BLOG SERIES – Technology Updates from the World of Satellite Communications #1

From Rick Hodgkinson, President and CEO of Galaxy

Here is an industry update on the new technology shaping the future of satellite communication. This will be a three-part blog series over the next two months, so be sure to check back!

SpaceX, Google, Facebook and others are promising connectivity to the world with exciting new technologies.  For those of us in the industry and our customers who rely on us to deliver remote communications, these pronouncements can lead to confusion and questions as to how this will affect me or my needs?  With this series of blogs, I will endeavour to share with you the latest industry and technology news and offer some clarity as to how these promising new technologies will affect remote communication needs over the next several years.

The first blog in this technology and industry updates series will focus on Low Earth Satellites, or LEO’s.

Low Earth Orbit Satellites (LEO’s)

LEO’s are getting most of the press with the promise of hundreds of low earth orbit satellites that create constellations capable of delivering terabits of data connectivity to underserved regions worldwide.  It’s important to note this is not a new idea.  Teledisic was a LEO constellation planned for 1999 and backed by deep pocketed industry players (Craig McCaw and Bill Gates) that went bankrupt before it launched.  Iridium, backed by $1B of Motorola money initially failed and was bought out of receivership for under $30M in the early 2000’s.  This concept is not new but technology advancements in the past two decades might be beneficial to the success of such a service this time around.

Here are some key things to know about LEO’s:

  • LEO’s travel across the sky at lightning speed, requiring the antenna on the ground to move and pan the sky, tracking the bird for about 3 minutes per “orbit” as it travels along in view of the remote location. Two tracking dishes are networked together to track two satellites as they are entering, passing and exiting the field of vision on the horizon, always locking onto the satellites for constant two-way connectivity.
  • These arrays are complex, expensive and present the challenge of mechanical moving parts in Canada’s extreme climate.
  • Flat panel electronically steered antennas (ESEA’s) are essential for a LEO constellation to be affordable but to date, the leading flat panel developer (Kymeta) hasn’t been able to produce them below a cost of $40,000! These won’t be ready for prime time until the cost of a unit is sub $1,000, likely not until 2023 according to industry observers
  • LEO’s are expensive compared to traditional GEO’s but offer global coverage. The cost of a LEO satellite is $1M – $2M depending on the complexity.  They can be as small as a microwave oven and you can launch dozens at a time.  The infrastructure on the ground (gateways) are the expensive part, costing $20M or more a piece and each constellation requires several dozen.
  • Target market for LEO’s is the billions of people who are not connected today, specifically Third World and developing nations that lack terrestrial service. It will be a challenge to provide connectivity to these regions at a price point the users can afford.

The inherent design of a LEO network requires satellites to orbit the polar regions, making bandwidth availability in the far North abundant. But, coordination of frequencies and the potential for the satellites to interfere with each other could restrict how many are “turned on” as they cross the North.  Only time will tell of the bandwidth will be plentiful in the far North.

So, what are the advantages of LEO’s?  It comes down to two things; low latency (40 – 80Ms) and massive amounts of throughput.  A traditional GEO may offer 4Gbps of total throughput and latency of 750Ms. An HTS GEO can offer a terabyte of throughput with 750Ms of latency.  LEO’s will offer multiple terabytes everywhere on the planet and with the low latency promise to offer fiber like connectivity and performance.

Who are the key LEO players?  Success of any of the ventures depends on the development of a cost-effective tracking antenna solution.  Here are some of the key companies developing LEO networks:

  • Telesat Canada has announced plans for a 120 satellite LEO constellation and it seems to have the best design and real prospects of getting off the ground in 2021. They launched a test in February and will continue to evaluate their technology.
  • The One Web plan appears furthest along with a manufacturing facility in Florida that can reportedly produce 3 satellites a week. They plan for a constellation of 840 satellites and are targeting the consumer market with beta testing in early 2019.
  • SpaceX made headlines with their own plan to connect the world with a projected launch in 2023.
  • LEOSAT and a host of other nanosat operators are targeting specific markets like Earth observation and asset tracking.

LEO’s can reduce the cost per megabit dramatically.  But, operators face a challenge in that critical mass can only be achieved by connecting the Third World and those end-users may not have the financial ability to pay the cost.  This will result in a two-tier pricing structure that will not benefit users in North America.  The focus will be on the performance advantages of lower latency, not cost savings.

I believe that One Web will get launched in 2020-2021 because they have the backing of Softbank, $1B in the bank and they are the front runners. The challenge will be sustaining the business post-launch.  If ESEA’s don’t get low enough, critical mass will be difficult to achieve.  Telesat will have the best technological solution and the track record to make it work. The solution is also not global and therefore substantially less capital is required.

Watch for the second blog in this series soon, and send your comments to info@galaxybroadband.ca. Be sure to follow us on social media to stay up to date on all our new information!

Check out Part Two now!