Interview conducted by Lisa Dreher, MSUA President and Managing Director — GuideForce Welcome to MSUA’s Game-Changers Live, where we speak with satellite and mobile connectivity thought leaders about industry trends, new technologies, and share what you need to know about where satellite technology is headed in the future. Today, our guest is Tucker Morrison. He’s the CEO of Blue Sky Network.
Mr. Morrison, can you start by giving us a little bit of background about yourself and Blue Sky Network?
I’ve been the Chief Executive Officer of Blue Sky Network for just over a year. I’ve spent the bulk of my career working with small, entrepreneurial led organizations, taking them from an idea, maybe a smaller team, to something that’s been more of a growth-oriented business, and bringing in institutional investors, as well as helping to grow the sophistication of the business. From a Blue Sky Network side, our company’s 20 years old. We were founded by a pilot, and were originally involved in satellite tracking for helicopters and rescue missions. Two years ago, we acquired Applied Satellite Engineering, to bring some of the devices in house. So, now not only do we have the satellite connectivity and the service, but we also manufacture devices.
I want to dig into some of the topics on where mobile connectivity is headed. What do you believe is the most important role the satellite industry has to play in the future of mobile connectivity?
Well, I think on both a philosophical and a practical level, global capabilities are advancing at a rate faster than ever before. It really does impact all of our lives. More importantly, we’re seeing that the satellite infrastructure today is more reliable than ever and covers a greater area.
As we’re dealing with certain events in our country right now, the need to be connected is very, very important. Our power grids are stretched thin. There’s gaps to overcome and we take connectivity for granted. Satellite connectivity allows you to be much more mobile and have the information readily available, be safe, be secure, and have a viable link.
What are the components that Blue Sky Network is bringing about to make that connectivity possible?
On the device standpoint, we’ve got a number of devices that allow for maritime, aviation or land mobile applications. We’ve got some that are dual mode technology, so they’ll work with cellular and satellite, depending on the cost, depending on the network availability, but you always have a reliable backup in connection via satellite. What we’re headed for now, and we’re bringing out a new product here in the next quarter, is a L-band Iridium Service 100 transceiver, that will allow people to have streaming capabilities, faster speeds, 10 times faster than they’ve ever received before, and it’s a small form factor. One of the most important things that consumers or enterprise users want is a small form factor, a small antenna, and then it’s also very affordable. That’s really the confluence of what our design team has been working on for the past 18 months.
Got it. So, what are some of the use cases that you see, that have a need for this kind of connectivity?
We see it across a number of different uses. We see it in industrial centers, in utilities, public works projects, maybe at a hydroelectric monitoring station, where we can have a device onsite, it has voice capabilities, but it’s also collecting data, and able to broadcast that back to the headquarters of mission control center. From a portability standpoint, a similar type of use case, where now you have a mobile satellite link, where you can have voice and your own proprietary applications, and streaming information. But again, it’s a smaller size, weight, and power (SWaP) device that is around a pound in weight, five-and-a-half by eight inches long, and the antenna is roughly the size of your fist.
That’s amazing. When you look at going into the next 12 to 24 months, what do you see as some of the most significant changes that we’re going to see in the satellite industry?
Well, I certainly hope for a lot greater adoption of satellite connectivity. And I think that, overall, we’ve seen that, both on the consumer and the enterprise side. At Blue Sky Networks, we’ve seen increased demand, but also really across the entire spectrum of satellite offerings. There’s a number of new entrants, from SpaceX, m-Power, a revitalization of OneWeb, that are all bringing Ku- and Ka-band broadband speeds, designed to bring that connectivity directly to the home.
Nearly 40 percent of the world still doesn’t have broadband connectivity. That’s the huge opportunity. I think those more robust data streams are something that the consumer really demands. On the enterprise side, the vogue term has been Machine-to-Machine (M2M) or Internet of Things (IoT). We’re really starting to see a lot of adoption with that. Enterprises are becoming more sophisticated with their use of data, their synthesis of the data Now all of those capabilities are becoming viable, even in remote environments where such productivity was never thought of previously as being possible, Lastly, there’s an increasing demand to access Beyond Line Of Sight (BLOS) in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market, drones. This is one of the fastest growing business sectors, let alone the aviation business in general. I spent the past decade in aviation and I know there are a number of small and large companies alike that are seeking to have BLOS capabilities. It provides for safety, reliability and, ultimately, to use your term, this will definitely be a game changer for the aviation markets.
Bouncing off of that, where do you see this commercialization of space taking the satellite industry and what is its impact?
That’s a great question and it really could go down a couple of paths. When I think about the commercialization of space, the first thing that comes to mind is commercial aviation, or commercial space travel, tourism. I think that that’s going to open up a host of tangential opportunities for companies, but the space tourism piece doesn’t relate as much to the satellite industry. Historically, these businesses have been backed by governments, and so trying to figure out that right blend of a public, private partnership still needs to be understood. From other applications, however, I think that you’ll see resource extraction, or research via satellite be much larger addressable markets. One can think of something as far fetched as asteroid mining, or pharmaceutical research in an anti-gravity environment.
All of those are interesting applications, and these things now can be done in a commercialized environment. The availability of capital, the availability for insurance, and then sustainable markets are all three key things that will be required for the commercialization of space to really occur and thrive. And right now, that capital is readily available. There’s a lot of dry powder. There’s investors that have a high risk appetite, so you can check that box. I think that securing insurance for some of these innovative plans, that could be tough. Ultimately, the sustainability of the markets, time will tell. Some of these entrepreneurs have great ideas. They are, by definition, innovators, and they’re being supported, but they need to execute on those plans. We’ll really have to wait a little bit for that to happen. I mean, even in the last months, we’ve seen things such as Virgin Galactic make strides, and there’s a big wait list that, when people start having to pay the full check and go into space, and how safe is it? All of that will then start to change things a lot more.
No doubt. We are the Mobile Satellite Users Association, so we’re really interested in getting that user perspective. When you think about providing satellite services, what are some of the main things that users of those satellite services need to take into consideration?
Well, there’s a couple things. I think, for me, reliability is always top of mind. It’s first and foremost. It’s reliability and safety. Some have said the three Cs of satellite have always converged around coverage, cost, and capacity. There’s the device. There’s the network reliability and then what more can you do in providing an application. That’s what we do. We have a solution across all three sets. The device, we utilize the Iridium network, from our standpoint, and then we have a host of proprietary applications that work with your enterprise. The global infrastructure is now in place and the affordability of satellite connectivity is much greater today than it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago.
You’re getting faster speeds, more data payload is able to travel, and businesses can now use this network more than they ever could in the past. One thing that’s really important is actually, it’s an education and a training piece. I can’t tell you how many times we still have potential customers, or even existing customers, who still think of satellite as the $1,000 a month phone bill, and it’s only voice connectivity.
It all boils down to who’s using it versus who are the financial decision makers. Sometimes, it’s the same group, but oftentimes it’s two different groups. We need to have a really strong educational narrative to explain that it’s affordable, that it isn’t the big satellite dish in your backyard or a giant, non-portable phone or comm center.
The device can fit in the backpack — it can be hidden on a boat. It can be part of a drone, or an underwater, unmanned submersible. It’s not just affordable for us, what would be a relatively small monthly fee, but it’s how much you can improve your operations, that’s what changes your business and your enterprise competitiveness.
When you think about the services that people would need to use to get this connectivity to places where there isn’t connectivity today, whether that’s the middle of the ocean, or someplace remote on land, what should they be looking for in terms of the services and solutions?
We focus a lot on L-band connectivity. It’s reliable, it’s cost efficient and that service is ideal for transmitting critical, low rate data over air, over the land and in the sea. Any business can use that L-band service and it is something that meets their needs. Earlier, I talked about the Direct- To-Home (DTH) and that’s a broadband connectivity. I think that will also become more affordable, but it just isn’t for everybody at this time. There is that combination of what level of affordability or subsidizing can go on from a government to bring connectivity to the masses, versus enterprises, which can afford it, but then they need to really hone in on which devices and services are best for them. Ultimately, from an infrastructure-as-a-service, or a software-as-a- service, what type of solutions really optimize their business operations?
Are there certain criteria that they should be looking at, or data points, when they’re thinking about rolling out these solutions?
We focus on folk that have lone workers, the people that are in a remote, austere environments, where coverage, or cell coverage just isn’t the most reliable solution. Go back to things I said earlier about reliability, safety and security. These are mission critical operations and people’s lives are often at stake and they need to be connectedinsomeway,shapeorform.Ifyou’vegotloneworkers,oryou’vegotremote workers, it’s important that they have a connectivity link and the operation center can always track where they are located and ensure the safety of their personnel. That would be one case.
For folks that are managing data, they want access to real time up-links of that data, because they might be in emergency services, and waiting until an aircraft was blocked in and download that data, critical care could have been provided for earlier in the emergency. From M2M, or an equipment perspective, now we can monitor the assets in an aircraft that are vibrating or rotating, rather than just knowing if the airplane took off or landed, or it was blocked in or not.
Much more information can now be monitored, and then potentially remotely configured to improve the operation of that asset, or that mission that is ongoing. The safety of the mission, and the reliability the mission, must be ensured as well as secure.
Those are some exciting applications. And I know you’re talking about autonomous vehicles as an example, and I imagine that those will also increase the demand for that type of connectivity.
I certainly think it will. Whether it’s autonomous vehicles in the air, or autonomous vehicles on the road, we’re going to have to have a solution in the event that the cellular or the radio connection is lost. Again, it might be a small aircraft, but if it goes crashing into something, or causes something else to cause an accident, many people could be injured, and the same thing applies to autonomous driving. Ultimately, the secure SATCOM link that could be a failsafe would be critical here. And this set of conditions is not just for the United States — you must think about the rest of the world. Because sometimes we’re very centric on what’s going on in our own backyard, so to speak, but for the rest of the world, we don’t have the same grid and infrastructure, or they don’t have the same grid infrastructure that we have here.
When you think about the technologies that are needed to roll these types of solutions out, and as we expand the requirements, what are some of the new technologies that users should be aware of, or know about?
L-band technology — it’s got streaming services at an affordable rate, compared to broadband technology and to traditional short burst data. We’re going to see mid-band streaming applications develop in the next 12 to 24 months that will move beyond light streaming, to the need for Zoom capabilities, Microsoft Teams capabilities, in remote areas. We haven’t seen that before. If the last year has taught us anything, now everybody’s going to need that as it becomes a table stakes characteristic in order to operate your business.
Additionally, you’re going to want to be able to remotely manage the devices and the terminals that you’ve got installed in those environments, whether it’s in a vehicle, in an aircraft, or a base camp that doesn’t have hardwired connectivity. That’s everybody from shipping companies that now need to have drone programs, and they want to monitor the vessel, but they also want to monitor off ship. Or if you’ve got construction equipment that’s running and want to remotely monitor it, but it needs to be upgraded or maintained, or if something went on in the operation of the asset outside of its normal operating envelope, alert someone in maintenance control that there’s an issue, and you can prevent an accident, or potentially even upgrade software so that the machine is operating at an optimized level.
Those types of new technologies are exactly what the purchaser and the end user of satellite connectivity needs to know about. I think a big awareness campaign needs to occur, and we’re trying to be part of that as well.
Are there technologies or things that they need to start thinking about having in place now to be prepared to leverage some of the newer technologies?
From an end user perspective,that really depends on what your enterprise is doing and, if you’re at a consumer level, what your use case is. Are you just a lone person or group that wants to go for a hike and be connected, or do you really want to have something that can optimize your business operations? Sometimes we say it’s relatively affordable; however, a $1,000 purchase price, or a couple of thousand dollars, and a couple hundred dollars a month charges, those can run up for an individual. To a business that might be able to utilize this equipment, but have thousands, if not millions of dollars to invest in operational improvements, that is a small price to pay with a very, very short fuse for Return On Investment (ROI).
That’s where you’re really pivoting from just being a device company to a solution provider. You’re showing and educating that customer how much more reliable or optimized their business can become with alternative connectivity channels. Time is money, but time is also perishable, and you can’t waste time because you’ll never get that time back.
If we can communicate more data, synthesize that data, and react to that data so that you can make more informed, improve business decisions, the ROI is improved and the investment pays for itself in very short order.
I think we often forget about opportunity cost because it’s not as easy to measure. Tucker, I really want to thank you for being here with us today and sharing your insights on satellite mobile connectivity.
Thank you very much for having us. It was a lot of fun and I really appreciate the opportunity.
I want to thank the Mobile Satellite Users Association for hosting these sessions. To learn how to participate in a Game- Changers Live session, become a member of the MSUA, or receive our weekly newsletter with the latest satellite mobile insights, visit www.msua.org.
Lisa Dreher serves in the role of President for the MSUA since October of 2020 and has served on the MSUA board since 2018. She is also the Managing Director for GuideForce, and has over 25 years business development, product management, and marketing leadership experience in the new space, satellite and information technology and communications (ICT) industries. She brings a unique perspective that is at the intersection of the enterprise IT, communications and satellite industries. Her work has helped new space and technology startups and established enterprises grow faster and define clear paths to profitable revenue. She partners with CEOs and executives to navigate the startup through enterprise evolution and the development of partner ecosystems to scale their businesses faster.
Lisa has also served on the IBM Partner Marketing Board and the Cisco Global Partner Marketing Advisory Council.