border Force, supplying it with wideband management systems for military and commercial satellite networks in order to supply its boats with satellite communications as they patrol Australia's 10 million square kilometre maritime border.

The agreement with Australian Border Force, signed in October 2016, also sees SpeedCast responsible for complete network management, including equipment, software, maintenance, support, and security. It has equipped eight vessels with wideband management terminals and satellite modems.

Beylier said the company may also be able to extend the scope of its arrangement with Australian Border Force.

"Border Force was an important deal for us. It's a long-term contract in which I think we will have an opportunity to expand the scope of what we do with that," he told ZDNet.

"We're providing certain network-monitoring software, we're providing some satellite communications services -- certain types, more narrowband -- and we're hoping to expand that into broadband systems."

Beylier said his company also provides a "very extensive network" for the New South Wales Fire Department.

SpeedCast's hybrid business model means it owns three teleports in Australia -- two in Perth and one in Adelaide -- buys satellite and IP networking technologies to supply services to its customers, leases capacity from more than 80 satellites globally, and leases capacity on fibre networks for what Beylier claimed amounts to total worldwide coverage.

It is using this universal coverage to aid the Australian government's National Broadband Network (NBN) in reaching remote areas with its oft-complained about satellite service, such as in external territory Christmas Island -- which it said NBN may never be able to fully cover.

"We were providing services in Christmas Island for a few years working with the local ISP, which has decided to stop, so we took over directly. We discussed with NBN and the government, and we agreed to step up and maintain connectivity for Christmas Island," Beylier said.

"NBN will take over some, not all, so we intend to be a long-term player in Christmas Island."

Christmas Island is one of the only areas in which SpeedCast offers a retail service, and it only stepped up to do so when NBN was unable, Beylier said. He added that SpeedCast would also be happy to assist in any other areas where NBN is unable to provide coverage to pockets of the Australian population.

"When I say coverage, or the reach, it's not just about footprint. It's also about line-of-sight issues because of natural obstacles, a cliff, a mountain that is between the satellite antenna and the satellite so you cannot get the signal -- so we think we can complement NBN in that regard," the chief executive said.

"Anywhere in the world we can land a signal. Anywhere NBN has gaps because of the footprint or because of line-of-sight issues, we will be able to provide a satellite-based service using different satellites and also possibly different frequencies, because NBN is in Ka-band and in this region we would use mainly KU-band and C band.

"We also think that our customer base that we're serving today can benefit from NBN as a complement to the services we're currently providing to them. So provided that we can put together a relevant enterprise-grade service together with NBN, there is a potential for us to push that to our customer base."

In addition to providing satellite services to government agencies, departments, and companies, SpeedCast also sees the maritime and aviation sectors as important growth industries.

SpeedCast's acquisition of Harris CapRock in January for $425 million more than doubled the size of its maritime business in terms of both merchant shipping and the cruise industry, Beylier said.

"Maritime has been a strong growth engine for us in the past few years and will continue -- cruise but also merchant shipping, as vessels are going from narrowband systems to broadband systems," he said.

"We estimate the penetration of broadband systems on commercial ships to be about 30 percent, so there's still a lot [to go].

"The cruise sector is a sector that is experiencing fantastic growth, because the amount of bandwidth required is growing exponentially ... the cruise industry needs to expand the bandwidth per ship very significantly. In the past two years, we went from providing 8Mbps per ship to 25Mbps per ship. I think now we're going to go over the next two to three years to 100Mbps per ship."

In terms of aviation, SpeedCast is currently providing connectivity to Panasonic Avionics, which provides the entertainment systems for airlines across the Pacific region. However, Beylier said the company is also exploring further opportunities into aviation, including in-flight connectivity for commercial airlines, private planes, and government aviation.

"We are working on our strategy, thinking where should we play in the aviation market, what do we want to achieve, so right now we have pockets of opportunities that we are capturing," Beylier added.

"We are providing to a few partners today, we're going after small opportunities around there, and the idea is to try to determine whether there's a bigger opportunity for us to play in that market ... we need to understand that ecosystem and where we can play."

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