Satellite connectivity for business use: voice, data, IoT
Written by: James Atkinson | Published:

More operators, improved technology, lower costs and more flexible options are making satellite solutions a more appealing choice for businesses, reports James Atkinson

Satellites have been delivering services to enterprises for more than 50 years now, providing voice, GPS location, video, broadband, point-to-multipoint (multicast) and, more recently, M2M/IoT services. Maritime, utilities, energy and oil and gas companies requiring communications in remote areas of the globe are key users.

More recent users include agriculture and forestry, construction and mining, transportation and logistics, heavy equipment and automotive. Along with voice and data services, many of these industries also rely on satellites to monitor and track assets and personnel.

Services are provided by three types of satellite: Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO) or geostationary satellites (35,786km); Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites (2,000-35,786km); and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites (180-2,000km).

Commenting on the current market, Lluc Palerm-Serra, senior analyst with Northern Sky Research (NSR), observes: “Today, we are witnessing a transition from traditional widebeam satellites to GEO-HTS (high throughput satellite). These satellites are much more efficient in price and performance [than the earlier FSS – fixed satellite services].

“New orbits like MEO are emerging such as the SES O3b network for some particular services like trunking, backhaul or oil and gas, but the cost of the terminal is still a big barrier for other applications. With flat-panel antennas it is possible that non-GEO systems, both MEO and LEO, will penetrate new applications and create new use-cases like connectivity for latency-sensitive applications.”

Satellite vs terrestrial
Gavan Murphy, director of marketing EMEA at Globalstar, which has a 24-satellite LEO constellation that provides global coverage (with the exception of the North and South Poles), concedes that satellites cost a lot to build and deploy, but once in orbit they can be activated in days and they are not subject to the same kinds of environmental disasters that afflict terrestrial networks.

“There is also no difference in cost no matter where the user is located,” he points out, “but the terrestrial network cost is proportional to the distance travelled and the cost of rolling out the infrastructure. We provide a single repeater system, but terrestrial networks require a lot of repeaters/base stations.”

The biggest challenge for satellite when competing against terrestrial remains cost. “Even if the cost per Mbps for satellite has gone down extraordinarily in the past five years, it is still more expensive than terrestrial (when available),” says Palerm-Serra. “But for rural and remote locations, satellite is becoming more and more competitive and now many telcos prefer to adopt satellite instead of investing in capex-heavy fibre deployments. Latency is an issue for some applications, but 80 per cent of the traffic today is video, and the experience of video is not affected by latency.”

Jon Simpson, marketing manager with UK value-added reseller GRC, agrees. “The cost of satellite as a bearer is still comparatively high compared to 4G or standard internet, but we’re seeing a continued drive among the big operators like Avanti, Intelsat and Inmarsat to reduce these costs by offering more flexible packages, allowing users to treat satellite as a back-up, which they only pay for when they use it.

“This effectively allows customers to make use of lower-cost alternatives where available, but swap to satellite when they need a guaranteed, secure, reliable service. While this is less of a concern for defence and government users, it’s made a big difference to commercial and private users, who find it hard to justify high monthly costs for a ‘just in case’ service, but still need the critical link to send files and stay in touch when they’re off-grid,” he says.

A key part of satellites’ appeal is their ability to provide global services without the need for terrestrial infrastructure

Alan Crisp, senior analyst with NSR, notes that demand for handheld devices is slowing down, while stiffer competition is reducing the margin on equipment sold. Pure voice usage among traditional handheld users such as energy and oil and gas companies is instead moving towards mixed usage of handhelds with other devices and a migration to data.

Murphy argues that, nonetheless, voice continues to remain an important satellite service for enterprises, especially maritime, as they need continual voice communications. “But voice is evolving from dedicated handheld satellite devices to things like our Sat-Fi2 solution. There is almost a move away from traditional handheld devices to a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) solution.”

Globalstar’s Sat-Fi2 is indicative of this trend. It is a handheld-sized Wi-Fi hotspot that turns smart devices into satellite communicators. It supports up to eight smart devices within 100ft, enabling access to emails, phone calls, emergency calls and texts using smart devices.

The Iridium GO! device is a similar solution. “You download the app to your phone and then you can make calls and send messages on your own phone using your contacts with no roaming charges,” says Josh Miner, VP of land mobile at Iridium. It also has a free SOS service that will find and alert local emergency services and co-ordinate help.

However, Miner believes there is still a place for rugged, specialist devices, particularly for government and enterprise customers who want devices that can operate in extreme environmental conditions and which have a long lifecycle. Iridium’s partnership with LMR specialist Icom is a case in point.

Icom has integrated Iridium technology into its IC-SAT100 satellite push-to-talk handheld radio, which provides real-time PTT satellite services with 500ms latency. “If you are a multinational customer, you can just fly into any region and operate right away using a rugged device to talk to each other and the office back home. We see a lot of growth in satellite PTT,” says Miner.

When it comes to broadband, Palerm-Serra observes that demand for enterprise services depends a lot on the vertical. “There are some verticals like retail or banking in developed markets that are already fairly saturated, but some others like backhaul or social inclusion, especially in emerging economies, are creating fantastic opportunities.”

He sees backhaul for mobile operators as one of the key drivers for satellite growth in the coming years. “With capacity pricing going down and satellite modems being more capable, this vertical is growing very fast.” One example of this is EE’s partnership with Avanti, which is providing a 4G satellite backhaul network for the UK’s new Emergency Services Network (ESN).

Iridium’s 66-strong LEO constellation provides an L-Band mesh network covering the entire planet. It completed a second-generation satellite refresh at the beginning of this year. “This provides a whole new set of possibilities,” enthuses Miner. “Before we offered mobile narrowband communications, but now we offer broadband in space.”

Iridium believes the new constellation enables it to provide one of the fastest broadband services in the mobile satellite services (MSS) category. “Our broadband terminals are lower cost, smaller, highly mobile for land, maritime, aviation and IoT. We can also bounce the technology into a new category of narrowband equipment with really small antennas (the size of a thumb), unlike GEO satellite services, which require big
satellite dishes.”

However, a new generation of operators are proposing to put hundreds, in some cases thousands, of nano-satellites in space to provide fast broadband services to consumers who do not have access to terrestrial networks. Others are focusing on the expanding IoT market.

Among those targeting the broadband space are Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which plans to deploy nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites in three orbital shells by the mid-2020s (60 have gone up so far), while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos plans to launch a network of 3,236 satellites through a subsidiary called Kuiper Systems.

Facebook is also working on its Athena satellite broadband project through a subsidiary called PointView Tech. Canadian GEO satellite operator Telesat is also planning an LEO network. And OneWeb is launching a network of 1,980 Ka and Ku-Band satellites in partnership with Airbus. It has six prototypes in orbit with tests delivering speeds of more than 400Mbps.

OneWeb and the likes of GOMSpace (Denmark) and Sky and Space Global (SAS) in the UK are planning to offer voice, data, mobile asset tracking and IoT. Others are focusing largely on the low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) IoT space. Astrocast (Switzerland) and Hiber (Netherlands) are looking to connect any type of IoT device, while Fleet Space Technologies (Australia) and Lacuna Space (UK) are concentrating on LoRa IoT technology.

Are these new operators a threat to the GEO MSS providers? Palerm-Serra thinks not. “LEOs will certainly have an impact on the market, but we don’t see GEO going away at all. There are some cases where GEO is going to remain more effective as it can support denser concentration of capacity. There are also significant innovations coming to GEOs like flexible allocation of capacity or lower capex/Mbps, which would make them stay relevant in the future ecosystem. LEOs and GEOs will be complementary.”

Iridium’s Minor is sanguine about the coming challenge from the nano-satellite brigade. “Ka and Ku-Band spectrum is for really different markets. These new nano-satellite operators are about data that does not need to be real-time. They do not address the portable and mobile space that we do. We may occupy the same neighbourhood in space, but we have very different business models.”

GRC’s Simpson says the potential applications the new pocket-sized mobile terminals can support will be amazing. “[The ability for] connected soldiers [to receive] live video from drones overhead and command and control info from HQ, all while their vitals and support services are monitored from beyond line of sight, is game-changing. Not to mention the commercial applications, with connected vehicles, street lights, farming equipment and even simple stuff like broadband while you’re camping in the wild.”

Satcom IoT is currently being deployed in agriculture, construction, oil and gas, mining, utilities, maritime and cargo shipping across all geographic markets. North America has by far the greatest share of usage, according to the NSR’s Crisp.

As the new nano-satellite operators are in the very early stages of deployment, satellite M2M is still driven mainly by the ‘traditional’ MSS operators such as Thuraya, Orbcomm, Iridium, Inmarsat and Globalstar.

“These offer low bandwidth services across a range of applications. Typically, data packets are in the kilobyte size and less than 200kb per month is used. However, Inmarsat does offer a higher bandwidth BGAN M2M solution that offers speeds of up to 448kbps,” says Crisp. He adds that there are also a limited number of Ku-Band services available mainly targeting the energy markets.

At present the satellite share of the overall M2M/IoT market is small. A survey conducted by IoT platform provider Libelium of 637 experts from more than 250 companies published in June 2019 indicated satellite’s share of the market is just 2.3 per cent, compared with Wi-Fi’s 20.6 per cent and cellular’s
13.7 per cent.

Despite this, Globalstar’s Murphy argues that satellite has considerable advantages over terrestrial for IoT. “We offer smart asset tracking as our technology allows uninterrupted monitoring, more so than a terrestrial provider, and with a broader reach too. The growth of IoT has opened up a whole new commercial possibility for us.

“For example, we monitor the transport of craft beers travelling overseas to ensure they are kept in a drinkable condition and do not go off over long distances. We also protect reindeer fitted with tracking collars to avoid collision with hi-speed trains in Norway. We support many research and publicly funded agencies, including ocean pollution monitoring, and we are used by the petro-chemical industry to track the movement of explosive materials,” says Murphy.

Crisp agrees that the new LEO nano-satellite operators are unlikely to threaten the commercial viability of the MSS operators in the IoT sector. “Although their share of IoT revenues is increasing, Iridium in particular, the highly reliable, lower latency and greater bandwidth opportunities with MSS operators will ensure that they are still viable.”

Whether there is enough room for all the proposed nano-satellite constellations to thrive commercially in the IoT space remains to be seen. Crisp notes: “The current satellite operators have hundreds of thousands of subscribers utilising their M2M and IoT services. For newer small satellite constellations on the other hand, there are too many of these to support the satcom market share, especially at the ARPUs they are aiming for – a few dollars a year.”

Satellite-based IoT is helping Norway’s farmers track their reindeer herds

LPWAN IoT – terrestrial vs satellite
Low-power wide-area IoT networks are predicted to experience massive growth over the next decade, although the take-up is proving to be much slower than many commentators initially expected. A number of the new LEO nano-satellite providers are targeting this space, but the NSR’s Crisp thinks they will provide a complementary service to terrestrial providers.

“Although they are theoretically a rival technology, there isn’t much crossover [between the two from an end-user perspective]. Companies which use satcom IoT services are typically looking for highly reliable, always-on services on a single global platform,” he says.

“LPWAN IoT services have higher latency and are limited in terms of throughput, although they can be significantly lower in cost. Solutions are also being developed so that a single satellite terminal can backhaul a larger number of sensors, which are connected to the terminal via an LPWAN link, so these technologies can actually contribute to new markets for satcom IoT,” points out Crisp.

He adds that in terms of power consumption, satellite IoT terminals can also rely on low power, especially the simplex (one-way) service from Globalstar, and some of the newer small satellite constellations, where terminals can last up to 10 years on a single battery charge.

Innovation trends
Palerm-Serra says the satellite industry is innovating in many directions. “Miniaturisation is a big topic with satellites going smaller, even in GEO. There are a number of small GEO satellites being manufactured that have the advantage of being more flexible, at lower capex and with faster time to market.

“At the other extreme, some operators prefer to optimise capex/Mbps to unlock elasticities in markets like consumer broadband, and there are several VHTS (Very High Throughput Satellites) with capacity around 1Tbps under construction. In parallel, other technologies like beam forming and flexible capacity allocation would allow satellites to modify their footprints to adapt to the new demand patterns
once in orbit.”

On the device and equipment side, GRC’s Simpson notes that satellite communications are still driven by the same size, weight and power demands, which has led to smaller, lighter terminals, capable of much higher data speeds for their size.

Finally, 5G will bring a host of new opportunities, as it will allow satellites to be more integrated into the general telecom ecosystem, says Palerm-Serra. “5G is very good news for the satellite industry. Satellites should be able to seamlessly integrate with 5G, unlocking new opportunities like cellular backhaul, trunking, mobility or creating new use-cases like content multicasting and connected cars.”

We will also see link-ups between GEO, MEO and LEO satellites to provide greater resilience and more flexible services. Satellites look certain to play a major role in the digital future, delivering universal broadband access across the Earth. Satellites will no longer be perceived as the service of ‘last resort’.

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