Up, up and away: how satellite went stellar 

On 06-04-2021
Reading time : 4 minutes

A new generation of satellites has the potential to increase digital inclusion, transform connectivity and have a big impact on the business world.

Some industry observers thought that the hype around satellite connectivity had gone for good. High-concept low earth orbit (LEO) projects of the 1990s raised expectations for satellite connectivity, with initiatives like Globalstar, Iridium, Odyssey, and Teledesic all pushing ambitious plans. Ultimately, however, high costs and limited demand thwarted all but Iridium. It led analysts and investors to see LEO constellations as probably unviable: recent failed projects like LeoSat and OneWeb seemed to endorse this view. 

Today, billionaires have brought satellite connectivity back into the spotlight. Elon Musk’s Starlink and Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper have each invested over $10 billion in satellite broadband. Starlink recently went live and is ready to be used by the general public, deploying nearly 1,000 satellites into low earth orbit to commence operations. 

Moves like these have injected momentum back into the satellite marketplace: the global satellite connectivity market has been forecast to be worth $85 billion by 2027, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13%.

What’s changed?

There have been several notable changes versus the 1990s landscape, not least that the technology itself has evolved. Furthermore, demand for bandwidth has increased beyond all expectations and shows no sign of slowing down. Technology companies now build creative business models on profits generated from connectivity, something that wasn’t really viable 20 years ago. Much of the increased viability of satellite connectivity comes from the development of the LEO projects extending satellites’ reach and potential. 

The evolution of types of satellite

Geosynchronous orbit, or GEO, satellites have been around since the 1960s. They’ve typically been an expensive way to keep in touch, but they do have long service lives. GEO satellites remain stationary over the same location, they operate around 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, and they have a latency of around 600ms. GEO satellites’ altitude has always meant that they enjoy a wide field of view, meaning operators could cover much of the Earth’s surface with just a few satellites. They can deliver a stable connection for fixed and moving objects, but their high latency and price make them uncompetitive with terrestrial networks. 

Medium earth orbit, or MEO, is another satellite technology making inroads in the connectivity market. MEO satellites operate around 8,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth and, like LEO satellites, work in constellations to provide continuous coverage. MEO satellites are capable of around 150ms latency.

The emergence of MEO and LEO satellites has changed the game, but it is LEO satellites that can really impact the connectivity landscape. They will require constellation deployment to be viable and maintain the same stable connection over a wide area, but they are capable of a latency that is comparable to terrestrial networks. LEO satellites operating between 500 and 2,000 kilometers above the Earth can deliver latency of between 20ms and 50ms: they’re also able to offer a lower Mbps price point compared to GEO and MEO. 

What is the interest like around satellite connectivity?

There is potential for telecoms operators to leverage satellite connectivity as a complementary technology, and greater satellite connectivity can enable new use cases. In one example, satellite connectivity can now be considered a credible alternative for demanding customers, whether they are consumers or businesses. 

Customers have come to view satellite as a viable primary connection: research by EY in the UK has found that both consumers and SMEs are curious about satellite. 40% of households would be interested in taking a satellite package if it offered greater reliability than what they already have. 33% of SMEs said they too would be open to satellite broadband as a primary connection if they didn’t have access to fiber connectivity at their business site. So, satellite now presents the possibility to increase digital inclusion.

There are already examples of this growing digital inclusion around the world. Facebook has partnered with provider Eutelsat in Sub-Saharan Africa to deliver broadband connectivity services via satellite in rural and underserved communities. This type of use case has the potential to improve healthcare, education, transportation, agriculture and employment, and provide greater security in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.

Driving growth and transformation in IoT 

Satellite can have a profound effect on the Internet of Things (IoT) marketplace, so it should be high on the agenda for fixed-line and mobile operators seeking to plug coverage holes and enable new use cases. With demand for globally-connected devices growing, particularly in sectors that have operations in remote locations, connectivity and communications through satellite make sense. Consider connected objects on board offshore drilling platforms or ships at sea, large-scale agriculture or pipelines running through deserts: traditional connectivity to these sites is a huge challenge.

Consumer IoT use cases often dominate the public’s attention, but satellite-enabled IoT connectivity can pay dividends for managing remote assets, for example. Energy, gas and oil, and mining operations are ideal sectors where connectivity can be safely and conveniently maintaining operations in geographically remote locations, particularly as 5G increases its footprint. 5G will be at the heart of smart mines moving forward, bringing greater capacity than ever to remote sites. 5G and satellite connectivity can work hand in hand to give mining companies better access to real-time data, enabling new possibilities for more efficient, autonomous operations. According to ABI Research, by 2026, there will be nearly 20 million IoT connections made via satellite.

Further to IoT possibilities, there is potential for satellite to benefit Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) use cases, again working hand in hand with 5G. Smart cities will be home to millions of IoT-connected sensors and devices that all transmit data, which will have a massive impact on the network, and which all needs to be backhauled. There’s potential for satellite to be used to backhaul data from these non-latency sensitive devices.

Possibilities abound

In general, satellite can be a useful accompaniment to existing terrestrial coverage. It can assist with connectivity to mobile nodes like ships, ‘planes, trains and other vehicles. It can help offload temporarily congested networks, and it has a role to pace in emergency response or disaster recovery communications.

According to the ITU, 53.6% of households are internet-connected at broadband speeds, over 256Kbps, worldwide. In developing countries, the penetration rate is 47%, while in Least Developed Countries (LDCs), that figure is 19%. This digital divide was never more evident than during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic when networks enabled people all over the world to connect, work, study and keep themselves entertained online. In addition to all the potential connectivity use cases in IoT, vehicles on the move, smart cities and the like, the ability to connect remote communities in geographically disparate countries is a significant opportunity for satellite.


Orange in satellite

With over 40 years of expertise in satellite, Orange offers satellite connectivity that stretches to more than 2,000 locations in over 100 countries. We work with major global satellite service providers to enable your connectivity and help you safeguard your existing connectivity to ensure it remains continuous or can reach new areas.

Our highly-qualified engineers are on hand to accompany you from the beginning of your satellite journey, through the implementation stage and also maintenance of your satellite connectivity: connectivity between the satellite and the terrestrial backbone, installation in teleports, space capacity management, choice and installation of remote equipment.

Would you like to know how satellite connectivity can help your business? Please contact us and our experts will reach out to you. 




You may also be interested in these articles: