Are Satellite Network Developments Disrupting the Telecom Industry?

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By Andrew Cavalier | 1Q 2023 | IN-6822

From broadband, the Internet of Things (IoT), backhaul, and even direct-to-cellular connectivity, satellite networks are proving to have superior flexibility, agility, resiliency, and economics when compared to other terrestrial connectivity solutions. With countries around the world now aiming to launch constellations of their own for a variety of applications, the rise of these resilient, redundant, and global networks is disrupting the playing field and competitive advantage of telecoms industry players.

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Starlink, Snapdragon Satellie, SES 5G Backhaul, and More


Headlines have been dominated lately by non-terrestrial networks from the likes of SpaceX, Globalstar, OneWeb, Iridium, Lynk, and AST SpaceMobile, which leverage Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations to rapidly deliver low-latency broadband, voice, and data services directly to end users with a compatible modem or antenna. With satellite broadband, Starlink drew the world’s attention first in Ukraine and again in Iran, as the technology has been critical in transforming communications in wartime and political uncertainty. The telecommunications industry has also seen a wave of entrants from the emerging satellite-to-cell services sector. The recent announcement by Qualcomm and Iridium for a two-way satellite-to-cell messaging service for Android users, Snapdragon Satellite, has been a critical turning point for this segment and shows these services will evolve for both iOS and Android.

Alongside these headlines, LEO and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites are helping to support a variety of low-latency high-throughput applications, such as Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity and backhaul. Recently, MEO satellite operator SES S.A. has demonstrated the first satellite-enabled 5G backhaul with its O3b constellation in the Middle East with du from Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (EITC). Furthermore, satellite IoT companies like Astrocast, Swarm, and Sateliot are coming into the fray with a means to connect IoT devices via satellite at lower costs and higher performance than what was possible before. In all these ways, the new generation of Satellite Communications (SatCom) is becoming a more essential connectivity tool in the wireless communications arsenal.

Key Satellite Network Developments and Services


Connectivity solutions can vary significantly across different service segments. While satellite solutions have historically been too expensive or underperforming to be deployed in certain scenarios, the current landscape of satellite connectivity is starting to paint a different picture. While it may be a few years until some of these services reach critical mass, the upside potential is very positive. In this way, many companies are spearheading the transformation of telecommunications services through the deployment of new and evolving satellite payloads.

Satellite Broadband: Sends data to and from a user ground terminal to an orbiting satellite network, which routes traffic to and from manned ground stations or gateways connected to a network. By connecting the user ground terminal to a Wi-Fi router, users are then able to connect their devices to access the Internet with speeds reaching between 40 Megabits per Second (Mbps) and 200 Mbps, and 20 Milliseconds (ms) and 40 ms latency. While satellite broadband has historically been provided by operators in Geostationary Orbit (GEO), the cost of service, latency and speed, data allowance, and terminal costs generally reserved these services for specialized applications (e.g., in rural or remote locations). The decrease in satellite launch costs, and the combination of lower-cost terminals and LEO satellites, however, has enabled networks like Starlink to emerge and provide a higher-performing solution with bigger data caps for a reasonable price (roughly US$110 to US$500/month).

In this way, the combination of lower costs and relatively high ARPU makes the economics of a satellite broadband solution, such as the Starlink and Kuiper system, more palatable than trying to lay new optical fiber and last-mile network infrastructure with low Return on Investment (ROI) potential. What’s more, once the satellite network is operational, network deployment on the surface is quick and easy, requires little tacit knowledge or capital, and can be used in essentially any environment (land, air, sea, space, on-the-move, and stationery). In this way, Satellite broadband’s quick and easy setup, and ability to connect from virtually anywhere has made the technology desirable for applications where deployment speed, accessibility, and resiliency are paramount. For these reasons, satellite broadband is proving to be an increasingly adaptive and competitive technology.

Non-Terrestrial Network (NTN)-Mobile: Connects a satellite network directly to individual handsets for text, voice, and Internet data services. These include New Radio Non-Terrestrial Networks (NR-NTN), where LEO satellites connect with a 5G core network and link directly with NTN-equipped mobile devices via dedicated spectrum in the mid-band, space-borne Long Term Evolution (LTE), where LEO satellites connect an LTE network link directly with unmodified mobile devices via shared cellular spectrum in the mid-band, and satellite phones (satphones), specially designed portable user terminals that operate in the L-band to connect with a specific SatCom network. While still in its infancy, the NTN-Mobile segment has begun to generate interest, as Apple and Globalstar announced a partnership for satellite-to-cell services for emergency response. Critically, this partnership was one of the first between a SatCom operator and a smartphone manufacturer, with most already operating in the segment (Starlink, Lynk, AST SpaceMobile) partnering with telcos. How these SatCom-smartphone service agreements (Apple, Huawei) will coexist with telco-SatCom agreements (Starlink, AST SpaceMobile, Lynk) remains to be seen. Much like how the introduction of iMessage undermined telco Short Messaging Service (SMS), the global functionality of SatCom services for mobile devices could pose a similar threat. With Iridium recently announcing a partnership with Qualcomm for Android devices, the industry dynamics continue to evolve toward greater interoperability and, inevitably, a more ubiquitous network experience for users. One of the key battlegrounds will be rural and remote locations still uncovered by network access, amounting to what ABI Research estimates will be 330 million premises in 2023. The escalation of these services has the potential to disrupt the communications industry.

Satellite Backhaul: Leverages satellites to connect remote sites or networks to the wider Internet. This is increasingly being done with High Throughput Satellites (HTSs), which can increase throughput by 20X or more and increases capacity by 2X to 100X to typical satellites, all for the same amount of allocated orbital spectrum via frequency reuse, which significantly lowers the cost per bit. The reduced cost per bit of many HTS platforms has made the economics of satellite backhaul more feasible for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). While satellite backhaul has been successful in supporting 4G, 5G backhaul is still in trials and will become a reality soon. Recently, SES and its O3b mPOWER MEO satellites, which can provide uncontented speeds up to 10 Gigabits per Second (Gbps), have demonstrated a Proof of Concept (PoC) with EITC (P.J.S.C.) du for 5G backhaul. With the start of service expected in 2023, SES’s high-performance backhaul solution is expected to be able to support business-critical, cloud-based applications over the public Internet or a dedicated private connection. Alongside this, satellite backhaul is starting to show its compatibility with the Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) system where GEO operator Hughes Network Systems recently connected 5G smartphones to the Internet over its JUPITER system ground platform. In this way, satellite backhaul solutions are quickly moving to support higher throughput and capacity applications for reasonable costs.

Satellite IoT: Maximizes the process and productivity gains from asset monitoring and tracking by overcoming the limitations of terrestrial network availability, power infrastructure, and geography. These services typically operate in the L-band, S-band, and C-band for Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) and Ku- and Ka-band for Fixed Satellite Services (FSS). Popular protocols, such as LoRaWAN, Sigfox, Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), and Internet Protocol (IP), and proprietary protocols, such as Iridium’s Short Burst Data (SBD), Inmarsat’s IsatData Pro (IDP), and Globalstar, are common in the satellite IoT space. By leveraging either an aggregation (endpoints working with a single Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) or Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN)), or a direct-to-satellite model (one modem and antenna per device), the price, data volume, frequency, and latency can be managed. Despite this, the costs for satellite IoT have remained relatively high. Deployments with low-cost nanosatellites, such as Swarm Technologies and Astrocast, and companies focusing on advances with 5G NB-IoT NTN standards (connecting IoT satellites to a 5G core network), such as Sateliot, have introduced new lower-cost solutions. While satellite IoT solutions are still evolving, the unique ability to stay connected with devices for longer durations is a significant enhancement to processes and productivity from asset monitoring and tracking.

SatCom's Competitive Advantage


As far as Communication Service Providers (CSPs) go, the competitive advantage that SatCom brings to the table is significant. As a flexible, resilient, and in some circles considered a “recession-proof” technology, the ability to expand communications infrastructure to tap into 330 million unconnected premises and deliver new services across a global market is enticing. While regulation, technology, and spectrum for use cases are still areas for improvement, SatCom is showing its staying power and ability to transform service segments and impact the outcome of global events. To this end, there is a shift in criticality that is occurring as standards create greater interoperability, integration, and, eventually, the unification of satellite and terrestrial networks. As more satellite operators and terrestrial CSPs are consolidating and partnering together, it is becoming increasingly clear that the new industry status quo brings space and land networks together for a more unified front.