SpaceX’s Starlink partners with European satellite giant SES for combined cruise market service

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Starlink satellite antennas installed on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship.

Royal Caribbean Group

PARIS – European satellite operator SES is teaming up with SpaceX’s Starlink to offer a combined service to cruise operators, the companies announced on Wednesday.

SES will manage the joint offering, called “SES Cruise mPOWERED + Starlink,” as a service that it says will provide high-speed, reliable internet service to cruise ships, regardless of whether they’re clustered in port or far out at sea.

“There is unmet demand that neither of us by ourselves can provide to certain cruise customers,” SES CEO Ruy Pinto told CNBC at the World Satellite Business Week conference.

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Pinto touted the partnership as providing “a win-win solution” that gives access to complementary capabilities that each of their satellite networks don’t provide. There are three types of orbits around the Earth where satellite communications companies generally operate: GEO (geosynchronous equatorial orbit), MEO (medium Earth orbit), and LEO (low Earth orbit).

Luxembourg-based SES has over 70 satellites in orbit, split between GEO and MEO, while Starlink flies all its satellites in LEO. Currently SES is upgrading its MEO network with satellites known as mPOWER, with four of the new satellites in operation so far and plans to launch seven more in the coming months.

SpaceX has launched over 5,000 Starlink satellites to date and had over 1.5 million customers as of May.

“We are excited to collaborate with SES on a joint solution that combines the reach and capacity of both satellite constellations to offer a solution unlike any other in the market,” SpaceX Vice President of Starlink Business Operations Chad Gibbs said in a statement in SES’ press release.

As SES’ traditionally core satellite video business declines steadily, the company is turning to other markets to find growth. Cruises are within its fastest growing “mobility” business, a unit which brought in 139 million euros ($149 million) in first-half 2023 revenue, up 14% year-over-year.

The European company also heavily emphasized its multi-orbit approach of satellites as a competitive advantage over other traditional operators, and partnering with Starlink further broadens that effort.

SpaceX disrupted the satellite communications market with Starlink, leading to a flurry of consolidation among global players — including a failed attempt for SES to merge with competitor Intelsat. While Starlink originally focused on the consumer market, it’s quickly into other verticals including enterprise, mobility, aviation, and more – with a foray into the cruise market beginning last year through a deal with Royal Caribbean Cruises.

“Let’s not be shy that Starlink has evolved,” Pinto said, adding that SpaceX “surprised most of the industry by their speed” of development and growth.

“There is trust between the two companies, and there is a common desire to benefit the customer and, quite frankly, make sure that both technologies are available and not, quite frankly, killing each other needlessly,” Pinto added.

SES said it’s in discussions with multiple initial cruise customers for the combined service, but declined to specify further. Revenue will be split between the companies on the basis of whichever service is being used.

And the companies are also talking about other potential markets that would be a fit for the combined SES and Starlink service.

“Where can we go together? There is a specific one that I can’t disclose yet, where we have a very similar template, but it’s not going to happen on every market segment,” Pinto said.