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Global broadband reaches for the stars to connect the Earth

Despite fears of recession, especially in major economies, there is one thing that people can’t seem to have enough of: high-speed connectivity

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Broadband reaches for the stars – the new space race

Around the world, people in cities, towns, villages and hamlets, even in the most remote places, want to get online and enjoy online experiences that are transformational for homes and businesses alike. And over the past few years, demand for high-speed connectivity from anywhere and everywhere has seen an explosion in the number of satellite broadband providers, and now demonstrable financial success.

In August 2022, and despite facing a number of headwinds, satellite operator SES reported a solid first six months of the year, with its networks business outshining a declining core broadcast line, delivering annual growth of 2% driven by important wins at individual companies, such as Argentinean telco Arsat, Hispasat-owned teleport operator and satellite services provider Axess Networks, as well as agreements signed in key industries such as utilities and cruise lines. 

It’s the same story at arch-rival Eutelsat, whose full-year results reported at the same time show fixed broadband and mobile connectivity businesses delivering double-digit growth, highlighting their long-term potential, whereas broadcast continues on a similar decline, albeit tracking at a slower rate.

So buoyed was Eutelsat, and looking to the future, it confirmed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to join forces with the global low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite provider OneWeb, a company whose dramatic recent history clearly shows the way in which satellite broadband is gaining a higher orbit and delivering for those everywhere.

Despite its somewhat controversial beginnings, being rescued from bankruptcy by a cash injection from the UK government and Bharti Global, OneWeb has established a satellite constellation capable of providing improved capacity, mobile resilience, backhaul and coverage, including fixed wireless access, in challenging geographic locations. 

The company’s constellation of global gateway stations and user terminals is designed to provide an affordable, fast, high-bandwidth, low-latency communications service to the most hard-to-reach places globally, connected to internet of things (IoT) devices and making a pathway for mass adoption of 5G services.

In July 2021, OneWeb completed its Five to 50 mission to supply broadband connectivity from the North Pole to the 50th parallel, addressing remote locations in the UK, Canada, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland and the Arctic region. It would appear that OneWeb will be slugging it out with Elon Musk’s Starlink in the constellation game; in fact, the companies have been cooperating on launches.

The aforementioned Hispasat announced its Axess Networks acquisition in March 2022 and has a broad customer base in industrial and corporate sectors related to telecommunications, oil and energy, and mining, among others, with critical operations in remote areas where service resilience and quality are extremely important.

The acquisition has also positioned Hispasat to accelerate the development of technology for emerging markets, such as the IoT or satellite 5G telecoms networks – an objective especially notable in Latin America. Weeks after announcing the acquisition, Hispasat announced a collaboration with internet service provider GlobalSat in the roll-out of free satellite connectivity hotspots in 500 remote towns in Mexico, where only satellite was able to provide such coverage and capability.

In Asia, satellite communications services provider ST Engineering iDirect confirmed in July 2022 that Malaysian satellite operator Measat is significantly expanding its iDirect Evolution-based satellite network to deliver a “plethora” of services to enterprises and communities located in rural and ultra-rural areas. Launched on 22 June 2022, Measat-3d is designed to provide C, Ku and Ka-band high-throughput satellite (HTS) capacity so that users will be able to enjoy high-speed broadband regardless of their location in Malaysia.

From space to the high seas

So, while the market for satellite broadband has, you could say, taken off, it’s worth looking at where this connectivity is being used by enterprises and in commercial application.

It’s once again interesting to note the trajectory of OneWeb. The company has been putting the general connectivity building blocks in place over the past two years and has now begun in earnest to sign up commercial clients with acute need for cost-effective broadband connectivity in the most remote places, such as the high seas.

In May 2022, OneWeb signed a memorandum of understanding with maritime technology firm Navarino, delivering high-speed, low-latency connectivity to the global commercial shipping industry. A series of sea trials are being undertaken, with the aim of connecting the first vessels from the first quarter of 2023.

At the time, Carole Plessy, head of maritime at OneWeb, described the potential for using enhanced connectivity, particularly on sensitive routes where real-time video and cloud syncing can be used as standard, even on deep sea vessels, as “game-changing”.

“Navarino is an industry leader in maritime technology and we’re proud to work with its team to make a difference to the operations of commercial shipping and to shape the future of sustainable smart shipping,” she said. “Together, we can provide a selection of tailored, customisable broadband channels.”

Not to be outdone in seeking fortunes on the high seas, Eutelsat was selected in May 2022 by Telenor Maritime for in-orbit resources and managed services for cruise connectivity on several of its satellites. The partnership was constructed to boost the performance, coverage and resilience of Telenor Maritime’s at-sea connectivity resources, providing reliable and secure connectivity to the cruise segment.

The agreement gave Telenor Maritime targeted resources and services in specific sailing areas, while further highlighting the maritime sector’s interest in managed connectivity services and supporting the strong momentum in the Mediterranean and Caribbean connectivity markets, where the cruise industry is hugely popular.

Also hugely popular on a global basis is 5G, and the satellite firms are all over the possibilities of delivering this to places traditional masts can’t reach. For example, May 2022 saw Omnispace and Thales Alenia Space successfully launch and deliver the Omnispace Spark-2 satellite to advance and validate the development and implementation of the operator’s global non-terrestrial network (NTN).

The new-generation NGSO satellite constellation, in low Earth orbit, will operate in 3GPP band n256, which has been standardised for NTN operation, making direct-to-enterprise and government IoT, as well as consumer device connectivity, possible worldwide.

The partners also believe that 5G mobile connectivity from a single global network will help transform industries and serve as the communications infrastructure to support the digital economies of the 21st century.

Satellite internet for IoT

Another key market for satellite-based broadband is the internet of things, especially in the ability to provide connectivity to devices no matter how remotely they are located.

The beginning of 2022 saw IoT broadband skies getting more crowded, with Astrocast unveiling the commercial launch of its bidirectional satellite internet of things (SatIoT) service, designed to connect IoT devices globally when outside of cell-based terrestrial networks, at a comparable cost.

The company says that in any remote IoT deployment, device size, power consumption and reliability are priority concerns, and Astrocast believes bidirectional IoT has a significant role to play in a workable IoT system. Indeed, it regards the ability to send commands back to assets, rather than just receive data, as hugely powerful and enables an array of new use cases, including remote management of equipment.

In one possible use case, Astrocast says SatIoT could enable farmers to command silos to release food, open gates or manage irrigation systems, with no need for expensive and often hard-to-source human interaction. It also suggests that utility companies could remotely control water management systems in line with flood prevention strategies.

Around the same time, Wyld Networks entered into a partnership with Agrology to enable farms to collect data in remote locations. Founded in 2019, Agrology develops predictive agricultural technology (agritech) to help growers maximise profits with minimal input costs and environmental impact.

Its predictive agriculture platform combines proprietary sensor arrays with machine learning to provide actionable insights and trends via a mobile application. For its part, Wyld Connect is an IoT global connectivity network based on low-orbit satellite systems.

In the partnership, the use of its technology will ensure Agrology’s ground truth sensors continue to gather data, from even the most remote locations, and deliver that data quickly to Agrology customers, regardless of connectivity status.

The firms say their network will empower mobile network operators, their customers and partners to fuel innovation, power industries and connect billions of users, as the payload antennas will be used to enable a direct connection, no matter where in the world the user is, meeting the consortium’s commitment to enabling disruptive technologies for the benefit of all.

Meanwhile, semiconductor and advanced algorithms technology provider Semtech has announced a joint initiative with Lacuna Space to further increase the coverage and resilience of connectivity based on LoRaWAN (long-range wide-area networking), a standard designed to bridge between terrestrial networks with worldwide satellite to offer low-power ubiquitous connectivity.

Designed for IoT use cases, the low-power WAN communications technology uses unlicensed frequency bands to transmit data over a far longer range than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Semtech’s LoRa device-to-cloud platform is a long-range, low-power service for IoT applications, enabling the development and deployment of low-power, cost-efficient and long-range IoT networks, gateways, sensors, module products and IoT services worldwide. The company’s LoRa devices provide the communications layer for the LoRaWAN protocol. LoRa is regarded as ideal for connecting battery-powered devices, however, until now, its use has been limited to receiving data from immobile devices in areas with terrestrial connectivity.

Mobile satellite services provider EchoStar Mobile is also aboard the LoRa world, confidently predicting it will unlock massive IoT capability across Europe. It has unveiled an early adopter programme for the pan-European satellite-based LoRa IoT service. The EchoStar Mobile LoRa solution allows sensors to roam freely in real time while sending and receiving information, making use of the company’s licensed S-band spectrum and capacity on the EchoStar XXI geostationary satellite with a LoRa-enabled module that integrates easily into IoT devices.

Government agencies are also eyeing up the satellite broadband opportunities. SES’s non-geostationary medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellite network will now be part of the governmental satellite communications (GovSatCom)-grade satellite communications platform it has developed with funding from the European Space Agency (ESA).

Based on O3b high-throughput, low-latency and secure communications, the MEO satellite network is designed for data-intensive applications sought by European governments, such as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) operations, high-performance networks and cloud services, and allowing for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

The agreement with ESA is an evolution of the Pacis-1 project that resulted in the development of a dedicated platform comprising geostationary (GEO) satellites for governments and institutions – the SES Reach platform. The Reach platform capability was developed by SES specifically for European governmental and institutional users requiring GovSatCom-level services for safety, security and emergency response.

And so, it goes on. As long as everyone, everywhere wants and needs broadband connectivity, there will also be a huge market to supply it. Watch this space, literally.

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