According to the Global System for Mobile Communications Association’s (GSMA) The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2022 report, 5% of the world’s population, or 400 million people, still do not have access to a mobile broadband network. The key to bridging this digital divide is Satellite Communications (SatCom) service providers, who provide Internet access to historically unserved and underserved regions (e.g., rural areas and developing countries) via satellite constellations in space.
These satellite Internet services are also crucial for a number of government and enterprise applications, such as defense/military, maritime, aviation, hospitals, schools, and more. To check out the competitive landscape, here’s a list of seven satellite communications providers transforming the telco space.
Chart 1: Satellite Communications Subscribers by Service Type (Non-Terrestrial Mobile, Internet of Things (IoT), and Broadband): 2021 to 2030
The first company on the list is Viasat, a U.S. communications service provider with nearly 4 decades of experience and a global leader. The Carlsbad, California-headquartered company largely focuses its space communications services on high-speed satellite connectivity and secure network systems for its defense, military, and commercial customers.
Actually, the company’s roots are in strong defense technology. Viasat’s four main business segments include satellite Internet, enterprise & mobility, defense, and space innovation.
Below is a breakdown of each Viasat satellite service.
- Satellite Internet: Residential customers, small businesses and enterprises, and emerging markets.
- Enterprise & Mobility: SatCom for aviation, energy services, and maritime.
- Defense: Technologies for U.S. and coalition forces include the company’s integrated defense SatCom, tactical data link/line-of-sight, cybersecurity solutions, and multi-band flexible SatCom terminals.
- Space Innovation: Satellite payloads, modems, antennas, terminals, gateways, network encryptors, satellite dishes, spacecraft thermal vacuum testing, etc.
Figure 1: The Technology behind Satellite Internet
Under the satellite broadband project, Project Kuiper, e-commerce giant Amazon plans to launch a constellation of 3,236 satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Amazon’s vision is noble: to provide broadband to underserved communities. While initial satellite communications will be in the United States, the Kuiper System aims to provide global coverage eventually.
At an estimated value of US$10 billion, Amazon has bought 92 future launches from three rocket companies: Arianespace, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin. As the ABI Research Highlight How to Capitalize on the Blossoming LEO Satellite Communications Services mentioned, Amazon’s funding capabilities are impressive. Having deep pockets will enable Amazon to buy its way to the front of the line and compete with SpaceX.
Although nothing is confirmed, early rumors mention that Amazon’s satellite solutions will be competitively priced. Reportedly, the Kuiper antenna will cost less than US$500 to construct and provides 400 Megabits per Second (Mbps)—far cheaper than Starlink’s US$2,500-priced antennas at comparable speeds.
The third company on the list is SpaceX, which uses its Starlink constellation of 2,200 LEO satellites to provide Internet service to roughly 400,000 subscribers. The Elon Musk-headed company plans to eventually send 42,000 satellites into Earth’s orbit.
Starlink primarily focuses on direct-to-consumer Internet connectivity services for fixed locations and Earth Stations in Motion (ESIMs). ESIM refers to satellite communication services for mobile users via Mobile Satellite Services (MSS); for example, a Recreational Vehicle (RV) that’s on the move.
While consumers are the focus, the LEO satellite communication service provider also offers Starlink Business. Enterprise segments for Starlink’s network services include Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), maritime operations, schools hospitals, and airplanes.
For consumer network services, Starlink delivers a median round-trip latency of 40 Milliseconds (ms) and download speeds of 104.97 Mbps in the United States, according to an Ookla report from late 2021. The company targets download speeds of 150 Mbps to 500 Mbps and 20 ms to 40 ms of round-trip latency for the more robust enterprise package.
The London-based telecommunications company OneWeb targets the government, enterprise, aviation, maritime, and land mobility verticals. Any region that is located above 50 degrees north latitude can leverage the company’s communication services. OneWeb, with significant financial backing from major investing conglomerates Bharti Global, SoftBank, and Hanwha, has amassed US$2.7 billion in funding that can be used for its space operations.
In March 2022, OneWeb and Australian telco company Telstra announced an agreement to explore connectivity solutions in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. One of the most striking partnerships that OneWeb has recently made is with French satellite service provider Eutelsat. This alliance will combine OneWeb’s 648 LEO satellites with Eutelsat’s 36 Geostationary Orbit (GEO) fleet. Consequently, satellite broadband coverage will expand around the world.
Figure 2: Land, Sea, and Air Satellite Network
Eutelsat is one of the most well-known satellite operators in the world, as the company has 40 years of experience providing video broadcast, global network connectivity, and Internet of Things (IoT) services. Eutelsat’s satellite communication services are accessible in up to 150 countries.
As previously alluded to, French-based satellite communication service provider Eutelsat leverages GEO space constellations. Indeed, GEO satellite services have historically been the company’s focus. However, Eutelsat has committed to its LEO ambitions, with its Eutelsat LEO for Objects (ELO), fleet for IoT narrowband connectivity, and the US$3.5 billion merger with OneWeb. Eutelsat’s LEO satellite constellation will deliver IoT coverage and facilitate IoT-enabled objects to transmit data, regardless of their location.
Customers of the London-based SatCom leader Inmarsat have access to high throughput and advanced communication services. Two signature offerings, ELERA and Global Xpress (GX), for instance, are used in the following applications and use cases:
- High-speed mobile broadband
- Mobile voice services
- Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications
- Aeronautical connectivity
Like Eutelsat, Inmarsat has traditionally been a GEO satellite-first company, but has its crosshairs on LEO communication services. The multi-layer network architecture ORCHESTRA, which is for the Asia-Pacific region, will be a hybrid system consisting of 150 to 175 highly targeted LEO satellites alongside a host of GEO satellites and terrestrial 5G communications. ORCHESTRA will target enterprise applications in urban air mobility, Industrial IoT (IIoT), smart cruise ships, and tactical private networks. Eutelsat's hybrid satellite system, due for deployment between 2025 and 2030, will also benefit from mesh networks that will route traffic to and from other terminals.
Plans are in place for Inmarsat to be absorbed by Viasat; however, there are anti-competitive concerns that need to be addressed.
Iridium Communications is an American satellite operator based out of McLean, Virginia. The company’s 66 active satellites are used to provide voice and data communications for handheld satellite phones and other transceiver units. Iridium offers narrowband, mid-band, and broadband connectivity services, with broadband touting speeds anywhere from 176 Kilobits per Second (Kbps) to 704 Kbps.
In addition to satellite services, Iridium also manufactures and sells several SatCom products, such as:
- Personal communicators
- Satellite phones
- Push-to-Talk (PTT) devices
- Broadband and mid-band terminals
- External antennas
- Docking stations
As of FY 2Q 2022, Iridium stated that the firm has 1.875 million billable subscribers worldwide. The commercial segment is by far Iridium’s largest customer base, accounting for 1.731 million subscribers. Demand for its LEO satellite services stem primarily from the maritime, aviation, oil & gas, mining, recreation, forestry, construction, transportation, and emergency services markets.
LEO Is Set to Dominate Satellite Communication Services
ABI Research estimates that of the more than 50 million satellite communications subscribers worldwide by 2030, about 27 million of them will be using LEO services (in 2023, there are 2.4 million LEO subscribers). LEO’s upper hand over other types of orbits comes from its ability to provide low-latency connectivity, high bandwidth, strong network reliability, and cheaper upfront costs than MEO and GEO satellites.
As pointed out earlier in the post, partnerships have clearly been a prevailing theme in satellite communications as LEO operators look to compete with Musk’s Starlink Internet services. The extension of 5G networks and the potential for satellite-based broadband to connect unserved and underserved communities will be vital catalysts for the future of satellite communication services demand.
At the end of the day, purchasing decisions in SatCom hinge on price, Return on Investment (ROI) potential, data throughput and volume requirements, network latency, reliability, and criticality.
You can learn more in our How to Capitalize on the Blossoming LEO Satellite Communication Services Research Highlight.