New European satellite connectivity imperatives: data sovereignty and the digital divide

On 05-07-2023
Reading time : 6 minutes

Satellite connectivity goes from strength to strength, and Europe has identified two key areas where it can deliver significant changes: data sovereignty and bridging the digital divide. What is the situation with satellite today and how can it help address these two important challenges?

Space is fast becoming the next frontier in digital sovereignty, and Europe has already begun satellite initiatives designed to enhance data sovereignty for the continent. Galileo, Europe’s own proprietary global navigation satellite system, offers highly accurate global positioning, and is interoperable with GPS and Glonass, the US and Russian satellite navigation systems. Galileo is also considered of higher quality than the civil signal of US GPS and more accurate in urban areas than Russia’s Glonass. 

Copernicus is the second European project designed to aid sovereignty. It is the Earth observation arm of the European Union Space Programme and comprises six satellites designed to deliver continuous, high quality, wide range Earth observation. It’s also intended to support environmental programs and understand and mitigate the effects of climate change. Europe has made Copernicus images available for free online, whereas the US chose to sell its images. Europe has broken this monopoly; as a result, other countries like India and Japan also share this valuable environmental and weather data. It’s had a positive economic effect, with start-ups able to use images to create and sell services.

LEO connectivity changes 

Satellite connectivity is a new major growth area, and it’s becoming more ubiquitous and affordable. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, which orbit around 1,000 kilometers about the Earth’s surface, are making satellite services more available, enabling new use cases and extending coverage.

LEO’s fast speeds, low latency and overall availability are powering this progress, enabling new commercial and enterprise use cases. LEO satellite use cases have emerged everywhere from maritime to aviation, mining to agriculture. LEO’s low latency enables new technologies like AI, big data, IoT sensors, computer vision and automation in remote operations, making predictive maintenance, real-time data analytics and asset management possible wherever businesses are based. It’s a time of fast growth and significant opportunity in satellite, with LEO constellations helping reduce the digital divide and complement existing terrestrial and submarine networks.

In addition to the thousands of LEO satellites launched by Starlink, OneWeb and various regional players, the EU is getting in on the action. Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite (Iris2) is the EU’s third flagship satellite initiative. Its mission is to give the EU a sovereign space-based secure connectivity system that protects critical infrastructures, enhances surveillance, and can support crisis management engagements. According to Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Markets at the EU, “IRIS2 establishes space as a vector for our European autonomy, a vector of connectivity and resilience. It heightens Europe’s role as a true space power.”

IRIS2 and other LEO satellites can help telcos create new business models and revenue streams. Operators with access to satellite services can keep providing all the telecommunication services demanded in the future, while also expanding network coverage, increasing resilience and improving the diversity of routes offered. IRIS2 plans to serve the continent of Africa as well. 

New GEO VHTS to enable connectivity in remote European ‘white areas’  

Launched in 2020 and offering speeds up to 500Gbps, which is seven times higher than the previous Eutelsat Konnect satellite, the new Konnect Very High Throughput (VHTS) satellite being introduced in 2023 will be able to connect 500,000 European households to broadband. It should help reduce the digital divide in sparsely populated rural ‘white areas,’ where fiber is unlikely ever to be deployed. 

In contrast to LEO constellations, Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites, which are located around 36,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, can cover the same area all the time, since the satellites have the same orbital speed as the Earth’s rotation speed. On the other hand, LEO satellites fly over high-speed areas and have many more satellites in orbit, so they essentially take turns providing connectivity to subscribers. This large number of satellites requires a heavier financial investment in launches, with satellites having only a five-year lifespan on average.

These European initiatives will be able to provide combined offers with connectivity via LEO satellites, which offer low latency, and via GEO satellites, which enable many users to connect via the same satellite. A multi-orbit fleet based on satellites at different orbit levels could cover all connectivity demands and deliver robust network coverage.

Orange is committed to expanding communication services with satellite  

Orange sees the potential. We have demonstrated our commitment to LEO via our recent partnership with OneWeb. Orange was an early mover in satellite, and we have built up over 40 years of expertise in the field since, providing customers with satellite services at over 2,500 connected sites in more than 100 countries. 

The Orange ‘Lead the Future’ strategic plan, introduced in February this year, commits to “strengthen its satellite offer during 2023 with a new generation commercial offer, under the Orange brand, in Metropolitan France”. This new offering will complement fiber, 5G and fixed 4G connectivity, allowing individual customers and the most isolated companies to benefit from improved high-speed experience for the same price as a fiber optic broadband service. France is the largest country in the EU and as such has a large population, many of whom cannot access digital broadband services because of the isolation of their communities, especially in rural areas. So, while broadband applications are booming, rural communities need to address the issue and try to find solutions to prevent this digital isolation from worsening. 

Satellite can be the answer. According to Samy Nicolas Bouchalat, Head of Space Network Solutions at Orange Wholesale, “We believe LEO satellite has a major role to play in the future of global communications. At the same time, with our multi-orbit approach, we already have new capabilities in place to reduce the digital divide using new GEO VHTS satellites”.

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