Infrastructure in the sky: why telcos should embrace satellite operators

As prices and latency drop in tandem, this new generation of satellite services is becoming much more competitive with, and complementary to, terrestrial telecommunications offerings.

Guest author

December 15, 2021

6 Min Read
Infrastructure in the sky: why telcos should embrace satellite operators periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece James Harrison, Acting Managing Director, EMEA at Telstra, makes the case for low earth orbit satellite connectivity.

Telcos are facing a growing number of pressures as they look to provide increasing levels of coverage for customers hungry to consume content. The rise of mobile-first streaming models in the consumer market, and the introduction of digital transformation and Industry 4.0 paradigms in the enterprise space, have put huge strain on networks and led to an acceleration in demand for 5G infrastructures.

Those infrastructures are costly to establish and scale, as well as having a lengthy time to market. But there is a rapidly emerging solution that is already scaling at impressive speed and can provide a shortcut to future network capacity, address rising data demands, and connect even the remotest parts of the world. This is a new generation of satellite technologies.

Next generation satellite

The satellite industry and the technology used in orbit has changed enormously since the first geostationary (GEO) satellites launched in the 1960s. These satellites helped shrink the world with the advent of live transmissions of events such as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In recent years a succession of private companies, from SES to the Space X-owned Starlink, have placed a new generation of satellites in first Medium and then Low Earth Orbit (MEO and LEO respectively), both lowering costs and dramatically increasing the availability of genuine high bandwidth satellite connectivity.

While a single GEO satellite can provide coverage of a significant portion of the Earth’s surface from 35,786km altitude, MEO satellites cover a smaller area from an altitude down to 2000km. More are required to ensure global coverage – by way of example SES’ upgrade to its established O3b service, O3b mPOWER will use 11 – but they are cheaper to both build and launch than their GEO predecessors. They also provide faster connections with lower latency and are implementing new HTS (High-Throughput Satellite) technologies to further boost available bandwidth.

LEO satellites refine the concept even further. Operating at anything between 160 to 2000km with an orbital period of 90 minutes, thousands are required to provide a network of coverage, but they are cheap enough to make and launch that this becomes economically feasible. And, crucially, they provide the speed and low network latency that makes genuinely two-way functionality possible

Known as satellite constellations and backed by some of the biggest names in the tech industry, services such as Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and OneWeb are busy launching thousands of craft into LEO. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites at a time, and it now has close to 1500 operational satellites out of a projected total of 12,000 (and a request lodged with the FCC for 42,000). This has allowed it to launch consumer-oriented services that provide broadband capacity of 50Mbps to 150Mbps with latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations. Amazon, meanwhile, is forecasting to launch half the satellites of its Project Kuiper system – a mega constellation of 3,236 satellites – by 2026.

As prices and latency drop in tandem, this new generation of satellite services is becoming much more competitive with, and complementary to, terrestrial telecommunications offerings such as those provided by subsea cable systems. While at first glance they seem to be being established as direct competitors to 5G, it doesn’t have to be that way. During this initial rollout period, where both sides are working through their establishment phases, it makes perfect sense for telcos to see satellite connectivity as providing a complementary service.

Benefits for telcos

As previously mentioned, LEO technology can provide an effective bridge towards 5G services. Latency will perhaps remain too high for some of the more zero latency 5G use cases such as piloting autonomous vehicles, but for providing connectivity services to these vehicles and their occupants it is ideal. That is only the tip of the 5G iceberg too. Other use cases include providing backhaul for 5G, industrial offshore applications, sensors for telemedicine, commercial maritime, disaster relief, and smart city functionality.  Indeed, an industry prediction by ABI Research suggests around 20 million IoT (Internet of Things) connections made via satellite within the next five years.

LEO satellite can make sure these happen for telcos in the short-term rather than at the end of an unspecified network build-out. Indeed, those services can help fund the build-out. Moreover, there are other opportunities too. Using LEO, telcos have an excellent opportunity to create more dynamic and resilient global networks with sufficient redundancy for all use cases and eventualities.

They can also extend them to areas where it is currently uneconomic to build fibre. Currently almost half of the world’s population has no access to the internet, and fewer than one in five people in the least-developed countries are connected. LEO can fill in those gaps, allowing telcos to concentrate on building networks in areas of high population density and servicing remoter areas via satellite. This both makes economic sense and, in many areas, fulfils legislative ambitions as well.

A two-way street

New orbital technology is providing new connectivity models and infrastructure in the sky, as well as a host of exciting new services for the future. There is also a business opportunity for telcos here too. Ground-infrastructure is needed for the new generation of LEO constellations, and telcos could opt to build new and/or additional teleports or other infrastructure to grow with the new satellite companies. It could also make the telco a potential long-term in-country partner, not only in their domestic market but also in new markets, as the emerging satellite constellations start to girdle the planet.

The new wave of satellite providers will need the telcos on the ground to provide them with fibre, IP, backhaul and a host of other services, as well as offering a much easier way to access multiple markets around the world. By uniting and enabling networks with all the benefits of rapid, smart routing and adaptive, virtualised networks, plus capitalising on the promise offered by 5G and IoT, players on both the ground and in space have the potential to ensure denser global coverage will happen even faster than it already is.


JamesHarrison-150x150.jpegAs the interim Acting Managing Director for EMEA at Telstra, James Harrison leads the organisation to enable people and businesses to thrive globally with the use of software-defined platforms. James has spent the last 20 years working in global IT and communications across a variety of industry sectors.

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