Bringing Satellite Options Down to Earth

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How MNOs Can Leverage Satellites to Connect the Unconnected —

Instant connectivity is a privilege most of us take for granted, but many regions have fallen behind when it comes to accessing fast, reliable connectivity. Thankfully, that is changing. The falling price of satellite capacity has the potential to bring connectivity to the 40% of the world still offline, bringing with it huge opportunities for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). (1)

Satellite connectivity has often been seen as a last resort due to the typically high costs involved. However, major advances are turning the tide and providing an opportunity for MNOs to expand beyond their already saturated core markets and open up new revenue streams. Satellite backhaul can serve communities where low density or challenging geography make it expensive to install terrestrial circuits. And now, thanks to innovation, it has transformed into a relatively low-cost, reliable way of providing critical connectivity. 

HTS and LEO

Historically, satellites in high, geosynchronous orbit operated mostly in C-band, the lowest of the satellite frequency bands. This provided limited capacity. It also meant that installation was often costly, with large 7-meter antennas requiring on-site staff and high-powered equipment. The capital and operating costs were simply too high, and performance too low, for MNOs to utilise satellite. The only exceptions were driven by regulation when MNOs would install satellite-connected base stations to serve remote communities, to avoid penalties. 

However, times are changing, and the introduction of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are making a real difference. The price of satellite capacity is expected to continue falling, whilst data rate performance has significantly improved. A flurry of developments of network optimization and virtualization technologies have also led to improved data and operational efficiencies, all putting satellite backhaul back into business.

HTS is a new application taken from the old idea of cellular communications. Rather than huge beams covering one-third of the planet, or entire nations, HTS shares the same frequencies across narrow beams whilst operating at higher band frequencies. The higher throughput and frequency sharing among the narrow beams has provided a real breakthrough in the effective capacity per satellite. 

While satellite operators started to launch HTS payloads earlier, it was not until 2010 that the development of all-HTS spacecraft saw the first competitive satellite broadband service develop. 

New MNO Business Cases

This competitive broadband service soon turned enterprise data into the industry’s fastest-growing sector. Since then, innovation has continued with HTS spacecraft now having a much higher capacity and steerable beams that can adapt to market demand. This year, we will see 3 Viasat-3 satellites launch, which will put an additional 3 terabits of network capacity into orbit around the world, with similar launches planned too. With new capacity flooding the market, prices are dropping and the opportunities for MNOs are expanding.

There is now a range of new business cases in which backhaul is the most suitable option for MNOs, supplying them with profit as well as providing the highly sought-after coverage and Internet services. 

Satellite backhaul now makes it possible to extend service to communities in rural areas, more cost effectively than fibre or microwave connectivity. 

It can also generate roaming revenues for smaller MNOs as they can now deploy infrastructure, from which they can profit, alongside their existing network. 

At the same time, a small capacity satellite solution has the capacity to handle peak demand at a much lower cost than a microwave network. 

And as video streaming continues to increase, satellite is becoming an ideal cost-effective option for caching this content. 

5G and Satellite Backhaul 

With 5G deployments, MNOs are finding satellite cellular backhaul is an appealing option. The first deployments of 5G are in high-density markets where small cell technology can deliver the high capacity and low latency that 5G promises. But as MNOs target suburban, and eventually rural areas, backhaul and fronthaul will become particularly prominent. 

There is no denying that 5G has changed the narrative for satellite backhaul, where previously, it had always been an afterthought. As 5G development began, the satellite industry inserted its recommendations into the standards development process and worked to make these standards as satellite friendly as possible. The goal is to ensure a simple interface is created through base stations and modem equipment to help incorporate satellite and keeps the costs down. 

Satellites in high, geostationary orbit cannot directly support the low latency of 5G. Instead, attention is shifting to LEO satellites which can support very high capacity at 20 MS of latency, closer to the 5G standard of 1 to 10 MS. The lower latency and compliance with 5G standards allow satellite to make a significant contribution to widespread 5G deployment. 

Backhaul Management Options

Whilst satellite connectivity is now an affordable option for extending coverage into remote and rural areas, developing financially viable solutions for all requirements is still a real challenge for MNOs. 

The right satellite capacity must be secured at the optimal price, which is easier said than done with diverse choices across satellite operators, orbits, and bands. 

MNOs must then consider ground infrastructure vendors, as well as the challenge of financing and installing infrastructure in remote areas. 

It is critical that the solution is cost-effective while still delivering a high-quality experience, with very little room for error. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that a recent report from Northern Sky Research (NSR) found that MNOs are no longer interested in deploying their own solutions. (2) Instead, they are looking for a managed service model that adopts cellular backhaul solutions and takes advantage of the available market opportunities. 

Affordable, reliable and easy-to-manage backhaul solutions via satellite, such as the ones provided by Speedcast, are the key to extending coverage into new locations, whilst increasing capacity into existing areas to support the leap to 5G. 

Resources and Notes
1. For more information about the Digital 2020 Global Overview Report via The Next Web, visit https://thenextweb.com/growth-quarters/2020/01/30/digital-trends-2020-every-single-stat-you-need-to-know-about-the-internet/.

2. Northern Sky Research (NSR),  https://www.nsr.com/

For more information, please email info@speedcast.com or visit https://www.speedcast.com/. Follow us on Twitter @SpeedcastGlobal.

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About Author

Speedcast. He has more than 25 years of experience in satellite communications. Prior to joining Speedcast in 2018, he spent 17 years at Arqiva in various positions, including a key role as management board director of the company’s Satellite and Media division. He recently completed a second term as Chairman of the World Teleport Association, a non-profit organization serving the interests of satellite teleport operators. For more information, please email info@speedcast.com or visit https://www.speedcast.com/. Follow us on Twitter @SpeedcastGlobal.

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