In this episode of the IoT For All Podcast, Ian Itz from Iridium joins Ryan Chacon to discuss satellite connectivity in IoT solutions. We cover the key differentiators of satellite IoT companies, the benefits of different types of constellations, and the different sectors where we anticipate growth in satellite connectivity adoption. Ian also highlights the limitations of satellite IoT connectivity and predicts consolidation of satellite IoT players, more standardization in the space, and innovations around form factor and power consumption.
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About Ian Itz
Ian Itz is the the Director of Iridium’s IoT Line of Business. He previously held roles within the company as Senior Product Manager, Global M2M Data Services and Associate Director, Business Development, Satellite IoT. Prior to Iridium, Ian held roles at Comtech and RPC. He received both a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and Bachelor of Arts degree in Government and International Politics from George Mason University.
Interested in connecting with Ian? Reach out on LinkedIn!
Iridium is the only mobile voice and data satellite communications network that spans the entire globe. Iridium enables connections between people, organizations, and assets to and from anywhere in real time. Together with its ecosystem of partner companies, Iridium delivers an innovative and rich portfolio of reliable solutions for markets that require truly global communications.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(01:58) Understanding satellite IoT
(23:41) Learn more and follow up
– [Ryan] Welcome Ian to the IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Ian] Hey Ryan, thanks for having me. Certainly appreciate it.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Let’s kick this off by giving a quick introduction about yourself. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about your background experience, what the company does, kind of the role you play in the space, all that kind of good stuff.
– [Ian] Yeah, absolutely. My current role is I’m the director of the IoT line of business here at Iridium. So I’m responsible for the day-to-day operation of the business unit. So that’s both obviously focused on the financial side but as well I’ve got my hand in the product side of what we’re doing as well.
In terms of my background, I’ve been in satellite essentially my whole career. I started off doing kind of defense work and then about 10 years ago, I moved over to Iridium as a product manager, and then I’ve slowly taken over the business line.
– [Ryan] When you say product manager in the scope of satellite IoT, what does that exactly mean? Are you focused on kind of the connectivity element itself or is there, is it more of how it’s fitting in with solutions or what is that kind of, how does that kind of work?
– [Ian] Yeah, so it’s typically both. In terms of how Iridium goes to market for an IoT deployment specifically is we’re a provider of core technology. So, we provide modules. Modules, modems, transceivers. And that’s typically how we go to market and so when I was doing the product management role, it’s really about the full product life cycle for those modules and the services that ride on them. And so it was really just making sure that we had modules that were easily adaptable into products. And then obviously from there, making sure that we were applicable in all markets that we wanted to get to with the product. And so, yeah, that was the role of product. But that’s typically how we go to market here at Iridium is we empower our partners with the core technology and then they go out and create those niche applications for the markets that they serve. And that’s served us very well and without our partner community, we really wouldn’t be as successful as we are today.
– [Ryan] So two high-level kind of things I wanted to walk through for our audience’s benefit. The first is talking about just the role satellite connectivity plays in IoT and solutions because I think there’s, it’s been a hot topic for at least over a year now in the conversations I’ve been having with the progress satellite IoT is making, which I do want to get into kind of where it has been and where it is now, but just if we were to explain to somebody the role satellite connectivity is playing in IoT, how would we do that?
– [Ian] Yeah, so I think of it as two ways. Number one is we’re providing connectivity in locations that don’t have terrestrial coverage, right? And so that could be in vast areas of the world that aren’t covered by cellular towers, the expanses of the oceans obviously is where we provide good coverage, but that’s number one is providing primary services to locations that don’t have any other source of getting that data out.
The other side of it is we’re often complementary, right? So we’re often kind of backup comms to other solutions. And those comms might be an LTE box that has Iridium for backup, right? And so we then become the backup communications in the event that those primary comms are either out of coverage or something happens to that path.
And so those are the two ways typically that we fill those gaps, is both from a primary perspective in areas where there’s no terrestrial and then as backup comms. And that’s typically for devices that are moving in and out, right? Those are mobile devices that are going in and out of certain locations.
– [Ryan] Yeah, I definitely want to get into kind of what applications satellite connectivity is enabling because there are a lot of use cases that have been able to exist as satellite connectivity has gotten better, has gotten more affordable, has really fit into the kind of enterprise IoT space even more. But before we do that, talk about the maturity of satellite IoT and the market as a whole in 2024 versus maybe where it was last year, the year before. A lot of the conversations that I had with companies and individuals who worked in the space, it was all about getting some, getting their satellites launched and starting to get, build a network. But to, for a lot of them, it wasn’t at a point where they were seeing mass adoption yet. It was really just trying to set up the infrastructure.
So, from your perspective, the work you all do, where are we with satellite connectivity in particularly as it relates to IoT solutions and kind of the role it’s going to play, or the role it has the ability to play now versus maybe the year and years before?
– [Ian] Yeah, absolutely. I think you hit it right on the head in terms of these last couple of years have been very, full of messaging and announcements from companies that are entering the space. NTN is obviously a big kind of catchphrase these days. But Iridium has been doing IoT, or M2M as it was called back then, for a long time. We’re on our second constellation now, and we’ve been providing IoT services since the inception of the constellation.
And so before it was IoT and before it was M2M, we were providing data from devices in remote locations, and we were doing that successfully for a very long time globally, right? We’re the only network that provides a full global constellation in terms of the coverage that we offer. And so we’ve been doing it for a long time, and it just wasn’t called IoT, and it wasn’t called M2M back then. And so yeah, there’s been a lot of chatter in the industry today. But in terms of the maturity, as I mentioned, we’ve been serving applications, whether it’s agriculture or heavy equipment or mining or maritime applications, aviation, for many years. And as you mentioned, it’s not a easy task to launch a network, to have it established. And so we’ve got customers, we have a strong base, and we’re primed for the future in terms of where this is going. But, but yeah, I think from a, from that perspective, it’s part of what we’ve been doing for a very long time. And we’re excited to see this new interest in the market.
– [Ryan] What differentiates a satellite IoT company from another satellite IoT company? Obviously I know this will be more skewed towards what you all do, but just if I’m out there looking and trying to evaluate different satellite companies and organizations to work with, partner with, what really differentiates them? Is it the size of their constellation? Is it the amount of satellites they have launched? Is it the regions that they’re focused on providing connectivity to? Are they vertical-specific? Like how do you, most satellite IoT companies really start to differentiate themselves? Or what makes one satellite company stand out over another?
– [Ian] Sure. I think there there’s a few things. Number one is just the overall architecture of the constellations. As you said, it’s the quantity of satellites that you have in space. It’s also the altitude at which you’re flying them. So are we, are you a Leo constellation? Are you a Geo constellation? Are you somewhere in between? And so our, there are inherent benefits to each of those different types of constellations. As you mentioned, density of satellites that you have and the orbits that you run in will determine the coverage that you have.
And so there are companies like Thuraya for example that tend to cover kind of Middle East and Asia in terms of their coverage and what they provide. In terms of Iridium, we’re a global network, and so we cover every inch of the globe from that perspective. And so the other part of it is the amount of data you want to send, right? We are known for small aperture antennas, low power, small form factors. And so typically the way that our constellation operates is that you’re looking at two to three satellites at any given point in time. And so a Leo constellation, especially like Iridium’s where you have multiple look angles, will provide you opportunities to get your satellite transmission out even in challenging locations, right? So even when there is an obstruction, if you just wait a couple of seconds, that satellite will move, and you’ll be able to hit it with the transaction that you’re trying to do.
And so those are some of the benefits of the Leo network. Latency is another big deal there, right, in terms of the amount of time that it takes those messages to traverse the network and get back down to the end point. But yeah, I think there, there are regional players, there are global players, and then there are the Geo versus Leo kind of constellations. But, I think from an IoT perspective, in order to hit all of those marks, which is low power, which is coverage, and low latency, a Leo constellation is best suited for that. And then again, the density in which we have our satellites, we have sixty-six satellites in operational orbit today. And there’s a bunch of spares up there as well. And the way that we run the transactions is all through a cross-linked network.
Again, it’s really for us and IoT and criticality of that data, is really about the multiple look angles that you’re getting from all those satellites, and ensuring that your data goes out. A lot of what Iridium does today is based around safety services. And so we do a lot of personal communicators, right? So, Garmin inReach for example. Those are critical life devices, and you don’t want to necessarily buy something that’s subpar. And so there’s a reason why we are the number one constellation as it relates to the personal mobile and handheld kind of market. And, yeah, and it really it, a lot of people rely on us for that, for safety of life and whether it’s through the Garmin devices or whether it’s through our GMDSS program or whether it’s aviation safety, Iridium is really looked at from a safety criticality, reliability perspective. And so having the amount of satellites, being in a low earth orbit, having the heritage that we have, and infrastructure, we’ve been doing this for a long time, I think it really positions us as the marquee for satellite IoT today.
And again, it’s low bandwidth, right? We’re pushing 340 bytes per transaction. So we’re not your Starlink, we’re not, you’re not coming to Iridium for broadband services. You’re coming to us for small devices, low power, and then the assurance that your data’s going to get out no matter what.
– [Ryan] Do you see different satellite IoT companies focusing on optimizing for different use cases and different kind of verticals from that perspective? Because obviously what you said where you focus on these critical life use cases and applications, is that kind of normal for satellite companies to kinda pick a niche and say, hey, I’m going to go build a, build our connectivity in our network to support these solutions primarily, or is it something that is unique?
– [Ian] I think when you go out to develop a network, and there’s not that many folks, right? Satellite is a very hard space to get into. It’s capital intensive, and it requires a lot of expertise. But in terms of deciding what constellation you’re going to build, I think it’s just that, it’s determining what is the bandwidth, how much data do you wanna be able to allow your customers to use, and what are you going to be able to focus on in terms of the applications.
But I think, again, I think most players want to either stay at a regional level or do a completely kind of global application. I don’t think they’re necessarily going after specific applications, right? I think it’s you divvy it up by, by power and bandwidth, essentially, right? I think that’s really the best way to divvy them up. And then you’ll have regional players that may not have the capacity to operate globally. And so that’s another kind of decision point in terms of what constellation will you build or how will you build revenue on that constellation?
– [Ryan] Where do you see, I guess as we’re into 2024 now, where are you seeing or where do you expect to see the biggest growth with satellite connectivity adoption as it relates to different use cases and applications that either didn’t exist but now can exist or were starting to become more popular as satellite connectivity improved, got more mature, and things like that.
Are there any areas you’re really starting to focus on or just see kind of growth in that maybe our audience should, if they’re in those areas, should really start to think about satellite connectivity being an option?
– [Ian] For us, it’s the core markets that we continue to try to win over and continue to push Iridium. I think for us it’s mining, it’s heavy equipment, agriculture is a burgeoning application for IoT just because it, it’s vast areas of land that are often not covered by terrestrial networks. And sensors are getting smaller. Precision agriculture is getting more and more advanced in the way that those applications are developing. And so they all need connectivity, and so agriculture is certainly a big one. Utilities as well. Being able to monitor utilities across vast expanses. Think about power lines, things of that nature.
Those are, again, applications and verticals that we will tend to focus on moving forward. I think the other main topic in satellite, and as things start to coalesce is we start to move more towards standards-based protocols in terms of what we’re doing. And so we see a future that no longer requires a specific module to carry the signal that Iridium generates. And so it becomes more ubiquitous. It becomes less cost prohibitive from a hardware perspective. And so that’s where I see the market moving in general is more across standardization. And then really having a device that does multiple radios, right? It does LTE, it can do Iridium, and it can do GNSS all on a single chip. And that’s really what’s going to drive further adoption of satellite is really getting those economics even better than they are today.
– [Ryan] What about on the compliance and safety side of things? I imagine a lot of this can be related and discussed in the sense for like industrial organizations and helping ensure compliance, ensure personal safety across not just different regions on physical land but also in the water through sea or in the air, all things like that as well. How does that kind of, what is enabled because of that as well now?
– [Ian] A bunch of different services. Obviously, number one is the handheld communicators, as you mentioned, which is being able to take something this small anywhere you go and have connectivity to be able to send either updates to your family members or if there’s an SOS event, you can hit that button and somebody will reach out to you in very short order.
From a regulatory and compliance perspective, yeah, there’s a lot there, right? Think about a construction zone where there’s a lot of blasting and noise and there’s a variety of sensors that are reading out on environmental things that are happening at a construction zone, for example, right? And so there’s a lot of environmental monitoring is really what’s going on. And so Iridium is used to monitor a lot of different applications for their impact on the environment, right? So is there too much dust in the air? Is there, is it too, are you too close to a residential area and therefore you’re making too much noise?
So, that’s one aspect from a regulatory perspective. There’s safety services and aviation where it’s important to have communication in the cockpit as well as tracking on the airplanes, right? And so that’s one of the areas that we operate in. Another one is, I mentioned, is GMDSS, which is a maritime safety and distress service, right? And so Iridium has to qualify to be able to offer these services. And so we do that by demonstrating the capabilities of the network. And so for us, being able to provide services that allow companies to stay within regulatory bounds or to be able to send distress signals wherever they are is super important.
And so that’s part and parcel to what we do is really making sure that we’re aligned with a lot of these regulatory groups. We’re providing that data, but again, it’s all based on trials, right? They all test, they all validate that the network does what it’s supposed to do, and then we get those accreditations, right? And so I think it really speaks to what we’re doing and the value of our network and the power of our network.
– [Ryan] What about when it comes to environmental monitoring or weather monitoring? I assume this is going to enhance the ability for us to more accurately understand what’s happening in certain areas with what, when it comes to weather. Prevent potential, or I guess be more aware of potential disasters that could occur. Things like that. Like how’s it playing a role there?
– [Ian] There’s a variety of applications there. You can think of it from like early warning systems, for tsunamis, for example, that’s one application. You’ve got buoys in the ocean that are measuring wave height, and they can provide that data automatically, right, and give people a sense of, an idea if there will be a tsunami in a particular area after a seismic event. From an environmental perspective, we do a lot of work in the poles, right? We’re one of the only networks that can cover both poles completely. And so from that perspective, we do provide a lot of services and applications in those areas. Number one, think of measuring the ice caps and the salinity of the water and ice melt. And so we do a lot of work with research organizations. NOAA, for example, is a close partner of Iridium. And so we do a lot of oceanographic telemetry with those organizations and scientists, right? And so they are, for lack of having any other coverage, not only to be able to communicate, but also to be able to send that data. So you can think about ocean buoys, you can think about weather stations, and they’re all multi-sensor, taking in a variety of environmental inputs and then transmitting that back to a central location so that those climate scientists, those researchers can analyze all that data and make predictions about what might be happening.
The other side is, think about out west, California, the wildfires that happen out there, right? There’s a lot of weather stations there that are in remote areas that are picking up smoke detection, they’re picking up temperature, they’re picking up humidity. And so those can be early warning systems for getting those fires under control. And so again, a lot of it’s really just kind of sensor-based technology that is providing folks with information that they can make then educated decisions on what’s happening in the environment.
But it’s really, yeah, challenging locations and very complex sensors. But again, passing small bits of data back and forth, and they, they’re all, they’re often in the middle of nowhere, so power is obviously a big concern. So a lot of them are running on solar or battery. And so having a low-power complementary satellite system is really beneficial to those applications.
– [Ryan] With every type of connectivity, there’s always limitations, challenges, and so forth. Where are, do the challenges lie, or I guess what challenges should people be aware of who are looking to adopt satellite IoT connectivity for their solution? Are there certain challenges that kind of just naturally exist, that’s important for people to understand. Are there things that maybe used to exist that have now been fixed and overcome, and people maybe need to understand how that’s changed? Where do the biggest kind of areas lie when it comes to satellite connectivity as it relates to IoT solutions and using it within that context?
– [Ian] Yeah, I think the big thing is that sticker shock when you’re going from cellular applications, and you’re moving into satellite connectivity, right? So there is a premium that you pay for that airtime, and typically our hardware costs a little bit more because we’re not making cellular modems that are adopted by hundreds of millions of applications, we’re in the millions of applications, right? And so economies of scale play into that. But I think for us, those are the biggest barriers that we deal with. One is, again, the financial side of it is satellite is always a little bit more expensive than what you’re used to. But the other end of it is just making sure that you’ve got an understanding of how the satellite connectivity works. You need to be outside, your antennas have to have good placement.
But other than that, we really are fairly aligned with IoT applications in terms of being able to integrate the product, right? So from a development and integration perspective, we follow a lot of industry norms, both from a layout of the device but also power voltages and input and output voltages. But yeah, I think for us it’s really just educating the partners, the customers, the prospects, in terms of, as we talked about earlier, what are the inherent benefits or differences between the satellite networks? And we’re not here to say one satellite network is better than the other. Just like you mentioned earlier, some satellites are better for certain applications, certain satellite networks. And so for us it’s really just about educating. But the benefit that we have in terms of the network is once we give somebody a piece of kit or a development board, they can put an antenna at their window and start testing right away. And that’s super powerful in terms of being able to test immediately and start having that satellite transmission back and forth. Yeah, so for us, that’s, I think that’s key in terms of continuing to drive the business for sure.
– [Ryan] Last thing I wanted ask you before I let you go here, just about 2024, is there anything that people listening to this should be kind of on the lookout for as far as IoT connectivity, satellite connectivity in the new year? Anything that’s, we should either, whether it’s happening at your all’s company or just generally in the space that really will help move things along?
– [Ian] Yeah, I think you’ll continue to see innovation in that outdoor space, so in our, in the consumer market. So you’ll continue to see new and innovative products coming out there that’ll allow for enhanced capabilities. So I think that’s on the near horizon. I think we’ll continue to work on making sure our transceivers and our modules continue to consume less power if they get smaller in terms of their form factor. So that’s, for us, I think that’s where we continue to drive.
We have a new module coming in the middle of next year that’ll provide same form factors that we’ve traditionally had, in terms of 25 millimeter by 25 millimeter devices, but then being able to send much larger packets of data. And so that’ll enable things like sending images, sending voice clips, sending things that are potentially a little bit more than what we’ve been able to package into 340 bytes.
So that’s what’s coming from us. But I think the industry in general will start to coalesce. I think we’ll see two or three players dominating the IoT space from a satellite perspective. But I do see a coalesce towards standards-based applications. And so that, we’re seeing modules again that carry multiple radio technologies on a single module, and that customers don’t have to buy a dedicated module for Iridium or a dedicated module for cellular and then a dedicated module for GPS. It’s all in the same package. And so that should cut costs. And therefore that’ll, should help adoption into some of these markets that we talked about earlier, like agriculture, right. which, has a very low price point in terms of where they need to be to be able to do these mass deployments. And so as satellite modules get cheaper and cheaper, I think we will see more adoption from a mass adoption perspective in a lot of these industries.
– [Ryan] If the audience wants to learn more about what you all have going on, just follow up with any questions, anything along those lines, what’s the best way they can do that?
– [Ian] Contact me directly. So, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org or just iridium.com. We’ve got a variety of ways that people can come in and inquire with us. And we’re talking about IoT today, but Iridium provides a variety of other services, right? We do, we’re the preeminent handset manufacturer in terms of satellite phones and then we do other services that are a little bit higher power than IoT, but yeah, I mean our website I think has a lot of information there, and that’s typically the best way, iridium.com.
– [Ryan] Well really appreciate your time. Great conversation. Really excited to get this out to our audience to help educate and talk more about what’s happening in the satellite IoT connectivity space.
– [Ian] Yeah, thanks for having me, Ryan. I really appreciate it.