Satellite communication: pros and cons

Guyana plans to roll out satellite communication to serve some areas of the country. Here briefly examine the medium and highlight key advantages and disadvantages.

In today’s world, we continue to aspire for the latest technology – be it the latest device, such as the recently released Apple iPhone 7, or the latest infrastructure, such as LTE Advanced, for mobile/cellular communications, or fibre optic cable, for fixed-line services. It would therefore have seemed odd, based on a Telegeography report published last week, that the Government of Guyana was planning to abandon a fibre optic cable network in favour of satellite communications.

In a nutshell, and as highlighted in the video clip below, satellite communications is the transmission of radio waves (or wireless signals) between two points using an artificial satellite placed high up in the atmosphere that amplifies and relays the signal received (from the first point) before it is retransmitted to the second point.

Although satellites are still being used today for a broad range of activities, for example to assist in marine and air navigation, and to monitor the weather, countries have been moving away from that medium in favour of alternatives, such as terrestrial and submarine cable systems. According to the Telegeography article, the existing overland fibre optic cable system in Guyana’s hinterland is not functioning, and so is being abandoned. Instead, those sparsely populated areas will be connected by satellite. However, whilst satellite communication could provide the needed telecoms connectivity, there are a few pros and cons associated with that medium that ought to be considered.

Pro: Coverage

One of the most compelling benefits of satellite communication is the fact that the signal from satellite can cover large geographic areas. The signals transmitted can be accessed directly by individual households or devices; but it can also be used to provide backbone connectivity for telecoms and subscriber TV operators, which in turn will be transmitted terrestrially either through fixed-line or wireless networks.

Pro:  Affordability

The cost to deploy a fibre-optic, or even a copper network, from the plant to individual customers can be extremely costly, especially in large but sparsely populated areas. For capacity that is being purchased on existing satellites, providing telecoms services through that medium, and again to cover large geographic areas, can work out considerably cheaper for local telcos to deploy.

Con: Propagation delay

With satellite communication, propagation delay, that is the time delay in the receipt of signals transmitted, is inevitable. Typically, the delay would be around 0.5 second for a signal sent up to a satellite and down to the receiver. Whilst half a second might seem negligible, it can be quite noticeable in voice communication, where seemingly unnatural (or slightly long) pauses in a conversation can be experienced.

Con:  Noise and interference

Although stationed thousands of miles above Earth, satellites require on line of  sight with receivers. The quality of the satellite signals received can be adversely affected by several factors, including the weather (especially heavy rain), obstructions (such as trees and leaves), or whether the satellite dish (receiver) is correctly angled to receive the signal. In a country such as Guyana, which not only has tropical weather, but also experiences heavy rain (even thunderstorms) due to the effect of Intertropical Convergence Zone, the quality of the service could be badly and consistently affected.

Con:  Slower than broadband or cable

Finally, and in a time when we are all eager for faster upload and download speeds, especially for our Internet service, satellite communication can be severely challenged on that front. The average download speed tends to be around 1Mbps, but again, can be hampered by noise and interference, along with the age of the satellite and the amount of bandwidth that has been secured.

Some final thoughts

In summary, satellite communication is no longer the go-to medium to provide telecoms services. It tends to be a ‘last resort’ when its benefits outweigh all other options, especially with respect to cost of deployment and coverage. In that regard, satellite communication could provide Guyana’s hinterland with the most viable means of being connected – for now.


Image credit:  Peter Jozwiak (flickr)