Boeing Q&A: Staying on track despite pandemic disruption

Space

Ryan Reid spent more than two decades at Boeing before being promoted May 24 to lead its commercial satellite programs.

However, the pandemic brings fresh challenges for the space industry as COVID-19 continues to disrupt and delay critical supply chains.

These supply constraints threaten to hold back an exuberant satellite market that is rushing to meet surging demand for data, amid a flood of investor capital into satellite projects.

Ryan Reid, president of Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems International. Credit: Boeing

SpaceNews caught up with Reid on the sidelines of Satellite 2021 to learn more about how Boeing is managing this juggling act.

Can you give us a sense of how many satellite contracts are out for competing bids right now, and how that compares with previous years?

I would be probably making, at most, an informed guess on that because there’s a [specific] space that we target. I will say that there’s definitely a re-emergence of RFPs this year — and RFIs as well — where I’d say things have been a little quieter in the past couple of years. That’s encouraging to see.

Our customer engagement on the sales side has definitely picked up as well. Some of that is happening, of course, here at the [Satellite 2021] conference. But also ahead of the conference, meeting with customers virtually and, in some cases, meeting in person. It’s been exciting to see things starting to happen again, whereas in the GEO market it’s been a bit quieter over the past few years.

Do you see the industry returning to an average of 20 commercial GEO satellites a year?

I don’t see that happening. That was the long-standing bread and butter of the industry in the broadcast or DTH FSS markets. I think the GEO orbital slots are still the beachfront property, but I think it’s more repurposing those slots and shifting more toward network, data, and not seeing video broadcast or DTH as really growth markets. 

I think we’re going to see different kinds of satellites emerge for those spots, but it’s not going to be 20-satellites-a-year … spread around the industry. We haven’t seen that in many years. I don’t anticipate that returning in that way.

Is that why we haven’t really seen many large export credit agency-backed satellite projects, even now that Ex-Im Bank has returned to full service?

When the Ex-Im Bank was kind of on pause, I certainly think that had an impact, but it may have been coincidental with shifts in the market, where a lot of the traditional operators, or I’d say regional operators, were in a situation where the market is changing and these players really needed to pause to look at where to make their next capital investments. 

Is Boeing considering competing in the LEO marketplace? 

Definitely, we have a non-fully integrated subsidiary, Millennium Space Systems, and they do a lot of work in LEO. I would look at it from the perspective of Boeing focusing on the technologies that are applicable for any orbit. We saw the marketplace transitioning to a data network system, so Boeing has put a lot of work into technology development that is really applicable at GEO, MEO and LEO. 

Millennium Space Systems has a lot of expertise and history in the small satellite market. That positions us well to be able to work across whatever orbital regime. It really comes down to what problem or mission you’re trying to solve. Especially in the data market, some missions are well-suited for a network space environment, working across those orbital regimes. 

For example, the core technologies we developed for 702X — fully software-defined payloads that we are applying to the O3b mPOWER system [in MEO], and have also applied to the wideband global SATCOM system [(WGS) in GEO] for the U.S. military. 

About five years ago, Boeing applied for a license to deploy and operate a LEO constellation. What happened to those plans?

I can’t discuss that too much, but that’s still in play.

You’re still seeking partners?

As we’ve communicated before on that, we are continuing to look for partners, but there is work underway on that … I just can’t speak anymore publicly about it at this time. 

Boeing is financially supporting Virgin Orbit’s plan to go public by merging with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), which would raise capital for a constellation of IoT and Earth-imaging satellites. Does that put Boeing in front of the line to build them?

I can’t really comment on that. That’s a strategic investment that Boeing is doing but I’d probably have to refer you over to Virgin Orbit to discuss that.

Pandemic-related component shortages seem to be impacting the whole space industry. How are they affecting your business and what are you doing to mitigate that?

We’re certainly not immune to the impacts of the pandemic, and no pun intended on that. Throughout the pandemic we had well over half of our workforce still on site. There’s a lot of precautions that we took to make that happen and to make that work. 

We were largely able to maintain our overall production and design efforts. There have been some supply issues that we’ve had to manage our way through. In this business, supply chain challenges are always something that needs to be worked through. It just might’ve been perhaps to a larger degree over the past 18 months. 

Where we’ve had supply challenges through the pandemic, we’ve worked with our suppliers on workaround plans [and adjusting] the program plans and manufacturing schedules, etc., in order to accommodate those to keep our production and design work going, so that we can deliver it to the customers to the best of our ability.

Have these shortages affected the timing of the satellites that operators have ordered to clear C-band spectrum at all?

We’re still on track to delivering the C-band satellites that we’re building for SES right now. One of the main reasons that SES came to us for that was because they knew that we could provide a high confidence delivery schedule. Even through the pandemic, we are still on track to deliver on time.

What are some of the longer-term effects that COVID-19 has had on the industry?

I think one thing that we’ve all experienced is demand for a lot more data. It’s created a shift in how people communicate and how business is done, and all of that has increased the demand for broadband data. Where we see the market moving toward, and certainly where Boeing’s technology is focused, is on providing data and that broadband access from space.

Has it shifted demand for software-defined GEO satellites, versus traditional bent-pipe spacecraft?

I don’t know that I would say the pandemic has made that shift. I think, when you’re talking about needing to have data and network services, that naturally leads you to something that has the kind of flexibility that the software-defined satellites provide, which is why Boeing began investing in this technology many years ago. That has ultimately now come to fruition in the 702X product line. 

Something that was well suited for DTH … was not going to lead you to the kind of efficiency and market flexibility that these networks systems really require. 

We’ve been building digital satellites probably for well over 20 years. So we’ve always been on the leading edge of doing nontraditional analog satellites, really bringing digital processing into space. It’s always been the dream to make it fully software-defined, so you could change the orbital slot for a satellite, or the coverage area as traffic demand moves around throughout the life of the satellite — being able to just reprogram it, move the power, the bandwidth, change the shape of the beams, what have you. We achieved that with the 702X.

What can you say about the split between software-defined and bent-pipe satellites, and are we heading to a future where all GEOs are software-defined?

I sometimes struggle with ‘all or none’ questions. It depends on what kind of mission one wants to solve. But I think that we will see certainly see software-defined satellites. One of the reasons why Boeing has invested so much into the technology to realize this capability is because we really believe in a networked world, and in a data-centric world you need to have that kind of flexibility. 

Bandwidth is such a precious resource. Having that fully software-defined flexibility allows you to maximize the value and the throughput that you can get from this really constrained resource. 

What’s a trend in commercial space that people aren’t talking enough about?

I think we’re starting to see a trend that we saw in terrestrial telecom in the space industry, where operators that are transitioning into network service providers — so shifting away from just bandwidth or spectrum wholesalers into managed network service providers — are forming the same kinds of partnerships and business arrangements.

Think of your cellphone, you have an infrastructure that is almost ubiquitous and operators who may own some of those assets are partnering together to provide integrated services.

I think there’s going to be a lot more of that in the future as space turns into essentially an extended network. When we looked at the 702X, we really looked at the satellite as a Layer 2 network switch. It’s a very different way of thinking about satellites as part of the network infrastructure.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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