Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane? No, It’s a Google/SpaceX Satellite!

J. Stradling
J. Stradling

Summary Bullets:

  • Satellite technology advancements, including steerable beams as well as new middle Earth orbit (MEO) and low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations, can potentially benefit businesses with cost-effective, low-latency, high-speed connectivity.
  • Satellite innovation can open new enterprise-grade applications leveraging lower costs and higher performance, such as deploying satellite backup in case of terrestrial network outage and expanding target markets for cloud computing services.

Robust connectivity to the Internet worldwide remains elusive despite the aggressive efforts of pioneers such as Google and investment partner Fidelity. There are vast expanses of land and sea where the choice is between high-latency (up to one second per hop) GEO satellites, or lower-latency but very narrowband LEO or MEO constellations such as Orbcomm, Globalstar or Iridium.

However, there are several new projects underway to bring lower-latency, satellite-borne broadband connectivity to remote and low-population density areas. Clearly, the main current headline-grabbing project is that of Google and Fidelity jointly throwing a US$1 billion investment into SpaceX to fund a new low-orbit constellation of 4,000 satellites at roughly 1,000 km above the Earth’s surface (traditional GEO satellites operate at 36,000 km).

Based on challenges faced by past ‘big LEO’ plans such as Microsoft-backed Teledesic, there are many sceptics about the eventual success of this project. Cost is a major issue, the technologies are still in embryonic stages, and the business model needs to be defined. The estimated latency of such a low-orbit system looks great on paper (20 ms), but launches are not anticipated until 2020 and there is little proof that projects in the pipeline will ultimately get off the ground – literally and figuratively!

O3b Networks has been more pragmatic with its deployment of a 12-constellation satellite grouping at medium orbit, currently operational at 8,000 km. Its system supports more than 70 KA-band steerable beams, giving good coverage of the globe (with some black spots however at +/- 45 degrees latitude) and a reasonable RTD of approximately 150 ms. O3b is leveraging high-throughput satellites (HTS), with spot beam architectures that can focus tightly and provide up to 1.6 Gbps throughput per transponder. Several other companies are also leveraging HTS, including Eutelsat, Intelsat and Inmarsat.

Finally, there is Laser Light Communications, which intends to become the first optical satellite service (OSS) provider. Laser Light Communications has teamed with Optus in a partnership to create a ground-breaking, all-optical, laser-based terrestrial/satellite network. Laser Light Communications aims to launch between eight and 12 MEO satellites and combine these with an optical fibre network to give high performance, supporting MPLS and SDN capabilities. The model looks attractive in theory, but Laser Light Communications and its partners have many obstacles to overcome to achieve its stated ambition of launching services in 2017.

From the enterprise perspective, all of these developments are interesting to monitor, checking back occasionally to see whether any companies achieve significant breakthroughs. New satellite options could ultimately help shape a company’s overall strategy. New developments and lower costs can pave the way for more creative use of communications technologies, such as offering cloud services in locations that previously seemed non-reachable.

What do you think?

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