SpaceX buys IoT company Swarm amid heightened space competition

SpaceX – the company building a constellation of thousands of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for space-based Internet services – has acquired a startup called Swarm Technologies that's targeting the Internet of Things (IoT) sector with similar technology.

The acquisition, reported by SpaceNews, appears to be a move by Elon Musk's SpaceX to add IoT expertise to its management team. "SpaceX will ... benefit from access to the intellectual property and expertise developed by the Swarm team, as well as from adding this resourceful and effective team to SpaceX," according to documents filed to the FCC and disclosed by SpaceNews.

Swarm gained notoriety in 2018 when it faced a $900,000 fine from the FCC for launching its mini satellites without approval from the agency. The company has since received signoff for its plans, and it currently operates more than 100 satellites for two-way, slow-speed communications for markets such as agriculture, energy and transportation.

SpaceX's Starlink, meanwhile, operates more than 1,000 satellites and provides around 100Mbit/s Internet connections to its 90,000 beta customers. According to a new report from the financial analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., Starlink's planned 12,000-satellite constellation will ultimately have the capacity to provide 100Mbit/s service to roughly 2.4 million users simultaneously in the US. Thus, the analysts concluded the offering won't have much of an impact on big providers of high-speed Internet services in the US, but that "we believe satellite, DSL, and FWA [fixed wireless access] providers in rural areas will lose market share to Starlink."

Regardless, the acquisition of Swarm by SpaceX highlights the increasingly tumultuous nature of the satellite communications industry.

First, Swarm is one of several companies hoping to sell IoT services from satellites, both old and new. Others in the space range from Iridium to Astrocast to Skylo to Sateliot to Omnispace to OQ Technology.

Second, there's plenty of jostling in the industry, whether that's Orbcomm's pending acquisition by private equity firm GI Partners, or Amazon's recent acquisition of Facebook's satellite team.

Finally, news on the satellite Internet front won't slow down. In just the past few days, Intelsat said it would provide satellite-based backhaul services to wireless network operator Orange in French Guiana. Separately, satellite operator Telesat announced the Government of Ontario would invest around $87 million into the company.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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