Have you thought of the speed at which wireless technology is changing off late? Well, not as fast as light, but definitely faster than us gulping down a glass of water. The buzz is that the future of wireless communication technology is satellite broadband, which will replace the terrestrial players. Is it so? Satellite technology is many years old, so what has changed now?
LEO or Low-Earth Orbit satellites revolve around 500 to 2000 kms from earth’s surface, capable of delivering low latency of less than 40mS (RTT- Round Trip Time) compared to 1000-1700 mS (RTT) of Geostationary satellites (35000 km above the equator; operating in Ka Band). LEO satellites operate in Ka or V band (26.5 to 75 GHz). Higher frequencies enable higher data rates and security by packing more antennas and narrower beams. But the flip side is that such high frequencies can cause attenuation due to atmospheric absorption. Satellite broadband providers plan to fix this through site diversity, improved ground-station design, adaptive coding, modulation ACM: the modulation of the link between a satellite and antenna can be automatically lowered to compensate for atmospheric interference. When the weather improves, ACM technology will also raise the modulation back up to full capacity. Using ACM allows maximum throughput in good weather while still maintaining wireless communications when rain fade occurs). Frequency-reuse can also increase the amount of data a system delivers. Unlike geostationary satellites, low-earth-orbit satellites do not remain in a fixed position. They keep moving. In order to maintain a continuous connection between the ground antenna and satellite, there has to be an array of interconnected satellites.
Now, the question is, will this wireless technology kill the traditional players? There is no one-word answer to this. But yes, we can envisage certain conditional scenarios. It’s quite possible for SBS to replace traditional players if they are able to provide low-cost services or costs comparable to the terrestrial providers.
As of today, there are a lot of things that need to evolve to achieve that stage. Satellites are always a high-cost proposition. Traditional satellites cost around $50000-$60000 per kilogram due to handcrafted items. LEO satellites may cost a bit lower, but not enough to beat the terrestrial gun.
It’s estimated that LEO constellations will require many ground stations. A 4,400-satellite version of Starlink will require 123 ground-station locations and about 3,500 gateway antennas to achieve maximum throughput. The gateway antennas must be more extensive and will require significantly more power than user terminals do in a traditional environment. Unlike the traditional satellite ground station, LEO’s ground station will resemble a cell phone tower-like structure.
They have to arrive at ways to reduce costs in design, manufacturing, parts, launch, and operations. The focus should be to optimize the cost of ground stations and gateway because reducing their number may not yield the desired results. Hence, all aspects of newer technologies, redesigning, and supply chain must be enabled to achieve smart methods, modular low cost/efficient antenna designs, and low-cost components. A typical LEO constellation may need several launches per year, and to achieve the desired cost to take over the consumer market, they have to bring down the satellite price to $2000/Kilogram. For this, the SBS providers will have to create a very diverse ecosystem, including Engineering service providers.
Service providers also have a significant play through multiple services and solutions.
Large-scale deployment of antennas will increase opportunities in:
- Design and continuously redesign to achieve low-cost antennas and support
- Network optimization
- Power and thermal management systems
Constellation will lead to opportunities in:
- Satellite guidance systems
- Navigation and control (software that can predict the path of each satellite in the constellation)
- On-board data processing and predictive analytics (IoT) to make the ground entry point more effective
- Optimize algorithms to monitor and manage the status and functions of thousands of satellites in LEO constellation
- Visual inspection through AR/VR technologies
- Should costing and
- Automation technologies in manufacturing can help improve the BoM cost
CPE (Consumer Premise Equipment):
- Redesign of consumer premise equipment for low cost and reliability
Technologies at play:
Service providers should identify a few areas they would like to focus on and start building solutions and mature them. SBS is definitely a part of our future. It may not immediately replace the terrestrial providers. Therefore, it is easy for us to miss this disruption. It will continue to coexist and grow for some time and then eventually replace them as it matures.
The pandemic and the growth of the cloud have paved the way for extreme demand for high throughput consumer broadband, which can be enabled by satellite broadband. Their winning feature of frequency reuse and onboard data processing, with low latency compared to traditional FSS, will eventually pave the way for the emergence, dominance, and sustenance of satellite broadband services.
The $10 billion market of satellite manufacturing, operations, launch, and consumer equipment promises internet connectivity to more consumers. This is a good enough driving factor for this market to thrive, grow, and stay!
Glossary of terms
AI: Artificial Intelligence
BoM: Bill of Material
FSS: Fixed Satellite Services
IoT: Internet of Things
LEO: Low-Earth Orbit
SBS: Satellite Broadband Services