5 trends in satellite communications on the horizon

The satellite communication industry is evolving, as evidenced by numerous trends that one can expect to see on the horizon over the coming 18 months and beyond.

The increase in small satellites, the use of low-Earth orbit (LEO), launches on reusable rocket launch vehicles and new use cases for 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) are some of the most important developments to watch.

‘Satellite technology has the potential to be a strong player in Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, along with “connecting the unconnected.”’ – Tony Pallone, Writer and Editor, IEEE GlobalSpec

As satellite technology continues to expand into the connectivity landscape, perceptions of it being prohibitively expensive, plagued by high latency and having limited bandwidth are starting to shift.

Satellite technology has the potential to be a strong player in Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, along with “connecting the unconnected” in parts of the world where alternative communication paths, at present, simply do not exist.

Here’s a guide on what to look for.

1. SmallSats get big

There’s a general benchmark that small satellites, or SmallSats, are satellites under 500 kg, yet definitions vary, and there are several subcategories. There is little question, however, that the population of SmallSats overall is currently in the process of exploding, as evidenced by numerous recent forecasts, including Future Market Insights and Research and Markets.

Bill Menezes, a Gartner analyst covering wireless services, offers one reason: SmallSats can be constructed and launched less expensively and more quickly than traditional, large, geosynchronous orbit satellites.

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To be sure, there are limits to SmallSat capabilities, both in terms of transmission power and capacity for supporting bandwidth. More important than the size of a given satellite, however, is its placement in space – and this is where SmallSat constellations launched into LEO have the potential to be what Menezes calls a game-changer.

2. LEO lessens latency

LEO is defined by NASA as the first 100 to 200 miles of space above the planet. SmallSat LEO constellations represent an example of the old adage about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. By working together close to the ground, the satellites address one of the most significant limitations of geosynchronous systems: high latency.

‘The perception that satellite technology is incapable of providing low-latency connectivity is beginning to shift.’ – Abel Nevarez, IHS Markit research analyst

According to IHS Markit research analyst Abel Nevarez, latency was reported as one of the most critical issues in a 2017 IHS Markit survey of mobile operators. However, Nevarez says, the perception that satellite technology is incapable of providing low-latency connectivity is beginning to shift as more responsive systems come online.

Perhaps the best-known LEO system currently in operation, as Menezes points out, is the Iridium constellation. It is aimed primarily at voice communication service through 66 satellites providing pole-to-pole coverage.

Other companies are now in the planning and testing stages for deploying far greater numbers of satellites into LEO that will enable them to move into a largely untapped area for the technology: providing low-latency broadband with pervasive connectivity.

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OneWeb plans to launch at least 900 satellites, with broadband access to begin as early as 2019; SpaceX, with its Starlink constellation comprised of nearly 12,000 satellites, is slated to begin operation as early as 2019 or 2020.

By addressing the needs of applications requiring more bandwidth and lower latency, Menezes adds, this kind of development can have a positive effect on the industry overall.

“Then you have competition,” he explains. “You have a huge amount of capacity that is then in service that helps maybe drive prices down, and makes it an alternative – even in areas where you (already) have terrestrial network connectivity that’s sufficient to serve those needs.”

3. Reusable rockets fuel deployment

The outlook for LEO systems hasn’t always been so sunny, says Dimitris Mavrakis, research director of telecom networks at ABI Research. At one point, Iridium went bankrupt due to the launch costs involved in its attempt to create an LEO constellation that could address the latency issue.

“There’s still a relatively limited number of companies that do these launches,” Mavrakis adds.

‘Satellites can offer advantages for mobile infrastructure backhaul and underserved-area connectivity.’ – Nevarez

Launch vehicle innovations, such as SpaceX’s reusable rocket system Falcon 9, have reignited interest in LEO. Iridium is now in the process of rolling out its broadband Iridium Next constellation, using SpaceX as a launch provider.

Menezes also notes the potential for reusable rocket launch vehicles to be a driving factor in SmallSat growth; the small payload means that a launch vehicle can deliver them in large quantities. Moreover, satellites from more than one company can hitch a ride on a single launch.

4. 5G ecosystems receive support

It’s important to note that some of the numbers being tossed around as service providers discuss their 5G rollout plans — things like multiple gigabits per second of data throughput, and latency less than 1 millisecond — cannot be achieved by present satellite technology.

Still, Menezes says, there is a potential role for satellites in the development of 5G networks because many providers are looking at coverage “ecosystems” — heterogenous networks that might include elements such as LEO broadband satellites for backhaul.

Satellites can offer advantages for mobile infrastructure backhaul and underserved-area connectivity, including the lack of distance limitations and rights-of-way jurisdictions that are inherent to terrestrial networks, Nevarez says.

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Such advantages may help to explain why multiple players are jumping on the satellite bandwagon. Nevarez offers the examples of Japanese multinational SoftBank, which is using satellite backhaul to provide LTE service to remote regions, and Facebook, which is using satellite backhaul to provide Wi-Fi to areas in Africa.

Still, Mavrakis cautions that the value of satellite communications to 5G may be overstated by the satellite companies themselves, which are acting defensively in order to protect their assets. In order to roll out 5G connectivity, Mavrakis explains, telecom operators are looking to break into the C-band frequency range currently allocated for satellite communications.

The future of frequency allocations will be determined in late 2019, at the ITU’s next World Radio Communication conference.

5. IoT access expands

In contrast to the healthy debate over the role of satellite communications in 5G, there is little argument that satellites can play a key role as building blocks for the Internet of Things (IoT).

“A lot of Internet of Things devices are going to be in locations that don’t lend themselves to easy access from a terrestrial network,” Menezes points out. “If there are 20 billion endpoints out there, most of which need some type of wireless connectivity . . . a fair amount of those are going to be in a use case where satellite is the best way of delivering that connectivity.”

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Indeed, although the coverage provided by cellular networks has expanded, there are still many places out of reach. This is especially true in developing regions, where coverage drops off quickly as one travels away from the primary roadways and into more remote areas. Both Menezes and Mavrakis agree that these types of coverage gaps create a strong IoT use case for satellites.

“There’s a big enterprise use case to be made,” Menezes says. He offers one example: a SmallSat with limited bandwidth could be used to monitor moisture sensors in a remote agricultural field. A steady stream of heavy data going back and forth isn’t necessary; rather, it’s sufficient for data to be collected a couple of times each day.

What comes next remains to be seen, but it’s clear that satellite technology is on the rise.

Tony Pallone is a writer and editor for IEEE GlobalSpec.

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