Mega-constellations: how to turn the promise into a successful reality?

On 05-01-2024
Reading time : 6 minutes

Mega-constellations of satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) have been talked about as a potential way to deliver unprecedented coverage around the world, with low latency and high bandwidth compared to previous satellite iterations. But how should you approach the giant leap that they promise to be?

If you’ve looked up at the sky on a cloudless night recently, you might have seen LEO satellites flying over at an altitude of somewhere around 550 kilometers above the earth. There are now thousands of satellites in space: according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there were 11,330 satellites orbiting the Earth at the end of June 2023, a huge increase of 38% on the last report in January 2022.

Many of these satellites are in LEO mega-constellations, which promise to deliver new levels of broadband connectivity and coverage to the planet. They provide lower latency and higher bandwidth compared to existing geostationary (GEO) satellites. 

The first two mega-constellations were established by Starlink and OneWeb, both of which use their satellites to deliver internet connectivity. Starlink has 3,660 active satellites in orbit as of 2023, but has big ambitions, with a plan to ultimately have almost 30,000 LEO satellites orbiting between 340 and 614 kilometers above Earth. OneWeb has already deployed 634 satellites. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is expected to become the third main player in mega-constellations, with a group of 3,236 satellites planned for deployment from mid-2024.

The multifaceted promise of mega-constellations

Ending white zones 

Mega-constellations can end so-called “white zones”, areas of the planet where there is no mobile connectivity. According to the GSMA, there are still up to half a billion people without mobile broadband, 94% of whom live in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). Mega-constellations of satellites could enable cost-effective coverage that extends to these locations without the need to put costly physical infrastructure in place on the ground. 

Size and innovation benefiting overall costs

By deploying as many satellites as they do, mega-constellations can have economies of scale in terms of manufacturing, deployment and operations, making the system more cost-effective overall. 
Another area of potential is that mega-constellations leverage advanced technologies like miniaturized satellites, fuel-efficient propulsion systems, and automated manufacturing processes, which also all help keep production and operational costs lower.

Improved connectivity resilience

There’s also the possibility for constellations to increase the reliability and resilience of satellite connectivity. For example, if one satellite fails or experiences technical issues, others in the constellation take over and pick up the slack, enabling continuous connectivity and minimizing downtime. 

Several uses cases besides communications

There are other possibilities put forward by industry observers, with applications proposed in areas like remote sensing and navigation, as well as revolutionary changes to the development of the global space industry and astronomy. But for the time being, it’s communications that is the leading app. 

Some risks to be aware of

Congestion in orbit

With all these potential pros also come a number of cons. While some commentators forecast big advances for star-gazers for example, other astronomers have complaints about the impact of LEO satellite mega-constellations. LEO satellites add light pollution to the night skies, and those with reflective surfaces can also create visible trails or streaks in astronomical images. 

According to a recent study by Dr Jeremy Tregloan-Reed of the Universidad de Atacama in Chile, “It's going to be a major change with these constellations. Large constellations of bright artificial satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) pose significant challenges to ground-based astronomy.”

Experts have also talked about general congestion from having so many satellites in low earth orbit. The open access journal Space: Science & Technology has forecast that as many as 100,000 more LEO satellites could be launched in constellations in the next decade, from organizations in the US, UK, China, Canada, Japan, Russia, and the EU. Such congestion increases the risk of collisions between satellites, and with other assets like the International Space Station. It also makes the Kessler Effect* more likely. 

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), as of September 2023, there are over 35,000 space debris objects being monitored in orbit around the Earth. This raises the question of what is the maximum sustainable constellation size and number? Are mega constellations a threat to constellations ?

The environmental aspect

There are environmental concerns too. Mega-constellations connect via individual antennas, and they consume more energy than traditional satellite dishes. Also, launchers use methane fuel, which for companies wanting to leverage space-based connectivity, could have an impact on CO2 emissions and ESG targets.

There’s another as yet unquantifiable environmental impact. Both OneWeb and SpaceX have promised the FCC authorities that their decommissioned satellites will decay to a lower, ‘disposal’ orbit, in which satellite would decay through atmospheric drag and then naturally re-enter the atmosphere and burn up within one year of end-of-life. 

But what will this combustion release into the Earth’s atmosphere and how will that affect living conditions on the planet? It is an unknown for now, but observers are already assuming it won’t have a positive effect.

Launch issues set to continue

Though there are many thousands of satellites planned for launching into mega-constellations, hitting targets will involve regulatory approvals, massive production capacities, finding sufficient “launchers” and more. Regulatory approval is not guaranteed however, given the concerns around LEO satellites from many areas. Production at scale is not simple either, since the satellite companies are dealing in brand-new technologies and creating production lines as they go. 

Similarly, launch vehicles are likely to be in short supply, with McKinsey writing that “Many medium and heavy launch vehicles are being retired and most remaining capacity is already booked. New launch capabilities are in development, from Arianespace, ULA or Blue Origin, but much of the capacity has also been reserved for Amazon’s Kuiper constellation and, in the case of ULA, the US National Security Space Launch program.”

Not hitting promised deployment schedules means not delivering increased coverage, higher bandwidth and lower latency, and letting down potential customers.

A service model not natively designed for telcos 

While satellite end-users might be less demanding than traditional broadband customers for the time being, telecom operators and their end customers, especially enterprises, still expect a minimum level of support and service. Today, not all constellations propose SLAs.

Starlink, for example, has gone to market with attractive entry-level pricing but offers no guarantee in terms of maximum downtime, time to restore connectivity and so on. It’s also struggled to build up a good reputation for customer support. Other providers, OneWeb for example, have positioned their offering with SLAs, guaranteed bandwidth, and a commitment to customer service, but it comes at a higher price.

Furthermore, the Starlink offering is designed solely for consumers at this point, and individual customers can order online. But for enterprises who want a few hundred dishes for multiple locations around the world, or a telco wanting to offer satellite connectivity services to B2B customers, that means placing website orders and paying with a credit card. 

Do your due diligence before committing 

Mega-constellations do present possibilities. They can have a big role in helping bridge the digital divide and enable a more cost-effective satellite option for B2C and B2B end-users whose fixed and mobile coverage isn’t up to scratch. 

But telcos thinking of taking the giant leap and investing in space-based connectivity should consider all the available options. Take the time to scrutinize the available offers and consider what needs you want to address with mega-constellation-powered connectivity. Examine all the relevant aspects, including bandwidth, latency and price, but also support, quality of service (QoS) and value-added services before making your decision. 

And don't forget that there are other satellite options besides mega constellations: smaller LEO or MEO constellations, or GEO satellites are still very relevant in some cases. Sometimes, a combination of technologies may be the best way to go. Orange Wholesale recently announced a comprehensive multi-orbit portfolio that combines GEO with upcoming MEO and LEO constellations. Part of this new value proposition is to integrate the promise of mega-constellations into the service model and operations of telecom operators.

It's a potentially exciting time with a lot of possibilities on the table. Keep watching the skies. 


*Kessler effect: the Kessler Effect is a theoretical scenario posited by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978. It refers to a potential situation where the density of space debris in low earth orbit (LEO) becomes so high that collisions between objects are inevitable, regular, and create a cascade effect that can only generate more and more debris. This cascade of collisions could then make certain orbits unusable and pose a genuine threat to other operational satellites and the viability of future space missions. 

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